Harry Thuku

Mr Harry Thuku and his wife in Nairobi.

| File | Nation Media Group

Remembering Harry Thuku, the freedom fighter who turned traitor

What you need to know:

  • Harry Thuku's opposition to the Kipande system made him form Young Kikuyu Association.
  • The freedom fighter later chickened out of the struggle for Kenya's independence.

As we celebrate the 51st anniversary of Harry Thuku’s death tomorrow, it is time we review his place in our history – as much has been distorted.

Thuku, whose name has been immortalised via Harry Thuku Road in Nairobi, has been subject of partial study with most historians, and credibly so, placing him in the earlier part of the freedom struggle. But that Thuku turned out to be a traitor, a square peg to freedom struggle, has remained one of those stories that are, at best, not told lest they spoil the existing Thuku narrative.

Thuku gave up. He quit the struggle. And that explains why a man who was much more popular than Jomo Kenyatta vanished from the later literature of freedom struggle.

But to his credit, Thuku was a pioneer in party politics and had he not been deported to Kismayu, after the Nairobi riots of 1922, chances are that he would have become the most important politician in colonial Kenya. But Thuku goofed – and badly so, that is why his political path narrowed.

His biographer, Kenneth King, a former history lecturer at the University of Nairobi, appreciates Thuku as a person who was “not only directly responsible for the beginnings of the African press and the first urban educated protest movement, but also set the pace on what may now be considered the more critical issues of the African attitude to the Asians, ventures in supra-tribal Kenyan politics, moves towards East African Unity, and even tentative approach to Pan Africanism.”

Why a man credited as the father of nationalism and trade unions in the country turned around and abandoned his quest for justice is rather baffling. But something happened (before or) after he returned from exile in the former Kenyan town of Kismayu. Either power went into his head, or his head went to where the power was.

In his biography, Thuku claims that while in Kismayu, and with the assistance of Major Sharpe, the local district commissioner, he started trading in livestock and paid fee for his education. That is how he became wealthy.

Whether that explains why Thuku returned home in 1931 as a wealthy man, a tycoon by then standards, is open to debate. But what we know, and from own account, is that he bought a house in Eastleigh, and was exempted from carrying Kipande under the little-known Native Exemption Ordinance.

“I had to go through the procedure of ceasing to be a Native,” he proudly wrote in his book. Thuku, like the colonial chiefs, took an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

It was his opposition to the Kipande system and forced labour that had partly led Thuku to form his own Young Kikuyu Association (YKA) – the lobby group that would catapult him into a leadership role hitherto unseen in the colony.

Arrested and detained

The other reason is that he felt slighted since he had not been appointed a chief – unlike his contemporaries Waruhiu Kungu and Josiah Njonjo – who had education and could speak English. The chiefs had formed their own Kikuyu Association (KA) and that explains why Thuku founded YKA.

And because of Thuku’s continued demands for rights, and dismissal of headmen as ‘nothing”, the chiefs had signed a petition urging the colonial government to deport him. Some of those who signed the petition included Waruhiu and Njonjo, whose authority was being challenged by Thuku’s rise.

There was fear that Thuku had combined forces with the Indian politicians who were demanding equal rights with the white settlers. And because of the fear of Thuku and the Indian activists, the colonial government came up with the Devonshire White Paper which stated that Kenya was primarily an African country and the interests of Africans were paramount. It was a clever way by the British to stop the Indians’ demand for equal rights on both land and representation.

Thuku’s last speech, in Murang’a, before he was deported was fiery: “I, Harry Thuku, am greater than your Europeans. I am even greater than the chiefs of this country (if not) how is it that I have left Nairobi without being arrested if it is not because I am a great man!”

He went on: “The European missionaries did not come here to preach the word of God but of the devil only. I do not want them. People, do not work at all for the Europeans, District Commissioners and missionaries.”

And then there was the famous Thuku Prayer: “Thou, Lord Jehovah, our God, it is thou who hast set apart to be our Master and Guide, Harry Thuku; may he be chief of us all. Guard him from evil and…guard the elders who are under him…”

Up to that point, Thuku has remained a hero – and nobody can take that from him.

But on March 15, Thuku was arrested and detained at the Kingsway Police, the modern day Central police Station. That evening, thousands of Thuku supporters thronged the station demanding his release. They refused to leave and stayed there the whole night.

In the morning, they had an audience with the deputy governor who demanded that the crowd leaves the police station. By 12.40pm, Ali Tairara – one of the leaders negotiating Thuku’s release – went to tell the deputy governor that they would not leave.

According to the police report, “the incident leading to the first shot was that a very truculent agitator was encouraging the mob to close in on the police…Capt Cary went to arrest this agitator who seized him by the shoulder, then he was surrounded by the mob…then followed rapid firing…”

Kikuyu Central Association

Another explanation during the inquest was that after the Commissioner of Police asked the crowd to disperse, after he spoke to some of the leaders, “ a large number of the crowd stood up to leave…unfortunately, some women who had been in the crowd called the men who were moving off ‘cowards; and other names…the result of these remarks by the women was that the crowd surged.

What we know is that by the time the firing stopped, according to the police, 17 men and 4 women had been killed and 31 had been wounded.” The Kingsway massacre captured everyone’s attention.

Thuku was finally deported and his lobby group banned. His supporters formed Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) and because they had no literate person, they invited Jomo Kenyatta to help

It was while Thuku was away that Kenyatta would make his first trip to Europe on behalf of KCA.

Three months after Kenyatta returned from Europe from this first trip, the colonial government released Thuku and drove him in a government Land Rover to his Kiambu home. The next day, and to the surprise of many, Thuku visited the District Commissioner and while the KCA leaders were glad that Thuku was back, they were not aware that he had already been compromised and softened his radicalism.

James Beauttah, the man who would have gone to present KCA in Europe but left the chance to Jomo, recalled this significant shift.

“Thuku was noticeably different when he returned (from restriction)…he had become stuffy, the old fire gone, replaced by something close to arrogance. Harry acted like a small dictator. In the old days, he would listen to criticism and advice from anyone but now instead of welcoming new ideas, he seemed to regard any suggestion as an insult or accusation,” Beauttah is quoted in John Spencer’s book on the history of Kenya African Union, the successor to KCA.

Beauttah also questioned Thuku’s source of money and he said as much. He alleged that Thuku collected a lot of money for himself and from the delegations that he received: “How else could he have built his beautiful house in Kiambu?” posed Beauttah.

Thuku, by 1930s, had built for himself a whitewashed farmhouse, similar to those of white settlers with a veranda and planted a neatly-kept hedge around the farm showcasing the nature of progress – for those who collaborated.

He then staged a coup within KCA and defeated Joseph Kang’ethe – the Murang’a activist – and by the time Kenyatta was heading to Europe, for the second trip, to petition London on land grievances, Thuku was already angry with Kenyatta whom he accused of engineering his failure to secure travel documents.

Triumph for loyalists

These factional fights within KCA – more of a battle between Murang’a and Kiambu – continued and in May 1933, Jesse Kariuki took Thuku to court over misappropriation of KCA funds with a demand that he leaves the party.

To retaliate, Thuku made sure that Kenyatta did not get support from KCA and which explains the money problems that Jomo faced in Europe.

Then, Kariuki organised 60 party officials from Murang’a and Nyeri and went to see the Fort Hall District Commissioner, Vidal, with a request to open KCA headquarters in Murang’a because they had quarrelled with KCA in Nairobi. Apparently, Thuku had refused to operate from the KCA Pumwani office and opted for his building in Eastleigh.

For being asked to account for KCA money, Thuku filed a libel suit against his KCA officials and they also filed a case against him at the High Court demanding that he steps down. The High Court finally forced Thuku out of KCA and awarded the leadership of KCA to Jessie Kariuki.

Annoyed, Thuku formed his own Kikuyu Provincial Association (KPA) in 1935 to rival KCA. It was a triumph for loyalists and the colonial government after Thuku asked his members to pledge their loyalty to His Majesty the King and the established government.

By December of 1952, and two months after the assassination of Chief Waruhiu, both Thuku and Eliud Mathu released a statement condemning Mau Mau movement and urging “loyal tribesmen” to stand firm and help the colonial government to restore law and order.

To the freedom fighters, this bordered on betrayal since it took place a day before the prosecution opened their case against Kenyatta and five other leaders in Kapenguria.

“We know that it is that association who are at the root of the dangers and troubles in the land. We urge you to denounce this organisation – as we denounce them - together with their leaders and those who are their followers,” the two said in a joint statement. When he died in 1970, Thuku was still hailed as a nationalist but most of the freedom fighters considered him as the man who chickened out of the struggle. When his folks were in detention camps, Thuku was comfortable farming coffee – and singing praise of the colonial government. The rest is history.

So much for a nationalist.

[email protected] @johnkamau1


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