Four months before last year’s General Election, the founding First Lady, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, conducted a formal ceremony of shaving the dreadlocked hair of 93-year-old Mau Mau heroine, Mary Muthoni wa Kirima.
Although meant to symbolise the eventual fulfilment of the Independence freedom army, which kicked off its activities in 1952, the timing of the shaving was curious.
Coming at a time when her son, the fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta, had endorsed an “outsider”, Raila Odinga, as his preferred successor, the event at Pembe Tatu estate in Nyeri town was punctuated by political overtones.
It was partly geared at demonstrating national cohesion, with Field Marshal Muthoni, as she is respectfully referred to, calling for unity, peace and coexistence among Kenyans.
Speaking at the event, Mama Ngina buttressed the unity call, noting that other communities, besides the Kikuyu, had participated in the struggle for Independence too, “except that our people bore the brunt of the fight because Mt Kenya region was the battleground and many were killed, maimed and displaced”.
But Rigathi Gachagua, then Mathira MP and deputy presidential candidate, dismissed the ceremony as a political ploy to win over the support of Mau Mau heroes. Indeed, the Mau Mau narrative has over the years been used for power games, with players trying to outmanoeuvre each other for political mileage. It is an even bigger factor for political mobilisation in the Mt Kenya region.
As President William Ruto presides over this year’s Madaraka Day event, which marks the day in 1963 that Kenya attained internal self-rule, the Mau Mau question is likely to feature and linger on in subsequent national holidays. In any case, the June 1 celebrations revolve around the exploits of Mau Mau fighters and all those who participated in one way or the other towards the realisation of self-governance.
This is deliberate by design, at least judging from the sentiments of Gachagua, now Deputy President, and National Assembly’s Leader of Majority, Kimani Ichung’wah. The top two political figures from the Mt Kenya region in government imply that the Mau Mau narrative is set to stay on their agenda for the rest of Kenya Kwanza’s tenure in office.
Political leadership trend
Koigi wa Wamwere, one of the heroes of the so-called second liberation, attributes the DP’s obsession with the Mau Mau narrative to a political leadership trend in Mt Kenya that has over the decades seen the Independence power players – including Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, and the likes of former influential members of the Cabinet Mwai Kibaki, Charles Njonjo and John Michuki – seize or hand over power, as well as wealth, to their children.
According to Wamwere, Gachagua realised that if this trend continued, he stood no chance of ascending to power in the post-Ruto era, hence the notion of sustaining the Mau Mau argument.
This is a politically profitable card to play, according to Wamwere, for personal interests and, of course, for President Ruto, whose seat Gachagua hopes to inherit. The Mau Mau narrative is particularly welcome considering that the offspring of the freedom fighters – who are the majority in the populous region – feel like they have over the decades been elbowed out of power or denied leadership opportunities.
The leadership in question is not confined to the field of politics. Those who gained various leadership positions at Independence got a head start in financial soundness as well and are believed to control power and business in the country today. And this is the lot that the Mau Mau political narrative targets on the basis that it is “unduly advantaged” and living large at the expense of the poor majority.
The Mau Mau question is not entirely different from Kenya Kwanza’s “hustler nation” mantra. The two appeal to the underprivileged by harping on social and economic status and pitting the haves against the have-nots. It is a scenario that Wamwere warns could backfire by igniting class wars.
But as Ichung’wah observes, the Mau Mau issue is not just emerging now. He claims that it is just that the people “have not had the democratic freedom they now have to speak about the fact that they have all along been suppressed”.
The politician, who is highly critical of former President Uhuru Kenyatta, views the current problem in light of misuse of state power.
He alleges that in the same way post-colonial administrations “took away the people’s factor of production”, subsequent leaders have used the same authority “to loot our factors of production and impoverish the nation”. This background, says Ichung’wah, is what has further brought the Mau Mau discussion to prominence.
The DP and the founding First Lady have been consistent in this debate, with the latter protesting what she considers the hijacking of the Mau Mau legacy by individuals who neither fought to wrest Kenya’s freedom from the jaws of the colonial masters nor understand the weight and meaning of the struggle.
Her argument confirms fears that the Mau Mau narrative may have become a weapon for political scores. Only last month, she appeared to take a swipe at the DP by asking Kenyans to be vigilant and jealously guard the gains achieved by those who sacrificed a lot for the country.
Speaking at her Muthaiga home in Nairobi, she claimed that the real war veterans of the Mau Mau were quickly being overshadowed by masqueraders and asked authorities to recognise and fete the real heroes. The DP immediately responded by challenging the Kenyatta family to offer a piece of their expansive land to descendants of the Mau Mau descendants who, he claimed, live in deplorable conditions.
The interest in this subject is huge and, as demonstrated by past incidents, the ruling class has in some instances overlooked Mau Mau veterans or even attempted to rewrite political history. The funerals of nationalist Bildad Kaggia, one of the famed Kapenguria-Six, and Mukami Kimathi, wife of slain Mau Mau General Dedan Kimathi, are examples that particularly stand out for Wamwere.
In March 2005, leaders in the Mwai Kibaki administration, including Internal Security Minister John Michuki, took full control of events leading up to Kaggia’s interment. Except for their commendable post-Independence national building duty, Kibaki and Michuki had no known credentials in the struggle for Independence.
Similarly, when Mukami was laid to rest at her family home in Njabini, Nyandarua County, a fortnight ago, Mau Mau veterans complained of being sidelined. Their national chairman, Gitu wa Kahengeri, was not accorded an opportunity to speak at the event, which was dominated by speeches on taxation and the housing levy from President Ruto, his deputy, Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and opposition chief Mr Odinga.
The DP, a self-proclaimed “son of Mau Mau”, used the opportunity to accuse the political leadership before him of ignoring the heroes of the fight for freedom, their children and grandchildren. The timing was perfect and his plea to the Kenyatta family to share some of their lands with the “children of Mau Mau” resonated with his audience.
Kiharu Member of Parliament Ndindi Nyoro, who is one of the main proponents of the Mau Mau narrative, nonetheless denies the existence of deliberate political motives behind the conversation. The people of Mt Kenya region, he argues, are only pronouncing themselves on their identity, “and if this works for us politically, so be it”.
The vocal legislator nonetheless opines that the political history of the Mau Mau gave certain people in their midst “undue advantage”, and that it is the Kenya Kwanza administration’s duty to correct the existing economic inequalities. By admission, Nyoro is confirming the Mau Mau question as an agenda of the Ruto administration.
Wamwere discounts the notion that the President belongs to the so-called hustler class, or the economically downtrodden, nor do any of the senior political players in the current administration. In 2027, they will “no longer be able to project themselves as hustlers”. He argues that political realities on the ground are dynamic and sophisticated and that players must continue reinventing their narratives. But the one on the Mau Mau seems to have stood the test of time and will become irrelevant any time soon.