Last week I attended a three-day international conference at the University of Nairobi celebrating the 70th anniversary of the British declaration of a State of Emergency in Kenya in October 1952. The theme of the conference was “Recasting Mau Mau Discourse: Reflections on the Declaration of the State of Emergency 70 years later.”
The declaration followed the need to crush the rise of an armed Mau Mau movement, an anti-colonial struggle mainly in the colony’s central and Rift Valley regions. It gave the colonial government power to respond heavy-handedly and legitimised the ban on Mau Mau as a terrorist organisation and the mass detention of adherents, suspects, and sympathisers.
Depending on the storyteller, each side demonises the other side, but facts are stubborn, and the truth is there was brutality on both sides as is the case in many war scenarios.
From 1952 to 1956 (when the emergency was lifted), the government meted out harassment, detentions without trial, assassinations, crude brutality, sexual violence, and a myriad of other atrocities against Africans. The number of African deaths during this period is estimated by some historians to be between 50,000 and 100,000.
Conversely, the Mau Mau visited terror on their own people including murder in cold blood, rape, torture, and other methods, instilling fear on those who refused to take the Mau Mau oath, perceived loyalists, and collaborators of the colonial government. It is estimated that the Mau Mau killed 1,800 African civilians. It is also on record that the Mau Mau murdered 32 European civilians in the course of the emergency.
The Mau Mau movement is often depicted as a spontaneous uprising of savage Kikuyu peasants using primitive and brutal methods to agitate for the return of their land and liberation from the yoke of British colonialism.
The Mau Mau oath can be traced back to as early as 1943 in Olenguruone where the government purported to resettle surplus Kikuyu squatters overflowing from White-owned farms in the Rift Valley. The Olenguruone Kikuyu refused to sign the oppressive settlement agreement after a meeting with the Chief Native Commissioner, Hosking, and refused to leave the area as ordered.
To cement resistance, most Kikuyu in the area were given the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) oath leading to a widespread movement of protest which spread to neighbouring White-owned farms where they maimed settler livestock and set fire to property in a series of wildcat strikes. The Olenguruone Kikuyu initiated a new oath of unity, one which subsequently formed the basis of the Mau Mau oath. It represented a commitment to defy the government and had been taken by the entire population of Olenguruone by 1946.
Later that year, informers advised the government the extent of the oath-taking, and the authorities heightened the level of harassment in Olenguruone, confiscating livestock, harvest, and eventually arresting their leaders. Finally, poor, hungry, and very angry, many were deported to Yatta in Ukambani while others were sentenced to jail. As the detainees were awaiting their deportation orders to be processed, they were held at the Nairobi Remand Home in the Industrial Area where they would meet members of the clandestine post-war freedom fighter Forty Group and exchange notes.
The main influence of the Olenguruone squatters was not so much to radicalise KCA but to intensify their combativeness. The new militants who emerged as a result, would later become the core of the movement known as Mau Mau.
My main takeaway from the conference was that the Mau Mau was not solely a Kikuyu affair nor was it restricted to central Kenya and the Rift Valley. David Anderson in his presentation detailed how some Kikuyu had fled to Moshi and Arusha and formed Mau Mau cells there, administering the oath to residents who supported the cause. Much to the chagrin of the Governor of Tanganyika at the time, Sir Edward Francis Twining, Kenya established detention camps in Loliondo and other outposts in his territory.
Elsewhere, the list of detainees who died during the Hola Massacre included Taitas, coastal people and other non-Kikuyus. A report by the Kenya colony intelligence alleged that around 1,000 Luo and Luhya tribesmen had taken the Mau Mau between 1953 and 1954 in Nairobi.
The colonial government contrived the Kikuyu-only narrative to demonise the Kikuyu and to dissuade other tribes from joining in an attempt to weaken the movement. Later at independence, and the period that followed, certain Kikuyu elements used this narrative to gain an advantage for themselves.