Mau Mau - 30 years later - aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya

Monthly Review, May, 1985 by John Newsinger


The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya that lasted from 1952 until 1960 is virtually unknown in Britain today. This is not an accident. The rebellion was a serious challenge to the position of British imperialism, not only in Kenya but throughout Africa, and it was accordingly crushed with massive repression and bloodshed.

The scale and ferocity of this repression exceed that of any other British post-1945 colonial war, and the whole episode is obviously something best forgotten, best hidden away out of sight. For British and other socialists, however, the heroism and self-sacrifice of the rebels and the methods used to defeat them are things to be remembered and learned from.

It is not only in Britain, though, that the memory of Mau Mau has been excised. The same situation obtains in Kenya itself. Here the defeat of the rebellion enabled the British to hand over power to a coalition of moderate nationalists and outright collaborators. It served the interests of these people to forget the fact that British rule had first been shaken by a great revolutionary mass movement and that without Mau Mau the hold of the white settlers on Kenya would never have ended.

Today, many opponents of the Moi regime look to the Mau Mau experience for inspiration and example. The government has cracked down accordingly, and in the aftermath of the abortive Air Force coup of August 1982 rounded up much of the left.

Among those thrown into prison was the historian Maina wa Kinyatti, whose research has done much to restore popular memory of the Mau Mau rebellion. This was his crime.1

What then was this movement that can still, 30 years later, continue to inspire resistance and alarm and terrify governments?

The Mau Mau rebellion had its origins in the chronic land hunger of the Kikuyu peasantry.

While some one-and-a-quarter million Kikuyu were allowed to hold land only in their 2,000 square miles of Native Reserves, the 30,000 European settlers occupied some 12,000 square miles that included most of the best land. The gross injustice of this state of affairs was borne for a long time, but by the late 1940s there was a growing landless population in the Reserves. Indeed, by 1953 almost half the Kikuyu living in the Reserves were without land.

This situation not only caused hatred of the whites. There was in the Reserves a small but growing "Kulak' class of wealthy peasants, employing the landless as farmhands. This class provided the British with a stratum of loyalist collaborators. Much of the wrath of the Mau Mau was to descend on them.

Many Kikuyu had abandoned the Reserves altogether and in the search for land had gone to live and work on settler farms in the white districts. Such was the shortage of labor that in the 1920s and 1930s they were able to establish themselves as squatters, receiving a patch of land in return for a labor rent. In effect, they were tenant farmers and had a fierce commitment to their own five- or six-acre farms.

Increasingly, however, the settlers tried to transform them into wage laborers, squeezing them off the land. The labor rent for five or six acres was nearly trebled during the 1940s from 90 days work to over 240 days. This met with considerable resentment, and the squatters nursed a ferocious hatred of the whites.2

By the early 1950s all the material necessary for a peasant uprising had accumulated among the rural Kikuyu, and an outbreak of some kind was really only a matter of time.

The banned Kikuyu Central Association launched an oathing campaign to enroll the peasantry in a secret conspiracy against the whites. Secret underground committees were established throughout the Reserves and among Kikuyu squatters in the white districts. It was this movement that the authorities were to christen the "Mau Mau.'

What turned Mau Mau from being merely a peasant jacquerie into a full-scale rebellion against colonial rule was the involvement of the black working class of Nairobi. Many Kikuyu had been driven off the land altogether and were forced to seek work in the towns, in particular in Nairobi and Mombasa. Wages were low, work was irregular, housing was appalling, and all this was highlighted by the privileges of the whites and the gross abuses of racial discrimination.

The small embryonic black working class tried to organize to change this state of affairs, but met only repression. This served to drive it in a revolutionary direction, and it combined with peasant discontent to explode in rebellion.
On May 1, 1949, six trade unions came together in Nairobi to form the East African Trades Union Congress (EATUC). Fred Kubai, a leader of the transport workers, became president, and Makhan Singh, an Asian union leader and socialist, became general secretary. This was an aggressive militant organization, committed not only to fighting for improved wages and conditions but also to confronting the settlers and the British administration.

On May Day the following year, the EATUC raised the demand for independence under majority rule, the first African organization to make such a demand. The authorities were quick to respond.

Kubai, Singh, and a number of other union leaders and activists were arrested. Those still at large called a general strike, and for nine days Nairobi came to a complete standstill. Large crowds of strikers clashed with police until they were driven off the streets by a massive show of military strength.

The strike spread throughout the country, eventually involving some 100,000 workers. The port of Mombasa was closed for two days. The authorities stood firm, however, and the strike was defeated. The EATUC was broken.3
Makhan Singh was the man held mainly responsible for "stirring up the natives.' He was detained without trial for the next eleven years. The other union leaders were released over a period, Kubai after eight months in prison.

With the defeat of the EATUC, the union activists threw themselves into the organization of a secret revolutionary society that linked up with the similar developments initiated by the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in the countryside. Whereas the KCA was primarily concerned with the land issue, the Nairobi militants looked to the overthrow of British colonialism and the seizure of independence.

The Mau Mau movement had to fight for the allegiance and support of the Kikuyu against moderate nationalist leaders, of whom the most important was Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the legal Kenya African Union (KAU). This organization did not, as yet, even consider raising the demand for independence and confined itself to requests for moderate reform and protestations of loyalty to Britain.

Kenyatta looked to the election of the Labour government in Britain in 1945 as the way to achieve reform in Kenya and to start the country along the gradual road to independence. Labour, he believed, would stand up to the settlers and curb their racism. He gave much too much credence to the promises of the Labour left and was accordingly completely unprepared for Labour's craven capitulation to the settlers. He was not alone in this: even the settlers were surprised at Labour's consideration for their interests.

In May 1951, James Griffith, the Labour Colonial Secretary, visited Kenya and announced his program of constitutional reform. The country's 5 million blacks were to be given 5 nominated seats on the Legislative Council, whereas the by-now 50,000 whites were to get 14 elected members.

The moderate nationalists found their credibility completely undermined by the Labour government's sell-out, and their supporters turned in growing numbers to the Mau Mau.

The Mau Mau proceeded to enroll the overwhelming majority of the Kikuyu in its ranks. Increasingly, the leadership of the movement was taken by a secret Central Committee that had been established with strong trade union participation in Nairobi. This body virtually controlled the black districts of the city and soon set up its own armed squads to enforce its decisions, eliminate informers and collaborators, and provide protection against the police. More and more the secret committees in the rural areas looked to Nairobi for a lead.

The activists of the Mau Mau soon invited government repression, but this served only to increase and strengthen its support. Gradually alarm increased in settler circles, and the Colonial Office began receiving warnings of impending insurrection. On October 6, 1952, a new Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, arrived in the country charged with restoring law and order and suppressing African discontent. Two weeks later, he proclaimed a State of Emergency and troops and police rounded up nearly 100 prominent Kikuyu leaders and activists, including Jomo Kenyatta. By the middle of November some 8,000 blacks had been arrested.

Baring hoped that Mau Mau could be suppressed without too much effort and that after a few months the Emergency could be relaxed. He had no conception of how widespread and deep-rooted the movement was, of how determined the Kikuyu were to throw off European rule. Indeed, so inaccurate was his intelligence that he really seems to have believed that Kenyatta was the leader of the conspiracy. This was far from being the case: in fact Mau Mau gunmen were actually in the process of preparing Kenyatta's assassination as a collaborator when he was arrested.4

At the time the State of Emergency was declared, the Mau Mau movement was completely unprepared for rebellion. The movement was virtually unarmed; it had few trained fighters (mostly ex-British Army); and most important of all, it was confined to the Kikuyu and related Embu and Meru tribes.

The Central Committee in Nairobi had hoped for a longer period of preparation before openly confronting the British administration; but, however hamfistedly and unwittingly, Baring had seized the initiative. Even then open rebellion might not have followed; the movement might have ridden out the repression and regrouped for a later day, but for one thing: the settlers took Baring's Emergency as an opportunity to declare open season on the Kikuyu and to beat, torture, and shoot them back into submission. Resistance was inevitable.

Far from destroying the movement, Baring's mass arrests of October and November only opened the way into fullscale rebellion, and to his horror he found that large areas of the country had effectively passed out of his control and into that of the Mau Mau.

The British completely underestimated the strength and extent of the rebel organization and found that the means of repression that they had to hand were completely inadequate to cope. Only the fact that the rebel fighting forces, the Land and Freedom Armies, lacked any modern weapons prevented them from inflicting serious defeats. The British were even unable to break the Mau Mau organization in Nairobi.

This failure to master the rebellion enabled the Mau Mau to begin recruiting among other tribes, particularly the Kamba. In Nairobi a secret Kamba committee was established, and thousands of Kamba were enrolled in the movement. To some settler leaders this seemed the beginning of the end, and they feared that the rebellion would soon engulf the whole colony.5

By now the rebellion was being taken more seriously in London and was seen as threatening the British position not just in Kenya but throughout Africa. Troop reinforcements were drafted in, and a new military commander, General Erskine, was appointed.

It is all too common today for the Mau Mau rebellion to be seen simply as a preasant rebellion. This, however, misses the essential role played by the movement in Nairobi, and it also ignores the vital part that the black working class and their trade unions played. The British authorities did not make this mistake.

Nairobi served as the effective center of the rebellion. It was here that funds were raised, weapons and ammunition collected, and fighters recruited. Without this source of sustenance the Land and Freedom Armies based in the forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya would have been crippled.

As well as sustaining the military struggle, it was in Nairobi that the movement conducted its political offensive against the British. The Mau Mau leadership in Nairobi organized boycotts of European-owned shops and of European goods, organized a boycott of public transport, and early in 1954 was preparing to call a general strike in the city. It was in Nairobi that efforts were made to spread the rebellion to other tribal groups.

The black trade unions played a vital part in all these activities and were recognized by the British as providing the organizational backbone of the movement in Nairobi. When they moved to crush the movement in the city, it was the trade unions that were to bear the brunt of the repression.

The turning point for the British in their war against the Mau Mau was Operation Anvil, the clearing of Nairobi. On April 24, 1954, some 25,000 troops and police occupied the city and screened the entire African population. Over 15,000 men and women were interned without trial and thousands more, overwhelmingly Kikuyu, were expelled from the city.

Anyone carrying a union card was automatically interned. The entire leaderships of the Transport and Allied Workers Union and the Domestic and Hotel Workers Union, both Mau Mau strongholds, were interned, and the bulk of their memberships were expelled from the city back to the African Reserves. The trade union movement in Nairobi was broken and with it the Mau Mau.6

After the success of Operation Anvil, the British proceeded to restore their control over the settler districts and in the Reserves, driving the Land and Freedom Armies into the forests. Some 100,000 Kikuyu squatters were deported from the white highlands back into the Reserves, while in the Reserves themselves a program of compulsory villagization began in June 1954. By October 1955 over 1 million Kikuyu had been forcibly resettled behind barbed wire in some 854 heavily policed villages. This was a program modeled on the forcible resettlement of Chinese squatters in Malaya but carried out with greater brutality and on a larger scale. Mau Mau suspects were arrested in droves and the number interned eventually reached an incredible 77,000.7

The most savage methods were used in restoring "law and order' in the Reserves. Torture was widespread, almost routine. Prisoners were beaten, sometimes mutilated and often murdered out of hand. So much was common knowledge, but the authorities made no serious attempt to put a stop to it.

Indeed, operating alongside this unofficial reign of terror was an official policy of mass hangings that is without precedent in British postwar colonial history. In the course of the Emergency (1952-60) over 1,000 rebels were hanged. Over 500 were hanged for offenses less than murder, some 290 for possessing arms and ammunition, and an incredible 45 for administering illegal oaths! There can be no serious doubt that only the fact that the victims were black allowed the British to conduct such a judicial massacre without any apparent qualms or significant protest.

In the face of such massive repression the rebellion was broken, and the battered remnants of the Land and Freedom Armies were driven back deeper and deeper into the forests. From a maximum strength of 15,000 at the end of 1953 the rebel guerrilla bands were reduced to only some 2,000 by the end of 1955 and to only 500-odd by the end of 1956.

The counter- or pseudo-gang technique developed by the then Captain Frank Kitson played an important part in completing the defeat of the Land and Freedom Armies. Renegade Mau Mau were recruited from among those taken prisoner and sent back into the forests to help hunt down and kill their former comrades. Kitson has, of course, since become the foremost exponent of counter-revolutionary warfare, including its extension to the British mainland, in the British Army.8

In the course of the fighting the police and the military suffered some 600 fatalities, of whom only 63 were white. Rebel losses (excluding those hanged) were officially put at 11,503, but it is freely acknowledged that they were much higher, and some Kenyan estimates go as high as 50,000 dead. The disparity indicates both the overwhelming superiority of British firepower and the courage and determination of the rebels in the face of this superiority. Although the rebellion is often portrayed as an almost cannibalistic orgy of rape and murder against defenseless white settlers, the reality is that only 32 of the settlers were killed, fewer than died on the roads in the same period. The settlers, needless to say, did not reciprocate this restraint.

Repression, however, was not enough to secure the British position in Kenya in the long term. The Macmillan government recognized that what was required was a stratum of black loyalist collaborators and that creating this required some measure of economic, social, and even political reform. The settlers were inevitably opposed to any such concessions, but the burden of the war was being borne by the British state, and their objections were ignored.

Encouragement was given to the wealthier peasants, transforming them into a gentry class, and to the development of "moderate,' "responsible' trade unionism. This was not enough, however, and the government slowly and reluctantly realized that the only measure that would secure the allegiance of African moderate opinion was the granting of independence.

There was never any question of surrendering to the Mau Mau. Independence was to be conceded not to the rebels but to a coalition of moderate nationalists, who had opposed the rebellion, and outright collaborators. The man who emerged as the leader of this coalition was Jomo Kenyatta, whose popularity among the blacks had been assured by his arrest in October 1952 and his subsequent imprisonment.

As far as the settlers were concerned this was a sellout, but the harsh reality was that they owned only about a fifth of the foreign assets invested in Kenya, and the government chose to safeguard the other four fifths (owned principally by British companies) by doing a deal at their expense with the blacks. If such a deal had not been concluded, the only certainty was that at some future date rebellion would break out once again and in considerably more difficult circumstances.

When Kenya finally became independent in December 1963, the British handed over power to a moderate black government that was wholly committed to the maintenance of the interests of western capital. Moreover on behalf of this government the British had, as it turned out, successfully crushed an aggressive militant working class and established a system of industrial relations operating under government supervision in which the trade unions knew their place.

But while the Mau Mau had been decisively defeated and the fruits of independence were reaped by others, the fact remains that it was only the rebellion, only the courage and self-sacrifice of tens of thousands of brave men and women, that forced the British to end their whole-hearted support for the settlers and eventually to concede independence. More than that, it was the Mau Mau rebellion that made the British considerably more susceptible to African demands for national independence elsewhere, rather than risk similar outbreaks.

Certainly the settlement finally concluded in Kenya was an important factor prompting the white settlers in Rhodesia into declaring UDI in 1964 in a desperate attempt at avoiding a similar fate.

In the present situation in Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion can provide great inspiration and example. It is to the re-emergence of militancy and political combativeness among the small but potentially decisive black working class that we have to look, and this is the inspiration that we have to take up.

1. See in particular, Maina wa Kinyatti, Thunder from the Mountains (London, 1980).
2. Frank Furedi, "The Social Composition of the Mau Mau Movement in the White Highlands,' Journal of Peasant Studies 1, no. 4 (July 1974): 492.
3. For an account of this neglected aspect of the struggle see my "Revolt and Repression in Kenya: The "Mau Mau' Rebellion 1952-1960,' Science and Society 45, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 163-65. Also Sharon Stichter's important, "Workers' Trade Unions and the Mau Mau Rebellion,' Canadian Journal of African Studies 9, no. 2 (1975) and Makhan Singh, History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952 (Nairobi, 1969), pp. 273-78.
4. Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, Mau Mau Detainee (London, 1963), p. 23.
5. F.D. Corfield, Historical Survey of the Origins and Growth of Mau Mau (London, 1960), p. 205; Sir Michael Blundell, So Rough A Wind (London, 1960), pp. 170-71.
6. According to General Sir George Erskine, Operation Anvil gave "the whole Mau Mau movement . . . a shock from which it never recovered,' Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, February 1956, p. 16. This view is endorsed by Field Marshal Lord Carver who argues that Operation Anvil "proved to be the turning point of the whole Emergency': Michael Carver, War Since 1945 (London, 1980), p. 40.
7. For an essential account of the struggle of the Land and Freedom Armies and of the British campaign against them see Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within (New York, 1966).
8. Frank Kitson, Gangs and Counter-Gangs (London, 1960). Major General Kitson is also the author of the controversial study Low Intensity Warfare (London, 1971) which laid the theoretical basis for countering subversion (which includes militant trade unionism as far as he is concerned) in Britain itself. His experience of counter-revolution extends from Kenya to Malaya and Ulster and he is a major influence on British counter-insurgency thinking and practice.

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