The Mau Mau war in Kenya, 1952-60
By Mark Curtis
An edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World
“Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights”. (A former officer in a British detention camp, Kenya, 1954-5)
Britain declared a state of emergency in Kenya in 1952 and sent military to quell a rebellion by the Mau Mau movement. This was comprised predominantly of Kikuyu, the largest Kenyan ethnic group, who were among the most exploited of the poor under colonial rule. The Attorney General in the Kenyan colonial government called Mau Mau “a secret underground nationalistic organisation which is virulently anti-European”. A government-sponsored report on the origins of Mau Mau noted that it was “the violent manifestation of a limited revolutionary movement” and that “it was no sudden uprising” but the result of “a long period of political unrest among the Kikuyu people of Kenya”.
Mau Mau was the violent, nationalist expression of revolt against British colonial repression. “The causes of the revolt”, David Maughan-Brown writes in an extensively documented study of Mau Mau, were “socio-economic and political and amounted, to put it crudely, to the economic exploitation and administrative repression of the Kikuyu by the white settlers and the colonial state”. It was a militant response “to years of frustration at the refusal of the colonial government to redress grievances over land or to listen to demands for constitutional reform”; and a “peasants revolt triggered off by the declaration of the state of emergency and the eviction of the squatters from the farms on the White Highlands”, the most arable land in Kenya. Mau Mau demands were for the return of the “stolen” land and self-government.
The planning files clearly recognise that Mau Mau received no material support from elsewhere, and was decidely not communist. “There is no evidence that communism or communist agents have had any direct or indirect part in the organisation or direction of the Mau Mau itself, or its activities”, a Colonial Office report stated.
The British were unfortunately unable to present the rebels of being part of the international communist conspiracy. They therefore presented them as straight out of the heart of darkness – as gangsters who indulged in cannibalism, witchcraft, devil worship and sexual orgies and who terrorised white settlers and mutilated women and children. This deceit conveniently masked the Mau Mau’s true struggle as a political and economic one mainly over land.
Britain had established in Kenya a system of institutionalised racism and exploitation of the indigenous population. It was estimated that half of the urban workers in private industry and one quarter of those in public services received wages too low to provide for their basic needs. As late as 1960 – three years before independence – Africans, who made up 90 per cent of the workforce, accounted for only 45 per cent of the total wage bill. A crucial aspect of the colonial economy was the taxation system which increased poverty and dependence in the reserves allocated to Africans by a net drain of resources out of them.
The Governor of Kenya explained the racist policy to the Colonial Secretary in 1955: “Up to 1923, the policy of segregation as between Europeans and other immigrant races followed as a measure of sanitation. The White Paper of 1923 recommended ‘as a sanitation measure, [that] segregation of Europeans and Asiatics is not absolutely essential for the preservation of the health of community’, but that for the present it was considered desirable to keep residential quarters of natives, so far as practicable, separate from those of immigrant races”.
These “residential quarters” for the “natives” – ie, the population – were, the Governor explained, “behind anything that I have seen elsewhere on the continent”.
This was the situation at home for the nearly 100,000 Kenyan Africans who had fought on Britain’s side in the Second World War. It was, the Governor explained, a result of Britain’s “determination to persevere in the task to which we have set our minds – to civilise a great mass of human beings who are in a very primitive moral and social state”. In reality, the ideology and institutions of the British settlers and colonial state in Kenya closely resembled the fascist movements of the years between the First and Second World Wars.
Land ownership was the clearest example of inequity and exploitation. The white settlers, who comprised a miniscule 0.7 per cent of the population, owned 20 per cent of the best land in Kenya, the White Highlands. This meant that fewer than 30,000 whites owned more arable land than 1 million Kikuyu. The colony’s function was to produce primary products for export and because settler agricultural production depended on the availability of labour, it was essential for a large portion of the African peasantry to be deprived of their own land and forced onto the labour market. By 1945 there were over 200,000 registered African squatters in the White Highlands, over half of whom were Kikuyu. Called “’resident native’ labourers”, they performed tasks as “a cheap, malleable and readily accessible African labour force”.
The major African nationalist political group opposed to British rule was the Kenya African Union (KAU), which noted: “The chief characteristic of all labour – skilled or not… is the low wages obtaining in Kenya… The greatest problem which requires urgent consideration is that of the old man and woman who cannot perform hard manual labour. The settlers simply turn them off their land -rightly according to law… The greater majority of the dying Africans and those suffering from malnutrition accrues as an upshot of the meagre allowances that our people earn. Due to this, ninety per cent of our people live in the most deplorable conditions ever afforded to a human being.” The KAU referred to the squatter system as a “new slavery” and explained that “modern serfdom has come into being as cheap labour can be found everywhere in the colony”.
British officials thought about things rather differently. In a 1945 report the colonial government noted that: “The principal item in the natural resources of Kenya is the land, and in this term we include the colony’s mineral resources. It seems to us that our major objective must clearly be the preservation and the wise use of this most important asset.”
The Deputy Governor explained: “It is of greatest importance on all grounds of Imperial policy and for the future well being and prosperity of the native people that there should be a vigorous and well established British settlement in these highlands, for without it there is no hope of successfully overcoming the immense problems which confront us in this part of the world and of erecting here a permanent structure of enlightenment and civilisation.”
The following year, the Governor declared in an after-dinner speech that “the greater part of the wealth of the country is at present in our hands…This land we have made is our land by right – by right of achievement”. He explained to the Africans that “their Africa has gone for ever”, since they were now living in “a world which we have made, under the humanitarian impulses of the late nineteenth and the twentieth century”. The Governor added: “We appear to Africans as being immensely wealthy and nearly all of them are in fact very poor…. But these are social and economic differences and the problems of this country in that respect are social and economic and not political; nor are they to be solved by political devices.” Britain was in Kenya “as of right, the product of historical events which reflect the greatest glory of our fathers and grandfathers”.
In fact, Britain had engaged in mass slaughter to subjugate Kenya. Winston Churchill referred in 1908 to one expedition by stating that “surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale”. The governor was using a traditional pretext for pursuing terrible policies – “humanitarian impulses” – a strategy well taken up by the missionaries of new Labour.
Curbing the threat of nationalism
Unfortunately for the champions of “enlightenment and civilisation”, Africans were indeed engaging in politics. In standard history, the declaration of the state of emergency in October 1952 is viewed as a response to Mau Mau terrorism which was getting increasingly out of control. Britain is usually portrayed as a noble defender of human rights. In reality the declaration was more a cause of the war. Moreover, the declassified files show that the declaration was intended to stamp out popular, nationalist political forces demanding land reform and self-government – the threat of independent development.
In the year previous to October 1952, there had actually been fewer murders and serious injuries than in previous years. A few days before the declaration – on 15 October – the Governor cabled London saying that in the previous week “there had been some falling off in crimes, both Mau Mau and otherwise”. Yet two days later he confirmed that the declaration would take effect from 20 October. The declaration itself prompted an increase in these crimes.
The real problem for the colonial government was the increasing popularity of KAU leaders, especially Jomo Kenyatta, who were drawing ever larger numbers of people to their public meetings. Radical trade unionists were taking control of the country’s unions as the KAU gradually extended its influence throughout the country. The Governor explained to London that the plans for the declaration of the emergency might appear “excessive” but “Kenyatta has succeeded in building up right under the nose of authority a powerful organisation affecting all sides of life among the Kikuyu”.
Two months prior to the declaration, a colonial official noted that recent large KAU meetings had been coupled with a “serious increase of Mau Mau activities … in each area where [Kenyatta] spoke”. One meeting had been “attended by twenty to thirty thousand people, who were so excited and truculent that the preservation of law and order hung upon a thread”. “We decided”, the official noted, “that we would be wrong to allow any further meetings of the KAU”.
Another official noted that at recent KAU meetings at which Kenyatta had been the key speaker, “large crowds have attended and treated him and his utterances with enthusiastic respect”. Even worse was that the KAU and other groups were “demanding…the ‘return’ of the White Highlands to the Kikuyu and self-government on the Gold Coast model”.
The answer, the Governor declared a few days before the declaration, was that “we must remove Kenyatta and several of his henchmen during the next few weeks”. The Attorney-General explained that Kenyatta and his associates should not be released from prison at the end of the emergency but be “kept in custody for a very substantial period of years”. He further noted that “one of the principal reasons” for declaring a state of emergency “would be to enable us to make detention orders against the leading African agitators”.
The state of emergency was declared and the authorities jailed dozens of KAU leaders and every branch chairman who was not already in jail. In seeking to justify the repression of the popular nationalists, British authorities needed to portray Kenyatta as the instigator of the Mau Mau movement. The only problem was that Kenyatta had consistently denounced it. At one meeting, the Attorney-General observed Kenyatta publicly condemning Mau Mau, while the 30,000 Kikuyu present at the meeting held up their hands to “signify that they approved of his denunciation of Mau Mau”.
At his subsequent trial, Kenyatta was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment as a result of what the defending counsel called “the most childishly weak case made against any man in any important trial in the history of the British empire”, one that was patently trumped up to dispose of the country’s leading nationalist.
Human rights, colonial style
The situation in Kenya resembled Malaya four years earlier: with the political road to reform blocked by Britain, just grievances found their expression in increasing violence. The subsequent war resulted in atrocities being committed by both Mau Mau and government forces (as in Malaya) but with far greater brutality by the latter. The sheer number of deaths at the hands of the government forces shows that there was a extensive shoot-to-kill policy and that killings were conducted with impunity. Colonial government forces killed around 10,000 Africans. By contrast, the Mau Mau killed 590 members of the security forces, 1,819 Africans, and only 32 European and 26 Asian civilians. More white settlers were killed in road accidents in Nairobi during the emergency than by Mau Mau.
Some British army battalions kept scoreboards recording kills, and gave £5 rewards for the first sub-unit to kill an insurgent. One army captain was quoted as informing a sergeant-major that “he could shoot anybody he liked provided they were black”. Frank Kitson, a senior army officer and “counter-insurgency” expert who would later apply his skills to Northern Ireland, once commented: “three Africans appeared walking down the track towards us: a perfect target. Unfortunately they were policemen”.
A Channel 4 documentary made in 1999 – offering a rare glimpse by the media into the reality of the British war – referred to “free fire zones” where: “Any African could be shot on sight… Rewards were offered to the units that produced the largest number of Mau Mau corpses, the hands of which were chopped off to make fingerprinting easier. Settlements suspected of harbouring Mau Mau were burned and Mau Mau suspects were tortured for information”.
The British also resorted to dictatorial police measures: 153,000 arrests, for example, were made in the first fourteen months of the war. But it was the methods used by the police that were particularly vile. There was “a constant stream of reports of brutalities by police, military and home guards”, noted Canon Bewes, of the Church Missionary Society, following a visit. These brutalities included slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes. “Some of the people”, Bewes noted, “had been using castrating instruments and…in one instance two men had died under castration”. A metal castrating instrument “had also been reported as being used to clamp onto the fingers of people who were unwilling to give information and…if the information was not given the tips of the fingers were cut off”. Bewes stated that there were also a number of cases of rape perpetrated by the army. A Kenyan police team sent to the neighbouring colony of Tanganyika to “screen” Kikuyu there were found guilty by the Tanganyikan authorities of “violence, in the form of whipping on the soles of the feet, burning with lighted cigarettes and tying leather thongs round the neck and dragging the victims along the ground”. Of the 170-200 interrogated, “at least 32 were badly injured”.
A former district officer recently admitted: “There was outright abuse of power and some of the crimes committed were horrific. One day six Mau Mau suspects were brought into a police station in the neighbouring district to mine. The British police inspector in charge lined them up against a wall and shot them. There was no trial.” Asked if he thought whether colonial forces committed human rights violations, he replied: “If throwing a phosphorous grenade into a thatched hut with a sleeping family inside isn’t a human rights abuse then I don’t know what is”.
Between 1952 and 1956, 1,015 people were hanged, 297 for murder and 559 for unlawful possession of arms or administering the Mau Mau oath. There was widespread beating and torture of suspects, defendants rarely had a chance to prepare their case and judges were racially biased in their evaluation of evidence. There were mass trials of up to 50 men with numbers around their necks; in most of these, groups of 10 to 20 men went to the gallows together. “There was appalling abuse of human rights at all stages of the legal process”, notes David Anderson of the University of London. A mobile gallows was transported around the country dispensing “justice” to Mau Mau suspects, while dead rebels, especially commanders, were often displayed at cross-roads and market places.
The Governor of Kenya even proposed that the death penalty be applied to people who were merely helping the insurgents, whether directly or indirectly, and to those committing acts of sabotage. This was too much even for the Colonial Secretary, who noted that this definition would be so broad that the death penalty “would be applicable to deliberate obstruction by motorist of baker’s van delivering bread to military unit or to intentional puncturing of sanitary inspector’s bicycle [sic]”.
By the mid-1950s the scale of atrocities was so great that news stories by the foreign press based in Nairobi reached London. A parliamentary delegation visited Kenya in 1954 and found that “brutality and malpractices by the police have occurred on a scale which constitutes a threat to public confidence in the forces of law and order”. The following year the Labour MP Barbara Castle visited Kenya to investigate government involvement in torture and killings and concluded that the entire system of justice in Kenya had a “Nazi” attitude towards Africans: “In the heart of the British empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where murders and tortures of Africans go unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation”.
As in Malaya, the key aspect of British repression in Kenya were “resettlement” operations that forced 90,000 Kikuyu into detention camps surrounded by barbed wire and troops, and the compulsory “villageisation” of the Kikuyu reserves. The Kikuyus’ livestock was confiscated and many were subjected to forced labour. “Villageisation” meant the destruction of formerly scattered homesteads and the erection of houses in fortified camps to replace them. This meant a traumatic break from the traditional Kikuyu way of life. Even when not accompanied, as it often was, by 23-hour curfews, it resulted in widespread famine and death. In total, around 150,000 Africans lost their lives due to the war, most dying of disease and starvation in the “protected villages”.
Shortly after the “emergency” was declared, the Governor issued an order allowing the government to detain whomever it liked in a concentration camp for an indefinite period. In these camps, the inmates were classified as “blacks” if they were Mau Mau officials or supporters, “greys” if they were suspected of being such with no evidence, and “whites” if they had no Mau Mau connections (the latter were subsequently released). Diseases spread in the camps. The declassified files report on one having over 400 typhoid cases, with around 90 people dying as a result. The colonial government reported: “The sudden confinement of thousands of Africans behind barb wire has set very considerable and difficult medical problems. This has been aggravated by the fact that of necessity there has been little distinction between the fit and the unfit when the question of detention is being considered. Consequently, infectious disease has been introduced into the camps from the start.”
Historian V.G.Kiernan comments that the camps “were probably as bad as any similar Nazi or Japanese establishments”. Brutality by the warders was systematic. One former officer noted that “Japanese methods of torture” were being practised by one camp commandant. A former officer in one of the detention camps in 1954-5 exposed routine “short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights”. In one camp, he said: “The detainees were being systematically ill-treated, underfed, overworked and flogged by the Security Officer… The women and children, in conditions of severe overcrowding, were sleeping on the bare stone or wooden floors as the Commandant had forbidden them to construct beds… The lavatories were merely large pits in the ground… with the excreta lapping over the top.”
At another camp, where forced labour was practised, “one European officer made the detainees work at pointless hard labour tasks 12 hours a day”. The commandant was seen “punching and kicking detainees” and, on the orders of a European officer, warders were “sent into one of the compounds… with orders to ‘beat up’ the detainees. This they proceeded to do with sticks, lumps of wood and whips. Several European officers…joined in the beating”. The order had been given “for no apparent reason”. “Some African detainees had been knocked unconscious and nearly 100 were treated in hospital.”
The killings of eleven men by warders at Hola concentration camp in March 1959 proved a turning point in British policy. John Cowan, the Senior Superintendent of Prisons in Kenya from 1957 to 1963, told the Channel 4 documentary noted above of British officers forcing a group of prisoners at Hola camp to obey work orders. He said the policy was that if they did not “prove amenable to work” then “they should be – in the phrase – ‘manhandled’ to the site of work, and forced to carry out the task”. On 3 March 1959, 85 prisoners were marched to a site and ordered to work. One of the prisoners, John Maina Kahihu, said: “We refused to do this work. We were fighting for our freedom. We were not slaves. There were two hundred guards. One hundred seventy stood around us with machine guns. Thirty guards were inside the trench with us. The white man in charge blew his whistle and the guards started beating us. They beat us from 8 am to 11.30. They were beating us like dogs. I was covered by other bodies – just my arms and legs were exposed. I was very lucky to survive. But the others were still being beaten. There was no escape for them”.
Alongside the eleven dead were 60 seriously injured. When reports of the killings reached Britain there was political uproar; within weeks London closed the Kenyan camps and released the detainees.
Government attitudes to forced labour in 1950s Kenya show British elites’ basic contempt for international law equally blatant today. In February 1953 the Kenyan colonial authorities cabled London saying they were on the verge of putting people “compulsorily to work” in “the areas being prepared for settlement by Kikuyu or other African tribes.” To do this, the Governor asked London whether there was any possibility “of obtaining exemption” from the provisions of the UN’s Forced Labour Convention of 1930. The Colonial Office debated the issue and recognised that implementing the proposal would be illegal. It was clearly noted that “compulsory labour as proposed by Kenya would be a breach of the Forced Labour Convention” and “there was no procedure for claiming exemption from its provisions”. But despite this, the minutes of one meeting note that “if the measures could be introduced without publicity, or delayed until after the [UN] session, the UK delegation’s task would be easier”. The Colonial Secretary then wrote to the Governor explaining that “if…the proposal for compulsory employment is to be pursued it means facing up to the fact that we shall be breaking the Convention”. The Colonial Secretary declared: “The only justification I can see for sustaining this breach would be (a) that we are dealing with very exceptional circumstances not contemplated by the Convention and (b) that we are not offending against the spirit of the Convention which was framed primarily to prevent the exploitation of labour… I should be grateful to know of any further considerations there may be to strengthen the case for compulsion.”
The Governor replied that he had “re-examined the position” and was “very anxious not to embarrass you. I now think that by a combination of economic inducements and use of sanctions under existing law…it may well be possible to attain our objective.”
Britain’s main objectives in Kenya were achieved largely by a combination of straightforward violence and repression. But the transition to a friendly government at independence in 1963 could not have been achieved without substantial manoeuvring in the political and economic fields as well. The cultivation of an African elite who would preserve British interests after independence was not an easy one, since Britain had imprisoned many of the most able political leaders in 1952. Two months after the declaration of the state of emergency, the Colonial Office suggested “giving moderate and loyal Africans some positive part to play in the present crisis”. Of course, “there can be no question, so long as the emergency lasts, of any constitutional change at the centre”; the declaration of the state of emergency had been intended precisely to prevent this.
The Colonial Office suggested establishing interracial advisory committees. “We are not so naive as to think that advisory committees will bring much increase in wisdom to bear on immediate problems”, it. Their importance was that “they can…play a useful part in associating with the process of government persons who would otherwise be condemned to more sterile and therefore frequently dangerous activities”. This was “of particular value in Kenya at the present when there is really so little that you can do to give moderate Africans a sense of purpose”.
Britain also engaged in various covert activities to ensure the dominance of “moderate” policies following independence. It was behind the creation of the Kenyan African Democratic Union (KADU) party, set up to unite African moderates against the stronger and more popular Kenyan African National Union (KANU) – the successor to the KAU – under Kenyatta. KADU received covert funding from British business interests in Kenya and also from the colonial authorities in advance of the 1963 election. However, at the final Lancaster House conference before independence, the British government realised that unfortunately KANU would win the election and abandoned KADU. MI6 also recruited Bruce McKenzie, an influential white settler politician who had moved over from KADU to KANU. After independence McKenzie was appointed Minister for Agriculture, and also had responsibility for overseeing the defence treaty with Britain.
In the economic sphere, it was land reform for the White Highlands that was the most significant scheme for preserving British interests. The purpose of the Swynnerton Plan of the mid-l950s was to enable richer Africans to acquire more land and poorer farmers less, which had the effect of creating a landed and a landless class, the latter growing to around 400,000. In the land transfer schemes of the years shortly before independence, new African “settlers” were forced to pay for land that they regarded as theirs and that had been taken over by European settlers. The majority of landless people were unable to raise even the basic sums needed as a downpayment for the purchase of land, so that over half the land was transferred almost intact to wealthy Africans in partnerships or limited liability companies. Those that were able to buy land did so by indebting themselves to cover the high prices paid to the European settlers.
This meant that many poor African peasants were paying back debts to the ex-colonisers for decades after independence to compensate the latter for the land they originally stole. The World Bank and Britain’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (the then aid programme) provided financial aid for these schemes, which “reflected the European and colonial hopes of using foreign investment to bolster a moderate nationalist state and to preserve European economic (and political) interests”, according to Gary Wasserman in his analysis of land in Kenya. The African middle classes who were rich enough to acquire land through land titles and loan repayments “were expected to acquire a vested interest against any radical transformation of the society”. There was the obligation to repay the loans, to maintain an economy favourable to private investment, to limit nationalisations, and to maintain the chief export-earner – European dominated capital agriculture, and an economic structure congenial to it – hence to refuse to expropriate Europeans or place limits on land holdings. Overall, “the decolonisation process aimed to preserve the colonial political economy and, beyond that, to integrate an indigenous elite into positions of authority where they could protect the important interests in the system”.
Ongoing disenfranchisement of the poor was therefore assured after independence. Political power now rested in the hands of the previously unreliable Kenyatta, who as the first President after independence accepted the validity of the land transfers, the worst aspect of colonialism. Subsequent policy aimed to “Africanise” the economy while accommodating the interests of the transnational corporations who held – and continue to hold – a significant stake in the country. In 1958, one third of privately owned assets in Kenya were owned by non-residents, mainly TNCs. By 1978, fifteen years after political independence, analysts Bethwell Ogot and Tiyambe Zeleza note that “Kenya was still a dependent export economy, heavily penetrated by foreign capital from all the major capitalist countries, so that she was more firmly and broadly integrated into the world capitalist system than at independence”.
A 1978 International Labour Organisation report highlighted the effects of the British plans that post-independence leaders essentially implemented. Those who benefited from the rapid economic growth since independence included the elites who replaced the British “in the high level jobs”, some African settlers who had bought land from European farmers, and employees in the modern, urban sectors who secured increases of 6-8 per cent a year in their real incomes. However, “the group of persons who have failed to derive much benefit from the growth generated since independence includes the great majority of small holders, employees in the rural sector, the urban working poor and the urban and rural unemployed”.
By the middle 1970s, the richest 20 per cent of the population received 70 per cent of total income, while the majority of the population suffered from grinding poverty. Today, Kenya’s income and ownership distribution remain heavily skewed in favour of a minority elite. This situation owes much to British priorities in the dying days of formal colonialism.