Veterans of Kenya’s Mau Mau independence struggle came to Britain in June demanding compensation for atrocities committed by the British. Ken Olende tells their story
Five veterans from the Mau Mau war in Kenya arrived in Britain last month to sue the British government for their imprisonment and torture 60 years ago. In the 1950s, Britain was desperately trying to hold on to its colonial empire and it crushed a nationalist rebellion in Kenya in a shockingly brutal manner.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) is bringing the case. George Morara from their legal team told Socialist Worker, “After the horrors of the Nazi era, Britain was central to establishing an international legal system to defend human rights.
“How could a country at the forefront of drafting these laws go on to commit torture on a horrendous scale in Kenya immediately afterwards?
“The government at the time claimed that it did not know what was happening. We wouldn’t accept that as an excuse for Iraq or Guantanamo Bay.
“There was no justification for taking measures that made some of the victims blind or led to limbs being amputated. British soldiers castrated men and sexually abused women. These are outrageous human rights violations and the British government must be held to account.”
Gitu wa Kahengeri is chair of the Mau Mau War Veterans’ Association. He told Socialist Worker, “In August 1950 the colonialists passed a law describing the Mau Mau as a dangerous organisation.
“That law persisted in our law books after independence right through until 2003. It is only now that Mau Mau people can register organisations and meet legally.
“Our country was occupied by the British for nearly 70 years before we rose up. They were newcomers to our country. They could have stayed here as business people but they had to control our land. In 1948 we started an underground movement. We recruited people all over the country to remove the colonial power.”
The authorities got wind of the emerging rebellion and launched a military sweep in October 1952. They detained all the African nationalist leadership, conservative and radical alike.
The leadership of the Mau Mau passed to new, less experienced activists. The organisation remained very disciplined and set about establishing guerrilla bases in the forests and supply lines from Nairobi.
Gitu continues, “I was a young man then, about 17 years old. I was at school. I had thought if I got an education I could get a good job. But the colonialists did not want that. Even with an education they wanted us to work as farm hands.
“The struggle was about land. Land is not something to be given by the government. It is our birthright. Everyone has the right to access land. When they refused to give us our land we decided to take it from them.”
The settlers could not conceive that the Africans had legitimate demands. The all white East African Women’s League summed up the typical settler view, stating that “the basic fact was not that the African had been held back by racial discrimination, but that he had travelled too far too quickly”.
The response of the British to the growing insurgency in the capital was Operation Anvil – which rounded up all black people in Nairobi in early 1954. The city’s population at the time was about 10,000, almost all black. Anyone deemed “suspicious” was held in a rapidly built network of concentration camps.
Like many secret organisations, the Mau Mau insisted members take an oath of loyalty. In the twisted racist thinking of the colonial powers, it was the oath that was driving otherwise passive Africans to rise up.
Oliver Lyttleton, secretary of state for the colonies at the time, said, “The Mau Mau oath is the most bestial, filthy and nauseating incantation which perverted minds can ever have brewed.”
The camp system was supposed to force Mau Mau supporters to renounce their oaths and so abandon the rebellion. In practice any hope of “rehabilitation” was replaced by forced labour, torture and revenge. Up to 160,000 Kenyans passed through the camps.
Gitu says, “I was arrested in 1952. I was detained in a series of concentration camps: Athi River, Lodwar and Takwa on Manda island off the coast. That camp was particularly for leaders of the Mau Mau movement. I was there with Ramogi Achieng Oneko and Pio Gama Pinto.”
The Mau Mau uprising is often portrayed as a tribal rebellion that only involved the Kikuyu people. However, the people Gitu mentions were from Luo and Asian backgrounds. The Mau Mau War Veterans have members from a wide range of Kenya’s ethnic groups.
Also, the popular British view of a depraved orgy of violence against peaceful settlers doesn’t sit well with even the official figures for deaths.
The British declared an official Emergency in 1952, which lasted until 1960. During that time 32 white and 26 Asian civilians were killed along with 63 white members of the military and 527 African who were “loyal” to the British. Officials admit that 11,503 African rebels were killed – though the KHRC estimates the real figure is nearer 90,000 people.
John Nottingham was a colonial district officer in Kenya during the Emergency but is now very critical of what the British did. He travelled to Britain with the Mau Mau veterans.
Asked if British forces had committed any human rights abuses during the Emergency, 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.”
Gitu remembers the forced labour that he was required to do. “We built roads. We built the international airport at Nairobi. We had no equipment,” he said. “Many people died in the camps – some from diarrhoea because of the bad conditions, some were beaten to death. They wanted us to die there. Their aim was to suppress the movement.”
A civil war of sorts developed between the heavily armed “loyalist” Home Guard and the Mau Mau and their supporters. There was a distinct class element to this. The chiefs and loyalists had grabbed the best land in the reserves.
There was an incentive for loyalists to accuse local enemies of Mau Mau membership since those convicted of rebellion could have their land confiscated.
The rounding up of the Mau Mau’s urban leaders moved the leadership to local cadres in the countryside. Groups of up to 4,000 rebels set up bases in the deep forests around Mount Kenya.
The British army and the RAF were unable to dislodge the forest fighters, particularly as the Mau Mau were given intelligence and supplies by the local population.
The army forcibly moved farmers from their traditional scattered farmsteads into villages surrounded by barbed wire. This process involved almost the entire rural Kikuyu population of 1.5 million.
The greatest forest leader was the audacious guerrilla Dedan Kimathi, who managed to stay one step ahead of the British for years. When the authorities complained that they couldn’t catch him as no one knew what he looked like, he sent them a photo.
He also sent a message to the British people on why they should support the rebellion. For all its naivety it is a call for solidarity that should be remembered:
“Do you not remember what your grandfathers did during the reign of King Richard II, when sixty thousand slaves [serfs] went to [the King] and demanded their freedom?
“These people tore down prison walls and the houses of the rich men they hated, and killed many who were their enemies. They burned the houses of the lawyers, tax collectors and the King’s Officers who had wronged them, and killed many men of that sort, cut off their heads and set them up on London bridge. [Because of their resistance] the King made them free forever.”
Eventually Kimathi was captured and executed in 1956. This effectively ended the rebellion, though the Emergency and the camps remained until 1960.
One of the veterans’ demands is to be told the secret location of Kimathi’s grave, so that he can be given a proper funeral.