Thursday, 24 January 2013 13:26

Mau Mau: the revolutionary force from Kenya

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Mau Mau, the Kenyan liberation movement, has often been misunderstood in the West where it is either ignored as a revolutionary force or misrepresented as a primitive, “tribal” movement seen in isolation from its historical and political context.  This short talk, based on the author’s books (Durrani, 1986, 2006) aims to understand the movement from its own perspective.  Using historical material from the progressive trade union movement, from Mau Mau activists as well as Mau Mau’s own publications, the talk examines its aims of political and economic liberation, its anti-imperialist ideology and its organisational framework.  It highlights the close relationships between working class and peasants as well as the unity of all Kenyan nationalities for liberation.  It looks at Mau Mau’s achievement in setting up the first independent Kenya Parliament in the liberated parts of Kenya long before formal independence in 1963.  In particular, the talk highlights political and ideological framework and leadership which guided the military aspect of the liberation movement.  It ends with a plea for more research on this important period of Kenyan history which has a far wider significance.

Justice for Kenya’s Mau Mau war veterans
Justice for Kenya’s Mau Mau war veterans – the theme of tonight’s meeting - cannot be achieved fully until there is justice for the movement that these veterans were members of: Mau Mau.  And there has been no justice for Mau Mau for over 60 years.  It suited colonialism to brand the movement as cruel and primitive and hide its real aims, cynically dismissing the sacrifice of millions as misguided.  It was then easy for the colonial authorities to justify the brutal repression that was carried out against the people of Kenya.  But then, if the movement is condemned so easily, can one expect its supporters and activists to fare better? If there is to be justice for the veterans there has also to be justice for the movement.  But while individuals can go to courts to seek redress, movements cannot.  

Mau Mau is often seen in historical isolation, as if no organisation had ever struggled against colonialism and injustice before. But from the earliest time that colonialism set foot on the Kenyan soil, people of every nationality took up arms at one time or another to overthrow this invasion. This resistance reached a new stage with Mau Mau which saw the coming together of an experienced trade union movement – as much ignored as Mau Mau itself - with progressive nationalist forces now united under a new liberation ideology and organisation. 

What was Mau Mau all about?
An important clue was in the name used when it had to resort to armed struggle:  Kenya Land and Freedom Army.  Thus land and freedom for the people of Kenya were the aims of the movement.  As the British repression intensified, the only method of struggle left was through an armed struggle.  There was a long period before the Second World War when the people of Kenya had sought to bring about change through petitions and pleas to the British Government, but these brought no results.  As the Ghadar movement seeking freedom from colonialism in India said, “the time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink” (NBS p.41).  For Kenya, that time came in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Perhaps a good starting point to understand the struggle for liberation of this period was the General Strike in Kenya in May 1950 for the release of Makhan Singh, Fred Kubai and Chege Kibachia, the trade union leaders. Besides making economic demands, the TU included a political one: “We want freedom for all workers and freedom of East African territories” (MS, 270).  This highlights two major contribution made by the trade union and the Mau Mau movement: the first was the linking of the economic demands with political demands as the former could not be achieved without the latter.

The second contribution was that the independence movement was based on active support of peasants, but was led by the working class and trade union movement as they were better able to articulate – and struggle for – demands of all the people.

The colonial administration declared a State of Emergency on 20th October 1952 and it arrested and detained almost 200 national and trade union leaders. British battalions began arriving in Nairobi and the British cruiser “Kenya” was already in Mombasa (MS. 320).  Makhan Singh (1980) sets out the context:

The colonialists had come to the conclusion that Kenya’s national movement for freedom and independence, of which Kenya’s trade union movement was an important part, had become too strong for them and was now endangering the very existence of colonial rule in Kenya.  They had therefore decided to suppress and crush the movement.  To implement their decision they chose to declare a state of emergency, which enabled them to rule by decree and force of arms. (p.1).


The three basic foundations which guided Mau Mau were: anti-colonialism, anti-neo-colonialism and a proletarian world outlook in the struggle against capitalism, but with a unity of workers and peasants and all those who were not allied to the colonialists.

The class stand of Mau Mau was clear right from the beginning. The enemy was not seen in terms of the colour of one's skin. Indeed, black homeguard collaborators with colonialism were a prime target of revolutionary wrath. Kimaathi explained in a letter he wrote from his headquarters in Nyandarwa in 1953, “the poor are the Mau Mau.” Poverty can be stopped, he explained, but not by bombs and weapons. Only the revolutionary justice of the struggles of the poor could end poverty for Kenyans.(Odinga, 1967, p.120).


Barbara Slaughter (1999) explains the land grievance that forced the people of Kenya to take up arms:
By the end of the Second World War, 3,000 European settlers owned 43,000 square kilometres of the most fertile land, only 6 per cent of which they cultivated.  The African population of 5.25 million occupied, without ownership rights, less than 135,000 square kilometres of the poorest land. On the “native reserves” much of the land was unsuitable for agriculture.

Mau Mau gives its reasons for its fight in the reply sent to the Kenya Colonial Government in February 1954:

We are fighting for our lands - the Kenya Highlands which were stolen from the Africans by the Crown.

Before we come out of the forest, the British Government must grant Kenya full independence under African leadership, and also hand over all the alienated lands to Kenya African Government which will redistribute the land to its citizens.

If we do not get land and freedom now, we will continue to fight till the Government yields or the last drop of blood of our last fighter is spilt.(Barnett and Njama, 1966, pp. 350-352).

Mau Mau set up organisational network which was based at Mathare Valley, a working class residential area in Nairobi. Since the largest concentration of workers was in Nairobi, communications and organisational networks reaching all parts of the country were organised from here. Workers of various nationalities were recruited from here. There were close links between the militant trade unions and the central command of Mau Mau. The advanced workers recruited in Nairobi acted not only as cadres in the city but they helped to set up powerful links with the peasants.
Workers of different nationalities became in effect links between plantation workers and peasants in the rural areas and urban workers on the one hand and Mau Mau on the other. It was this factor that enabled the revolutionary movement to establish deep roots in the peasant areas, without which the whole revolution could have easily been crushed.

Mau Mau as a military and political organisation
After the declaration of the Emergency in October 1952, the stage of armed resistance began in earnest. The guerrilla forces established their new military headquarters in the forests from where the armed battles were planned and executed. This military need made itself felt at the level of organisation as well. Many small and large guerrilla units had entered the forests and waged battles against the enemy in their local areas.

Mau Mau recognised the need to co-ordinate the activities of these different fighting units and to form an umbrella military organisation that could control the overall strategy of warfare in the face of a well-armed and equipped enemy.  A representative meeting of the various units was held in August 1953 and came to be known as the Mwathe Conference.  After an exchange of ideas and long discussions, it was decided to form the Kenya Defence Council as the highest military and political organ of the armed struggle. Thus, as Barnett and Njama(1966) say, while the Kenya Defence Council had the “power to formulate overall strategy and policy, enact rules and regulations and sit as the highest judicial body, the authority to implement and enforce its rulings rested largely with the individual leader-members of section and camp heads.” (p.302).

The other important task of the Mwathe Conference was the election of the leadership of the Kenya Defence Council and also the organisation of the total fighting forces into eight armies. Kimaathi was elected the President of the Kenya Defence Council, with Gen. Macharia Kimemia as vice-president.

The Mwathe Conference put the armed forces on an organised war footing. It created a new united organisation which became the central policy making and administrative body with responsibilities covering the whole country, both over military and political matters.
By the formation of the Kenya Defence Council, Mau Mau created a new democratic-level political and military authority which provided a focus for all the freedom fighters, their supporters and sympathisers.

The Kimaathi Charter

Soon after its formation, the Kenya Defence Council assessed the political situation and took action to further support the liberation cause. There had been a lot of adverse enemy propaganda condemning the freedom struggle as a backward movement. In order to give the correct picture and to achieve a greater unity among the freedom fighters and its supporters, it published a Charter which set out its demands and aims. It was prepared by Kimaathi under the authority of the Kenya Defence Council. It came to be known as the Kimaathi Charter. The Charter was widely circulated and it publicly and openly showed what Mau Mauand the people of Kenya were fighting for. It was published in October 1953 in the Nairobi weekly, Citizen.  The Charter had 12 points, the first of which stated, “We demand African self-government in Kenya”.

The publication of the Kimaathi Charter was timed to coincide with an important mass struggle being waged by Mau Mau at that time. This was the bus boycott which was a protest against various aspects of imperialist control over the lives of people, and aimed at mobilising popular support to advance and promote the armed struggle. Thus, Mau Mau combined military work with mass political work as part of the liberation struggle. 

The Kenya Parliament takes control - Kimaathi is Prime Minister

As the armed conflict intensified, new contradictions developed. Certain weaknesses of the Kenya Defence Council also emerged. It was found that in an attempt to make the Kenya Defence Council more democratic and representative, it had been made too large to be able to function efficiently in a war situation.
In order to overcome these shortcomings, the Kenya Parliament was formed in February, 1954.This was a change of fundamental importance. The Kenya Parliament was the first legitimate African Government of Kenya. Its aims were to separate political and military aspects of the struggle, making the former paramount, to emphasise the national character of the freedom movement, to ensure the representation of all Kenyan nationalities, and to assume authority over liberated and semi-liberated areas and people. Militarily, it established its authority over all fighting units and prepared a new military offensive. It also formulated its foreign policy.

Twelve members were elected to the Kenya Parliament, and Kimaathi was elected the first Prime Minister. The members’ first loyalty was to the Kenya Parliament and not to their former armies. A new Field Marshal was elected. He was Macharia Kimemia. Kimaathi was now free to devote his full attention to the political sphere and to the affairs of Kenya Parliament. In addition, there were represented in the Kenya Parliament all the thirty-three districts of Kenya, thus making it a national body.

Mau Mau faces the neo-colonial challenge

The situation saw many changes in response to the military activities of Mau Mau. By about 1956-57, it became clear that colonialism was no longer sustainable in Kenya. The departure of British colonialism was a matter of time. In just a few years of warfare, Mau Mau had changed the balance of power, although it had to pay a heavy price for this change, with many combatants dead or in detention and the organisation itself rendered weak and millions of people in detention camps and villages, with daily acts of violence against them.  But the seemingly invincible British colonial machinery, supported by the settlers and the loyalist Africans, was forced to give up power.

Mau Mau started preparing for a new stage of the struggle.  These renewed Mau Mau preparations were admitted by the colonial regime in the last years of its existence.  The colonial minister of Internal Security and Defence, Mr. Swann, had to admit that "for the last three months of 1962, operations have progress to curb the activities of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army." He revealed that the colonial government was detaining more people "to avoid a second emergency in Kenya." Swann said that the purpose of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army was to take over power in Kenya.  "An emergency would be inevitable if we had not taken any action this year", he added. He admitted that in spite of the vast military intervention of top military forces in Kenya since 1952 and even earlier, “he did not hope to stamp out the type of activity typified by Mau Mau and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army.... this activity will never stop."

But Mau Mau militants realised the danger of colonialist tentacles over the country. They clearly saw colonialists “going from the door, only to return from the window” as neo-colonialists. New organizations, new ideologies, new military tactics were being prepared by Mau Mau in the period before 1963.  Perhaps the most important work in this period was to warn the people against the new danger. The neo-colonialist forces were constantly pouring forth lies and falsehoods through their mass media with their message that now that independence was just round the corner, there was no need to struggle any more. The goals of independence struggle were won, they said; Africanisation, multiracialism were here, they proclaimed, so why struggle?
It thus became necessary to bring the ideological battle to the forefront. It became necessary to place before the people a correct analysis of historical events, and to emphasise the need to continue the struggle. This Mau Mau did in the form of a Policy Document – the struggle for Kenya’s future - which was widely circulated. It was also presented at the Conference of the Kenya African National Union held in Nairobi in December, 1961, where contradictions were developing about the need to combat neo-colonialism. The Document was the clearest statement on the dangers of neo-colonialism. It read:

The Struggle For Kenya's Future

The struggle for Kenya's future is being waged today on three distinct though interrelated levels - political, racial and economic. It seems to us that we Africans are being allowed to 'win' in the first two spheres as long as we don't contest the battle being waged on the third, all important economic level.

Since the end of the second World War, Great Britain, knowing it could not contain the wave of nationalist revolutions spreading throughout the colonial world, has embarked on a course of 'guiding' these nationalist movements down a path most conducive to the perpetuation of British and multinational capitalist economic domination. The old colonialism involving direct political control is fast dying and a quick transition to the new colonialism is felt necessary to avert a genuine social revolution, which would result in economic as well as political independence and thus stop the flow of Kenya's surplus capital into the banks of the western capitalist world. The British master Plan is thus quite simple in outline: "Carefully relinquish political control to a properly indoctrinated group of the 'right kind' of Africans, i.e. those whose interests are similar to and compatible with our own, so that we retain economic control."   In short, the British Government wants to leave in political form so that its capitalist sponsors might remain in economic content. Put into slogan form, this plan would be LEAVE IN ORDER TO STAY.

What are the techniques being employed by the British to facilitate our transition from colonial to neo-colonial status? ... We shall mention here two of the most important. First is a technique which might be called Racial Harmony: A Disguise for the Recruitment of African Stooges and Front men…

(These) are clear evidence of a calculated plan on the part of the economic elite to partially dissolve racial barriers in order to consolidate its position along class lines and to use Africans as front men and spokesmen for its interests ... 'Africanisation' is the term used for the process…

Let us instead struggle against a 'stability' which is in fact stagnation; let us struggle to liberate that vast reservoir of creativity which now lies dormant amongst our people; let us, in short, create a new society which allows to each (person) the right to eat, the right to the products of his/her labour, the right to clothe, house and educate (our) children, the right, in short, to live in dignity amongst equals. It is a socialist society we should be struggling to build, a system which, unlike capitalism, concerns itself with the welfare of the masses rather than with the profits and privileges of a few.

A second technique being utilised so that our rulers might "Leave in order to stay" can be called Nationalism: A Colonialist Substitute for Ideology. Nationalism is essentially a negative philosophy... It is no substitute for a positive ideology. The British have attempted to utilise this negative political slogan (which they themselves have popularised) to forestall or hinder the emergence of a revolutionary ideology, which they fear might mean the end of their economic domination.

Let us then fashion an ideology which will unify the vast majority of our people by articulating their needs and by advancing a programme of socialist development in agriculture and industry which promises to eradicate poverty, disease and illiteracy, a programme which will draw out the creative talents and energies of our people, giving them that personal dignity and pride which comes from socially constructive and productive activity. Let us, in short, provide our people with the ideological and organizational tools necessary for the achievement of genuine independence and development. Let us not sell them cheaply down the glittering path of neo-colonialism and social, economic and cultural stagnation.

The above document is of paramount importance in understanding Mau Mau and its stand. 


I would like to conclude with two points:

Any study of Mau Mau needs to be undertaken in the spirit suggested by some of those who were active in it: "Our plea to break the conspiracy of silence about the Kenya Land and Freedom Army struggle includes also a plea for a more serious study of the history of Kenya since the Second World War and more particularly since 1952."

Secondly, a warning from Donald Barnett (1972):

Political independence without genuine decolonisation and socialism yields continued misery and oppression for the peasant-worker masses.  Karigo’s prayer [See KarigoMuchai,“Hardcore”. 1973]:  “I only pray that after independence our children will not be forced to fight again” – as with those of other peasants and workers caught up in the web of neo-colonial accommodation after long years of struggle, will not be answered. His and their children will be forced to fight again.

It was Uganda's then Prime Minister Milton Obote who summed up the achievement of Mau Mau in a speech when Kenya achieved independence: "Today is the day on which Kenya formally joins Algeria at the high rank of being the hero of colonial Africa. The struggle in Kenya was bitter. Many people lost their lives ... The past cannot be forgotten ... It cannot be forgotten because it is the past not only of Kenya but of world history." (Quoted in the Daily Nation, 1963).

And it cannot be forgotten because the aims for which many lives were lost are as valid today as they were then. Nor can the example of the brave warriors be forgotten, warriors who, as one of the Mau Mau struggle song records, decided that
It would be better to die on our feet
Than to live on our knees.

This paper was first delivered at a Public event titled 'Justice for Kenya's Mau Mau War veterans’
Hosted by the Mau Mau Justice Network and Court Case
At The Friends House, Euston, London, UK
On Thursday, 14 June 2012

Shiraz Durrani
Shiraz has written many articles and books on the politics of information.  These include Kimaathi, Mau Mau’s first Prime Minister of Kenya (1986, reprinted 2009); Never be silent: publishing and imperialism in Kenya, 1884-1963(2006); Information and liberation: writings on the politics of information and librarianship(2008).  Shiraz is currently working on Progressive librarianship: perspectives from Kenya and Britainto be published in 2013 by the Library Juice Press.


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