Mashujaa Day: Did Mau Mau bring independence or was it negotiated?

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and ex-Mau Mau fighters show "how it was done." [File, Standard]

Today is Mashujaa Day, a time to celebrate and honour the heroes who fought for Kenya’s independence. Freedom came but it wasn’t a stroll in the park.

Lives were lost and families broken which is why we respect those who dedicated their lives to enable the flag of free independent Kenya to fly high.

Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of our nation would ask Kenyans to acknowledge those who died for this victory.

In one of annual messages Mzee Jomo Kenyatta urged Kenyans to “Treat this day with joy. Treat it also with reverence. For this is the day for which our martyrs died. Let us stand in silence and remember all those who suffered that our land might be free, but did not live to see its fulfillment. Let us remember their great faith, their abiding knowledge that the victory would be won.”

But, as we remember those who fought for our freedom, the role played by Mau is still the subject of debate among academics and intellectuals.

Was it a dangerous cult as some suggested or a heroic liberation struggle? Did Mau Mau help in the attainment of independence through the guerilla warfare or was uhuru attained by diplomacy and negotiations?

Colonial punishment: Captured Mau Mau fighters and non-combatants dig a trench. [File, Standard]

Mau, the history of the name is still unclear, began in the early 50s among the Kikuyu of central Kenya who had been forced off their lands by white settlers.

The rebellion took place from 1952 to early 60s. Officially 12,000 African were killed but other reports show that the uprising claimed over 20 000 African lives.

In a 2016 interview with The Financial Times novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o   said the British called the rebellion Mau because they considered it meaningless.

 “If they had said, ‘Land and Freedom Army’, as [the fighters] called themselves, then they would be articulating the aims of the movement, right?” he says.

Ngugi’s sentiments elicit more questions than answers. Was Mau Mau a national effort or an ethnic rebellion?

If it was a national effort then what exactly were its political aims and ideologies? Wanyubari Maloba in Mau Mau and Kenya: An analysis of peasant revolt argues that Mau Mau's various factions disagreed over aims and objectives and that this lack of a cohesive revolutionary ideology influenced the shape and destiny of the revolt.

So, what was the meaning of this rebellion which led to horrific murder and mutilation of Africans by Africans and by whites and is estimated to have cost over £55 million (about Sh8,250,000,000 at current exchange rates), according to details from Imperial Policy and Decolonisation?

Maloba asks whether Mau Mau was war for land or for political freedom. Was it a class war within the Kikuyu or did it represent something wider?

In A Revolution Betrayed Ngugi wa Thiong’o is quoted as saying: “To most Africans, Mau Mau, in fact, was a heroic and glorious aspect of the mainstream of African nationalism. The basic objectives of Mau Mau revolutionaries were to drive out the Europeans, seize the government, and give back to the Kenya parents their stolen lands and property.”

However, some notables do not share Ngugi’s sentiments. To them, Mau Mau was a tribal cult which sought the re-establishment of the Kikuyu peasantry.

Among them is Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta who was an advocate of non-violent negotiation with the British. After the defeat of Mau in 1964, Kenyatta referred to it as “a disease which has been eradicated and must never be remembered.”

Kenyatta’s role in the rebellion is unclear as he was, at one stage warned against his anti-Mau Mau sentiment while he, ironically, provided the movement with impetus.

It is, however, likely that Kenyatta had realised that a long-drawn violent resistance against the Britons would have delayed independence and embraced the more pragmatic, but unpopular approach to independence that was basically negotiated in a series of conferences at Lancaster House, London, from where Kenya got her first constitution.

 It is thus not very clear whether Kenyatta was a member of Mau Mau despite him being arrested and found guilty of managing the rebellion by Judge Thacker in a trial that had no jurors.

“You have persuaded them in secret to murder, burn and commit atrocities which will take many years to forget,” Judge Thacker told Kenyatta.

Historian Prof William Ochieng’, who died in 2013, argues in A history of Kenya, that Mau Mau’s cause was selfish and centered around the desire to have land by poor peasants and not to gain independence as its leaders led Kenyans to believe. He writes that the rebel movement played no significant role in the attainment of independence since it lacked ideologies.

Mau Mau was considered by some as a tribal expression of unrestrained emotion rather than reason. The obviously biased British parliamentary delegation which visited Kenya in 1954 said: “Mau Mau intentionally and deliberately seeks to lead the Africans of Kenya back to the bush and savagery not forward into progress” (Report to Secretary of State).

But Mau Mau was indeed trans-ethnic. The war was fought in Meru and Ukambani region along Mombasa Road where settlers had grabbed land from Nairobi to Emali.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (right) and ex- Mau Mau fighter General Musa Mwariama. [File, Standard]


In Ukambani there was General Kata-Kata. In deed the Mau Mau torture case which the British have was filed by Ndiku Mutua, Jane Muthoni Mara and Wambugu wa Nyingi, evidence that the rebellion was not 100 per cent central Kenya affair.


However, it is argued that the rebellion may have not been the main reason Kenya attained its independence from Britain but it did play a part though minor.

The Mau Mau rebellion grew and in March 25–26, 1953, in what is known as the Lari massacre, Mau Mau fighters attacked the settlement of Lari and herded men, women, and children into huts and set them on fire, hacking down with machetes anyone who attempted escape, before throwing them back into the burning huts.

A retaliatory massacre was immediately perpetrated by Kenyan security forces who were partially overseen by British commanders.

Such incidents are said to have led to Kenya’s independence since the British government decided that a continuance of colonial rule would entail a greater use of force than that which the British public would tolerate.

The Lari massacre also led to debates over Mau Mau from Kenyans on the nature of its relationship to nationalism.

 Centre to this argument is the question of why Mau Mau was unable to articulate a trans-ethnic national ideology despite its claim that it fought for national liberation.

Therefore, some regarded it as a lost cause since it did not even force the British into social and political reforms which led to independence under the African government.

The role of Mau Mau to the attainment of independence will thus remain controversial with conflicting arguments and supporting statements. But what stands is that they might be the heroes we celebrate today alongside many others who used non-violent means unlike them.

Additional write-in: Wambua Sammy