It was one of best crafted official cons of the century. The government wanted to generate foreign exchange and at the same time promote a special group of foreign investors who behaved like the real shareholders. Deploying a series of covert and overt machinations spiced with liberal doses of propaganda and cooked statistics, the government got to work to hoodwink gullible villagers to give away their cows for a song.
It authored a report in 1930 to the effect that “a large proportion of the Kamba cattle are of an uneconomic character. There are many useless bulls and barren cows which are merely parasites and could well be slaughtered.”
Further, the government experts argued that the acreage available in the native reserve for every head of cattle owned by the Machakos people was four acres in a district covering a total area of 1.385 million acres where 140,000 acres were under cultivation.
The government chief soil conservation officer, Collin Maher, was alarmed that in 1929, Machakos had 245,000 cows in an area ideal for just 53,400 cows, which he blamed as the cause of poverty in the district.
In the meantime, Liebigs, a foreign private company which had been eyeing the Kenya market since 1922, inked a sweetheart deal with the government to establish a factory at Athi River where Kenya Meat Commission is located today.
Liebigs had been assured by the government of a constant supply of 70,000 head of cattle. To maximise on profits, the government devised a policy that would compel Ukambani residents to sell their cows cheaply.
In its camouflaged destocking plan, the government conducted a census of all cows in Machakos and Kitui and allocated each farmer a quota of animals he was legally supposed to keep. The extra animals were to be sold to Liebigs at a price set by the government.
The farmers, led by Samuel Muindi Mbingu, revolted after realising they were being exploited. They fired off protest letters to the colonial secretary in London and staged sit-ins in Nairobi to demand back 2,500 animals that had been seized by the government. Even after the government arrested and deported Mbingu to Lamu in September 1938, the rebellion did not die on. There were times the government returned the cows it had forcefully seized in Ngelani but the owners refused to take them.
Consequently, on December 2, 1938, Governor Robert Brooke-Popham, who had refused to meet the protesters in Nairobi, was forced to travel to Machakos where he announced to an ecstatic crowd: “Destocking by compulsory culling will be postponed for an indefinite period. The 2,500 head of cattle from Mitamboni will be returned unconditionally to their owners and an intensive reconditioning campaign will be instituted.”