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How Mau Mau war will shape elections this year and in the future

Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima’s dreadlocks represented her connection to Kenya’s freedom and her rejection of colonisation. [Lydia Nyawira, Standard]

The 2022 election negates previous practice in post-colonial Kenya. Politicians have embraced the Mau Mau War as a tool of political persuasion in the Mountain zone.

Up to the 1980s, the independence leadership tried to convince the West that Kenya, unlike Congo, was safe and safely in the Western camp of the Cold War and shunned anything to do with the Mau Mau War.

The few who grumbled about the Mau Mau neglect, like Bildad Kaggia, or wanted to anchor policy on the Mau Mau legacy, like Joseph Murumbi, were sidelined. Murumbi vacated the vice presidency in 1967 and Attorney General Charles Njonjo told him, “You are finished Joe” and he disappeared into political oblivion to collect art and books.

Similarly, the intellectual environment became hostile to the Mau Mau movement as fact and idea. Subsequently, university lecturers called “home guards” ensured that “Mau Mau” academics who insisted on raising unpleasant questions went for ‘re-education’ in the basement of a tall building.

Signs of Mau Mau acceptance started in Mwai Kibaki’s presidency which decriminalised Mau Mau. Besides the bemusing saga of General Mathenge, Dedan Kimathi’s statues were erected in Nairobi and Nyeri, and a university established.

Dedan Kimathi’s statue. [File, Standard]

Serious books like Caroline Elkin’s Britain’s Gulag, angered foreign and local custodians of history narrative and eventually forced Britain to apologise for its atrocities against the Mau Mau atrocities. The book, however, pleased, among them First Lady Lucy Kibaki and Achieng Oneko.

During the book presentation at Taifa Hall in Nairobi, Mr Oneko pleaded, “give us something to eat while we are alive.”

In doing so, Oneko captured the mood and fate of most of the Mau Mau participants in post-colonial Kenya, one of squalor partly due to neglect. While a few Mau Mau leaders received visible ‘rewards’ in land and positions, most of them felt and feel betrayed by those they had trusted in pre-Mau Mau days.

The feeling of betrayal is rife and might explain attempts to revive Mau Mau memories. Scattered effort to ‘recast’ Mau Mau by capturing, and documenting recollections of Mau Mau veterans and survivors contradicts some established myths. Those who gave their stories about the ignored past did it for the sake of posterity, appreciated the tacit recognition and wished that more could be done.

As the 2022 election approached, prominent personalities showed growing interest in the living symbols of women in the Mau Mau War.

Mama Ngina, for instance, made a trip to Nyeri to see Field Marshal Muthoni and perform the ritual of shaving her (Muthoni’s) dreadlocks. Raila Odinga went looking for Dedan Kimathi’s widow, Mukami Kimathi, in search of her blessings to become Kenya’s president.

Raila Odinga with Dedan Kimathi’s widow, Mukami, at her home in Komarock, Nairobi, on October 17, 2021. [David Njaaga,Standard] 

Courting Muthoni and Mukami is part of the effort to appropriate Mau Mau into a tool of political competition. Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro, for instance, repeatedly declares that he is a Mau Mau child as he supports William Ruto's presidential ambitions.

By invoking Mau Mau, he seeks to rally the poor in the Mountain zone against the supposed privileged elite in the Jubilee government and its support for Raila. Similarly, on the Uhuru/Raila side, Laikipia Governor Nderitu Muriithi declared himself a son of Mau Mau and dared Ruto into a physical encounter.

The Ndindi -Muriithi split is representative of the long-running split within the Mau Mau movement as to who actually speaks for the Mau Mau or for the Mountain.

The 2022 election has helped to resuscitate Mau Mau and provides opportunity for generational change of guard.

In one part of the emerging narrative, women take the lead as Mukami symbolically passes the Mau Mau baton to Martha Karua whose daring might tilt some votes.

In a different narrative, Ndindi stakes claims to new Mau Mau leadership for the forgotten underdogs. The competition for the soul of ‘Mau Mau’ is likely to feature in future elections.