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Revealed: Secrets of Dedan Kimathi files

By Amos Kareithi | March 18th 2016
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga (right) hands over documents relating to the trial against the death sentence of the late freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi from the United Kingdom to Mrs Mukami Kimathi on Thursday, March 17 2016.The files relate to the 1956 trial and conviction in Nyeri and later the appeal against the death sentence from the Senate House Library of the University of London. [PHOTO DAVID NJAAGA/STANDARD]

NAIROBI: At exactly 6am on February 18, 1957, Dr K E Robertson made one of the most important pronouncements in his career. He certified that one of the deadliest men in Kenya then, Dedan Kimathi, was dead. In a form he would file later, he neatly penned that the cause of death was hanging, explaining that the death had been instantaneous.

While signing the execution warrant, the Kenya Colony Governor Sir Evelyn gave the discretion to the prisons authorities to either bury or cremate his body.

The medical doctor’s dramatic pronouncement marked the end of an era for Kimathi, who had distinguished himself as a man who had led one of the toughest campaigns against the colonial government.

Kimathi had been the undisputed leader of the Mau Mau freedom fighters operating from the Aberdare and Mt Kenya forests, and had been in the cross-hairs of British colonialists since the State of Emergency was declared in October 1952.

Despite playing hide-and-seek with the colonial forces, their agents and the settlers as his men raided police stations and seized arms, he was finally isolated and cornered by his enemies who infiltrated his troops and weakened the Mau Mau fighting force.

Kimathi was cornered on November 21, 1956, when he was confronted by two home guards, Ndirangu and Njogi, as he was sneaking back into the Aberdare Forest after a night at Karunaini village in Tetu, Nyeri.

According to official court documents released to his family yesterday, the homeguards fired five shots, one of which caught Kimathi in the hip and floored him.

Immediately after the shooting, Kimathi - who at the time had a maize cob and a sugarcane - was carried out of the fringes of the forest into the village where he was paraded amidst tight security. Later, he was taken to Nyeri Provincial General Hospital. At the time of the shooting, Kimathi was wearing a leopard skin jacket and had a pistol and ammunition.

It was here at the hospital that the most famous picture of him lying on the bed with his hands manacled was taken. The bullet lodged in his body was removed and he was later charged in court on October 22, 1956, with unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition.

Kimathi was charged that on or about October 21, 1956, in Tetu location in Nyeri, he was in possession of a .38 Webley Scott Revolver without lawful authority.

He also faced a second count that on the same day, he had in his possession ammunition without lawful authority. Kimathi denied both charges.


In the course of trial, Kimathi testified that after having lived in the forest for four years, he fell out with other freedom fighters after he allegedly wrote a letter to the government advocating for peace. So as to protect himself from the other freedom fighters who were after his life, the court papers said he was given a gun by a fellow fighter, Macharia Kimanya.

Kimathi later told the court that he was in the process of surrendering when he was shot by the trigger-happy homeguards who were eager to get the prize that had been put on his head. He was tried and sentenced to hang for the offence of being in possession of a firearm by judge NA Worley on November 27, 1956.

During his trial, Kimathi maintained that he had carried both the gun and the ammunition as he ventured out of the forest to surrender as per a lawful amnesty.

From the outset, Kimathi’s case was that at the time of his arrest he had a gun. The judge had outlined to the assessors that their work was to ascertain if Kimathi was indeed in possession of a gun and ammunition at the time of his arrest and that he had lawful reason to have the weapon. John Njeru Karundo testified that he knew Kimathi as he had been his teacher at Karunaini Primary School before he went to the forest.

Racism spews out from the pages of the Kimathi files. A footnote describing one of the homeguards who testified against Kimathi sums up the opinion of the judge towards Africans.

The typed notes in reference to Mwangi Kahagi reads: A very stupid witness. Witness appears to have no idea of time or distance.

The files also show a judicial system in a hurry to try and convict Kimathi at whatever cost. At the Nyeri Provincial General Hospital, the prosecutor and the magistrate visited him on November 22, 1956, before the bullet had been retrieved from his body and charged him. Kimathi later argued that at that time, he was in so much pain that he could not comprehend what was going on but his defence was dismissed by the court. True to his character, Kimathi did not betray his cause or divulge any information to the police even when he was interrogated in hospital as a senior police officer later testified.

In the court, experts testified that indeed Kimathi had been shot while squatting by a homeguard who was standing a distance from him. Other evidence indicated that although Kimathi had identified himself, the homeguard shot him point blank shouting, “you have given us enough trouble”.

Later, the two men who cornered Kimathi were rewarded with Sh3,000 each by the colonial government. One of the men bought a lorry which he intended to use for public transport but the locals shunned it and nicknamed it Muthimo wa Kimathi (Kimathi’s leg).

The defence team appointed to defend Kimathi was also paid from the government coffers to the tune of Sh4,000. Later when all avenues of escape were sealed, Kimathi was ferried to Kamiti Prison under heavy guard and later hanged. His final resting place to date remains a mystery.

But given the discretion of colonial Governor Baring on whether to cremate or bury the body, there are now doubts as to whether his body was actually buried and if his grave will ever be found.

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