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Horrors that gave rise to historical Githunguri gallows

By Hudson Gumbihi | December 3rd 2021

The last Lari convicts were hung in June 1954. [File, Standard]

Framed as retributive justice for offenders, capital punishment in British colonial Africa was in the real sense a form of violence to assert authority.

In Kenya, records show that about 459 people were executed between 1908 and 1956. This, according to Stacey Hynd, excluded Mau Mau fighters who bore the brunt of the executions.

“The State may have had the legal right to kill its subjects, but this right and the manner in which it was enacted were contested,” wrote Hynd in the Journal of African History.

The Lari massacre is one such case of colonists using capital punishment to stamp their power over Africans. First, the choice of Githunguri, considered the home of African nationalism, as the venue of the court trials was meant to send a message. 

Secondly, the execution of those charged over the March 26, 1953 massacre was the most publicised by the colonists even though the Githunguri gallows were shielded from public gaze.

On October 15, 1953, the gallows dispatched their first victims. The 12 men had waited for five months since being sentenced to death by magistrate Clive Salter.

The hangman had come from Nairobi prison the day before. On the material day, the prison doctor and Kiambu district officer arrived to witness the executions, conducted one after the other at intervals of 15 minutes. The breaks were necessary to allow for the body to be taken down and the gallows reset for the next victim.

“Once the sombre procession was over, the bodies were bundled into a lorry and moved to Nairobi’s Kamiti Prison for burial. To publicise the execution of the 12 men, notices were printed in Swahili and Kikuyu and distributed widely throughout the colony,” wrote David Anderson in his book Histories of the Hanged.

It was stated that the crime the condemned men had committed had been the murder of Penina, wife of headman Charles Ikenya, a victim of the infamous Lari massacre that left 84 people dead and 31 others seriously injured.

The Githunguri gallows would be used 14 other times before the end of the month. Another 14 convicts were executed the following month.

The last Lari convicts were hang the following year in June 1954. The 22 were accused of committing killings in the compound of chief Luka Wakahangare.

On December 22, 2010, minister of State for National Heritage and Culture, William Ntimama, in a gazette notice, declared the location of the Githunguri gallows a historical site.

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