Secretary Oliver Lyttelton's 360-degree turn on Mau Mau

Mau Mau detainees. [File, Standard]

The British colonial edifice prided itself on spot-on intelligence across its colonies yet they never saw Mau Mau coming.

In the initial days, Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton had dismissed the budding rebellion as "more hooliganism than a deep political convulsion."

He had no idea. Mau Mau had festered right beneath this veil of ignorance, and spread its influence across the ridges of Central Kenya and beyond.

It administered its form of justice with unmistakable ruthlessness and punished cowardice and betrayal in similar terms.

It was highly organised, targeted and swift in attacks, operated in utmost secrecy and invoked courage and commitment from powerful oaths administered in the dead of the night.

It was not until they went for Senior Chief Waruhiu that alarm bells rang. Lyttelton immediately changed tune: "Across the page of Kenya's history has fallen the shadow of witchcraft, savagery and crime," he said, describing Mau Mau as "the unholy union of dark and ancient superstition with the apparatus of modern gangsterism."

On December 3, 1953, MP for Mount Kenya Captain L.R. Briggs moved a motion for a commission of inquiry to analyse past intelligence and government reports as to whether there was a prior warning on the scale and magnitude of Mau Mau activities.

He also wanted the commission to identify who should take the blame for sleeping on the job of "appreciating the potential seriousness of the Mau Movement in the earlier stages".

The colonial government instead chose to bury its head in the sand, saying time was not ripe. Instead, it went on a psychological war overdrive, bastardising Mau Mau exploits to its advantage. The exaggerations of Mau Mau activities beggared description.

To the unity oath performed with the lungs of a goat, goat blood laced with grain and small cuts on the left wrist of initiates, the British added menstrual blood, public intercourse with sheep and adolescent girls.

Every attempt was made to paint Mau Mau ceremonies in the vilest of terms.

Captain Briggs kept digging in until much later in 1957 when F.D Corfield was appointed to undertake the now dubious "historical survey of the origins of Mau Mau".

In his terms of reference, Corfield was to investigate the origin and growth of Mau Mau "including the circumstances which permitted the movement to grow so rapidly without the full knowledge of the government."

The second and last limb of the inquiry was to investigate "any deficiencies which made themselves apparent in the government machine."