Monday, April 11, 2011

The politics of Mau Mau

I was recently in office hours with a professor, discussing changes in land tenure between colonial and post-independence eras.  Somehow Kenya came up, and he said that he remembered being in Berkeley in December of 1963 and seeing, one day, a car piled full of Kenyans careening down Shattuck.  They were laying on the horn, shouting, and waving a flag, looking like their world had just changed.  My professor recalled, “I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but I cheered and waved back”, an appropriate response during those heady days when African colonies were at last gaining their independence. 

But many Kenyans, in the years after Uhuru, must have felt much the same way—that they weren’t entirely sure what was happening around them.  A mere 68 years after formal annexation by the British—though it undoubtedly seemed far longer to those under the yoke of imperialism—Kenya was independent.  The course of events that followed both bore out and belied the intensity of the changes wrought by colonialism.

The conquest of Kenya came about as the British constructed a railway to Lake Victoria.  White settlement grew up along the railway line, expanded outward, was legally codified over some 30 years, and ultimately centred on the so-called White Highlands and Rift Valley, the richest agricultural land on the country.  Kenyans, subject to a colour-bar after a brutal conquest, found themselves living within the boundaries of Tribal Reserves, eking out a living in the growing capital, Nairobi, or working as squatters on settler lands (this group shifted from being a kind of labour aristocracy to providing the basis for violent uprising), providing labour for the colony’s agricultural elite.

‘The Tribe’ became, for British administrators, the logical unit of organisation, and they went so far as to see white settlers as just one amongst many Kenyan ‘tribes’ (one, of course, with special privileges).  Areas open to white settlement, it was thought, should be used to separate out ethnic groups that would otherwise war incessantly with each other, and when Kikuyu, Meru, Maasai, Luo and others were forced into ‘homelands’, they were often occupying land that had, before the disruptive force of colonialism entered the scene, been at least temporarily the property of a different society.

Organised dissent to colonialism took many forms, and was often centred on Ethnic Associations, Burial Societies and Dance Societies, all institutions which formed as Kenyans who migrated to urban areas sought to maintain connections with their rural homelands.  It was through these institutions, rather than organised labour, that dockworkers came close to bringing the colonial economy to a halt as they struck at Mombasa harbour during the 1930s and ‘40s.  Unionisation followed.  It was an era in which few expressions of grievance could be characterised as ‘nationalist’, but the creation of the Kikuyu Central Association in 1924 marked the beginning of more formalised resistance to and criticism of colonial rule.

During the Second World War, Kenyans fought in large numbers for Britain.  Black soldiers saw action across Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  As in other colonies, the experience led to a heightened sense of alienation from colonial rule, particularly when no social or economic rights materialised to reward those who fought for the Empire.  The Kenya Africa Union, formed in 1946, was a more avowedly nationalist organisation, and took a key role in the Mau Mau war, which broke out in 1952 when the British government declared a state of emergency after a group calling itself the Kenya Land and Freedom Army murdered a number of settler families and—more critically—‘Loyalist’ chiefs.

The war that followed was part nationalist war, part civil war, part regional conflict, and pitted neighbours and family against one another.  Jomo Kenyatta denounced Mau Mau, but the British jailed him anyway, after a sham trial.  Mau Mau fighters were undoubtedly brutal in their killings of settlers and ‘Loyalists’, but no sensible person would argue today, as the British did in 1952, that theirs was a movement without any discernible rationale.  Relying on deeply-held racial stereotypes, and under pressure from settlers, the British government theorised Mau Mau as a ‘primitive’ reaction, a last gasp of a people thrust too brutally into the modern world.

Their response was to clear Nairobi of Kikuyu and force Kikuyu living on settler lands and in Tribal Reserves into village encampments, patrolled by British soldiers and Home Guards.  They also set up a system of concentration camps, called the ‘Pipeline’, that were used to sort and break anyone suspected of Mau Mau sympathies.  The atrocities committed in those camps are the subject of the case being brought by Mau Mau veterans against the British government.

By 1956 the worst of the fighting was over, and although it was a military victory for Britain, their days in Kenya were numbered, and they released Kenyatta from prison (he denounced Mau Mau again).  Because of his imprisonment, he was able to preserve the support of those who fought in the war against the British, and because of his conciliatory approach and promise of a multi-racial Kenya, he also received support from the British government and, after Uhuru, the descendants of white settlers who chose to remain behind in Kenya after 1963.

Land redistribution was enacted on a willing buyer-willing seller basis which favoured the wealthy (not coincidentally perhaps, those who had supported the British during Mau Mau).  In 1964, Kenyatta amended the Constitution and became President.  He abolished the position of Prime Minister (not revived until the rapprochement between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after the 2007 election violence) and instituted a one-party state.  Kenya’s history thereafter reads as a litany of broken promises and brutal acts of repression.

Tom Mboya, a prominent Luo politician, was murdered in 1969, members of the regime were suspected, and security services shot protestors who objected to the President’s attendance at the funeral. 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote I Will Marry When I Want in 1977, the first of many salvoes against authoritarianism in his home-country, for which he paid the short-term price of imprisonment and continues to bear the long-term burden of exile. 

Daniel arap Moi assumed power in 1978, faced down an Air Force Coup, and sent thousands to prisons and torture chambers.  Authoritarianism had donned a more sinister mask.  Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, another leading Luo politician, was driven out of politics for a decade.

Accusations of ‘tribalist prejudice’ flew fast and thick, and every public figure’s move was scrutinised to see which ethnic group would benefit from official largesse. 

Moi was pilloried by Green Belt activist, Wangari Maathai, for attempting to construct a monstrous new party headquarters in Uhuru Park, and though the plans fell through, Maathai was targeted for assassination and was harassed, with countless other activists, by the government.

In 1990, John Robert Ouko, another promising politician on an anti-corruption campaign was shot to death and burnt.  The government called it a suicide.  It remains unclear who was responsible for his gruesome death.

Under pressure from the international political and financial community, Moi announced a return to multi-party politics in 1991, but during the election the following year, used the increasingly fashionable language of tribalism and security to brutalise opponents, sparking widespread violence along ethnic lines.

Moi left office in 2002, as the reformist NARC candidate Mwai Kibaki assumed power.  Kibaki promised a crusade against corruption, but his actions proved largely symbolic when not utterly Janus-faced (unbelievably, two of the World Bank’s representatives in Kenya thought it appropriate to rent property from Kibaki!).  Kikuyu politicians have been accused of making up for lost time during the Moi years by plundering the nation.  After the disputed 2007 election, and the massive violence that followed, Kibaki and Raila Odinga joined forces to support the 2010 constitutional reform.

Mau Mau has played an odd role in all of this.  Written out of Kenya’s history after Uhuru, veterans grew disenchanted and were largely abandoned.  In the rush to attract international investment and aid, the moment of violence that had enabled independence was something unseemly.  It was to fill this void that Kenyan writers and historians, joined by their European and North American counterparts, penned novels and plays, and undertook fieldwork and archival research.

With the return of what some have called the ‘Mt Kenya Mafia’ to State House, and the promise of land reform accompanying constitutional reform, Mau Mau is suddenly back in public vogue in Kenya.  A statue to one of its leaders, Dedan Kimathi, was erected (and vandalised) in central Nairobi in 2007, and promises of land reform all but invoke the armed struggle for Independence, at times seeking to appropriate the movement as a purely Kikuyu one. 

Whereas once any mention of Mau Mau was to be deplored, it now confers legitimacy, amidst many a curious twist of history, imagination and political manoeuvring.  It is in this context that the trial in London is capturing worldwide attention, and it will be fascinating to see what effect the trial and its outcome have on Kenyan politics and society, particularly ahead of the 2012 election and the trial of the Ocampo Six at the Hague.

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