The crackdown: Attempts to build a new Kikuyu society provoke a civil war

In a previous post we saw how increasing shortages of land were making life harder for Africans who had no land rights. The development of agriculture, both in the White Highlands and in the reserves, was working to the detriment of Kikuyus who had little or no land of their own. KenyaMapSource: University of Texas Libraries,

In the White Highlands, squatters, whose place in the modern economy was becoming increasingly insecure, were suffering a steady decline in their standard of living. In the reserves, economic development and overpopulation were undermining the African tradition of ready access to land and causing the growth of a landless class.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the majority of squatters resident outside of the reserves were Kikuyus and their number was growing. Moreover, large numbers of Kikuyus who were not squatters were resident outside the Kikuyu reserve, living in towns or in other “tribal” reserves. By 1948, Kikuyus living outside the reserve numbered 290,000 or almost 30 per cent of their people.

As the economic pressure on squatters intensified, they became more discontented and their discontent escalated by stages into open revolt. In 1946 and 1947 there were demonstrations. In 1948, the name Mau Mau, soon to be a grim byword of Kenya politics, received its first official mention when a Nakuru district administrator reported the existence of “a politico-religious sect” called the “Maumau association” and “emanating from the Kikuyu reserve”, with branches in Naivasha and Ol’ Kalou. In the next two years, Mau Mau steadily gained support among resident labourers.

The so-called Mau Mau referred to themselves as the Land Freedom Army. Their organization was loosely knit and it lacked a well-articulated program, but its name summed up the most pressing concern: opposition to colonial rule and bitterness about the landlessness that was becoming the fate of growing numbers of Africans. They organized themselves and sought popular support by means of oathing ceremonies. The oaths contained appeals to Kikuyu traditions and exhortations to unity, discipline and self-sacrifice in the name of national liberation.

On 20 October 1952 Kenya’s governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, declared a state of emergency in response to a series of events. including the assassination of a Kikuyu senior chief. There followed a trial, ending in the imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta* and a group of nationalist leaders. The following March there was a successful raid by dissident Africans on a weapons cache at the Naivasha Police Station, while at Lari another group massacred a loyalist chief, his family, and other residents, leaving 97 people dead. The anti-government forces found refuge in the forests of the Aberdares Mountains and Mt. Kenya.

Among the first steps the government took in trying to put an end to the dissidence was one which was to have tragic consequences for many landless people. Noting that the Land Freedom Army consisted mainly of Kikuyus, who — together with the neighbouring and related Meru and Embu peoples — numbered about 30 per cent of the African population, the government decided to isolate them from other Africans in order to keep the dissidence from spreading.

Accordingly, large numbers of Kikuyus resident outside the reserve — including squatters and other landless people — were “repatriated”, i.e. sent back to the reserves. Once there, they were forbidden to leave without a pass. In 1953, regulations were proclaimed authorizing the repatriation of Kikuyus, as well as Embus and Merus.

The eviction of squatters from the European areas got underway in that year, with the result that

in the early months of the Emergency the Kikuyu reserves, already bursting at their seams, had to receive a further influx of refugees, some of whom were second and third generation inhabitants of the Rift Valley.** Indeed, some families had had only a tenuous contact with the reserves for 30 or 40 years.

So they came, by the tens of thousands, on foot, by  bus, by truck and by train, many leaving behind all they had — goats, maize, beds and houses — to be sold by the government, who would forward the proceeds to their “district of origin”. They arrived with their pots and pans, the clothes they stood up in, and small packs of beans and maize they had salvaged.

Some of the children got lost on the way. Many of the young men walked straight from the point of arrival to the sanctuary of the forest. Those who remained in the reserves found, after the warmth of the initial greetings from long-forgotten relatives, that the burden of existence grew rapidly beyond all human strength. By the end of 1953, the government estimated their numbers at 100,000, of whom perhaps a third required governmental aid for subsistence. (Rosberg and Nottingham, pp 285-86)

The wave of evictions spread to Nairobi in 1954. In “Operation Anvil”, 25,000 troops and police surrounded the city and systematically searched it. All Kikuyus, Merus, and Embus were held. Twenty-seven thousand were detained and another 20,000 were expelled from the city. Kikuyus resident in other reserves and in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) and Uganda were repatriated as well.

With the Kikuyu reserve sealed off from the rest of the Kenya population, the next step in the government’s strategy was to isolate the rebels from their fellow Kikuyus. This they did with what have since become familiar tactics of anti-guerilla warfare. Inhabitants of the Kikuyu districts were forced to build villages for themselves that were fortified against the dissidents.

Where the inhabitants did not co-operate readily with the government, their village was placed under a 23-hour curfew, and they were allowed out only one hour each day, under armed guard, to get food. A deep ditch was dug for more than 100 miles along the forest perimeter to keep the rebels away from the rest of the population. Cut off from their sources of supply, they could then be hunted down more readily in the forest.

Captured rebels, and anyone else suspected of Mau Mau activities, were sent to detention camps, where they were pressured to give up their ideas of dissidence. By the end of 1954, 77,000 people, most of them Kikuyus, were in detention, some of them in punishment camps in remote areas like Hola on the Tana River and Manyani in an arid area to the southeast.

The government was determined, not only to eradicate Mau Mau, but to build a new Kikuyu society, bringing the majority who were passive supporters of the Land Freedom Army firmly under the influence of the minority who remained fiercely loyal to the colonial regime. These opponents of the rebels came to be collectively referred to as “loyalists”. Included in their ranks were the Kikuyu Hone Guard, which was organized for military resistance to the Land Freedom Army, as well as the Tribal Police, some government servants and mission adherents.

They were not only a distinct minority, but also a relatively prosperous one. One colonial official estimated that they constituted about 10 per cent of the population and there is a variety of evidence to indicate that they were, for the most part, relatively well-off landowners. The government intended that in future, the loyalists would be

the hard core of the new society, of the “reconstruction of the Kikuyu people.” They would be the new elite cadre round which the district officers could shape the future of the tribe. Their advice would decide whether a man should be detained and when he should be allowed to return from detention. (Rosberg and Nottingham, pp. 295-96; see also Sorrenson, 105-09)

While landless people from the Rift Valley were being evicted to the reserves or sent into detention, therefore, landed loyalists were being given new power and greater prestige. What had begun as a revolt against colonial rule and European occupation of African land was taking on the aspect of a Kikuyu civil war, a class conflict pitting Kikuyus with land against the swelling ranks of the landless.

The conflict inflicted heavy punishment on the poor. It helped to swell the numbers of landless people and sometimes to enrich others at their expense. But more important, the Emergency inflicted a heavy toll of personal suffering, especially upon those who had been repatriated from their place of residence outside the reserve.

Murders over land were a common occurrence, as were all sorts of physical deprivation and abuse. At the same time, government prosecution of the war led to ever more draconian measures. Capital punishment was introduced for a wide variety of offences and by the end of 1954, the rate of hangings had reached 50 per month. People who were detained faced beatings, short rations and hard labour.

The Emergency was a brutal and bloody conflict, a rebellion turned civil war, which, by the end of 1956, had claimed 13,500 African lives — compared with 95 European and 29 Asian lives. The root of the conflict was the loss of African land to Europeans who invaded the land we now call Kenya, and helped themselves to choice parcels of  land for farming and cattle-keeping, and the story was far from over, as we will see in coming posts.

*The father of Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.

**The term “Rift Valley” is a bit ambiguous. In the first instance it’s a geographical term. But in common parlance as well as in various historical writings it’s not unusual to find it used more or less synonymously with “White Highlands”. This use is especially frequent vis à vis squatters and in contrast to the reserves. Thus in the term “Rift Valley squatter” or in such a phrase as “leaving the reserves to go to the Rift”, it is not the geographical boundaries but rather those of the White Highlands that are being referred to.



Most of the text of this post comes from Christopher Leo, Land and class in Kenya. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, and Harare, Zimbabwe: Nehanda Publishers, 1989. 244 pages. Other sources

Carl G. Rosberg and John Nottingham, The myth of “Mau Mau”: Nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger, 1966.

M.P.K. Sorrenson, Land reform in the Kikuyu country. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1967.

2 responses to “The crackdown: Attempts to build a new Kikuyu society provoke a civil war

  1. Suggest you read Elspeth Huxley’s books, particularly Nellie, which deals with the topics you refer to in a subjective and non-political way, far more representative than the material you represent. How do I know? I was there, not a settler, but one whose family had worked toward ‘Africa for the African’ for generations. When people compare numbers of those killed during Mau Mau, do they ever ask who was killed and by whom? What proportion of Africans as against Europeans, often settlers who were good, caring employers? You talk of oaths – slightly more than loyalty, they were increasingly vicious, often given under duress to people who believed themselves bound by the witchcraft and prepared to slaughter each other on the strength of them. I was living in the thick of it – Kikuyu, Nairobi, Nyeri, Nanyuki, Meru, Embu – and have an informed and experiential tale to tell. Interested?

  2. I wouldn’t look to Elspeth Huxley, an apologist for colonial rule, for the most factual account of the Mau Mau war. It was a terrible war, that claimed 13,500 African lives, as well as those of 95 Europeans and 29 Asians (which was the term used to describe people whose ancestors came from the Indian sub-continent). As is always the case in such conflicts, no one really won, and all participants paid a terrible price. Of course I’d be interested in your story, but I reserve the right to decide what gets posted in my blog.

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