Mau Mau Ever-Present Past

By Wa Ngugi, Mukoma | New African, August-September 2009 | Go to article overview

Mau Mau Ever-Present Past


Wa Ngugi, Mukoma, New African


To understand the implications of the Mau Mau lawsuit against the British government, we have to look at Africa's historical relationship to the West and separate the image from the reality. The European "Enlightenment" of the 1600s sought to civilise Africans, introduce reason and logic to them, and equip them with the key to heaven through Christianity. However, the reality underneath this image was one of torture, murder, and slavery. Mukoma Wa Ngugi reports.

AFTER DELAYS CAUSED BY THE OUTBREAK OF VIOLENCE in Kenya following the December 2007 elections, survivors of the Mau Mau war for independence have finally filed a lawsuit against Her Majesty's Government (HMG) for "personal injuries sustained while in detention camps of the Kenya Colonial Government" which operated under the direct authority of HMG during the State of Emergency (1952-60). That the filing of the suit was punctuated by electoral violence, fed by gross inequalities amongst Kenyans, and ethnic tensions that can be traced to British colonialism and today fanned by a greedy national elite--in short, violence arising from the unfulfilled and betrayed aspirations of the Mau Mau--underlines its importance. If the case accomplishes nothing else, let it be to allow Kenyans and the British to boldly stare at and answer to this past that is still very much acting on the present.

To understand all the implications of the Mau Mau lawsuit, we have to look at Africa's historical relationship to the West and separate the image from the reality. The European "Enlightenment" of the 1600s sought to civilise Africans, introduce reason and logic to them, and equip them with the key to heaven through Christianity. The reality underneath this image, however, was one of torture, murder, and slavery. Later, colonialism used the image of a gentle stewardship guiding Africans along until they were "civilised". The reality was landlessness, torture and dehumanisation, internment of whole populations, outright murder, and mass killings.

For the Westerners and Africans alike who have sought comfort in the images of a benign colonising mission, the reality is well documented. Adam Hochschild, writing in King Leopold's Ghost, estimates that 5 to 10 million Africans in Congo died as a direct result of Belgian colonisation in the Congo in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And the chopping off of hands, quite literally, was a form of public control.

In Namibia, 65,000 Herero (80% of the total Herero population) were systematically eliminated by the Germans between 1904 and 1907. In Algeria, during the War of Independence (1954 to 1962), the French routinely tortured and "disappeared" FLN freedom fighters. These random examples illustrate an alarmingly simple principle: One nation cannot occupy another and seek to control its resources without detaining, torturing, assassinating, and terrorising the occupied. Take Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine today, and you will see the same principle in operation. In Kenya, British colonialism followed this same principle. Caroline Elkins' Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag and David Anderson's Histories Of The Hanged: The Dirty War In Kenya document the tortures, hangings rushed through kangaroo courts, detention camps, internments, and assassinations, not to mention psychological warfare through fear and intimidation, that came with colonialism.

Independence, however, did not come with justice for Kenyans--certainly not for the Mau Mau veterans. President Jomo Kenyatta, even before being sworn in as president in 1963, had denounced the Mau Mau as terrorists. Contrary to British propaganda, Kenyatta was never a member of the Mau Mau.

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In a 2007 interview, Muthoni Wanyeki, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), said that: "On coming to power, [Kenyatta] proceeded, through the land ownership policies [and practices] of his government [and himself], to betray everything that the Mau Mau had stood for and to entrench the landholding patterns established under the colony. …

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