Mau Mau: The Legacy of an African Rebellion

The Africa@War series Volume 7 offers and introduction to Mau Mau and will be available in mid-2012.

In 1952 violence broke out in the British colony of Kenya, setting in motion what would be arguably the first of the modern African liberation struggles. The characteristics of the Mau Mau Rebellion were very different from later manifestations of the African liberation movement – the most notable of these probably being the Rhodesian War, but also similar wars in Angola, Mozambique and South West Africa (Namibia). The Mau Mau rebellion was fairly narrowly defined inasmuch as it was largely a Kikuyu affair, and took place in the Kikuyu heartland of what is today the Central Province, and what was then known euphemistically as the White Highlands.

Black Nationalism in Post-War Africa

Nationalist militancy in Africa began more or less after WWII. The leading factors that coincided at this time were, in the first instance, the emergence of the first generation of university educated blacks who were able to embrace western style politics in the modern context, and who could picture a progressive majority ruled state under a pan-African umbrella. This was distinct from many earlier rebellions that had had sought in some way to eject European rule in favor a of return to a utopian past. In the second instance the demobilization of of large numbers of black ex-servicemen who had served in many foreign theaters – south-east Asia being not least of these – where the mood of liberation had been very strong. The independence of India, granted in 1948, was a huge stimulus for a combination of the disenfranchised masses and a strong, educated and articulate political leadership.

The Emergence of Mau Mau

British intelligence at the time, although small, tended to be highly effective, linked as it was to the district and provincial native administration, and in the case of Kenya, certainly was one step ahead of the development of a militant movement in the colony. A widespread system of oathing as a method of mass politicization had been ongoing for some time, and when the first fighters took refuge in the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range it was largely as a consequence of local security force pressure ahead of the development of a mass movement.

The Mau Mau Rebellion did not at any time achieve the status of a civil war, being treated throughout by the imperial authorities as a civil disturbance, and dealt with by the normal process of law, amplified considerably by stringent emergency regulations. British military units were introduced, but they operated purely in support of the civil power, and did so under tight limitations. The official response, therefore, was regarded as a police action.

The Defeat of Mau Mau

The Mau Mau movement itself tended to be disunited in character with large numbers of individually led groups operating independently of one another and without central leadership. There were a handful of substantive leaders – Dedan Kimathi is perhaps the most well known of these – but on the whole the signature weakness of the movement was its inability to combine and act in concert according to a clearly defined political manifesto.

The death blow of the movement was struck in early 1954 in what was known as Operation Anvil. This was in essence a massive cordon and screening exercise, again conducted by the police with military support, in which almost the entire Kikuyu population of Nairobi was rounded up and detained. Intense screening and detention then effectively decapitated the Mau Mau movement by selectively removing and isolating its leadership. This was followed by comprehensive ground coverage and further screening throughout the Kikuyu reserves that bordered Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, more or less isolating the active Mau Mau core in the forests.

From that point it simply became a matter of  hunting down and capturing or killing a dwindling hard core element. It was from this that pseudo operations unit, or Special Forces, was born, from which such iconic characters as Ian Henderson emerged.

The Mau Mau Rebellion, or the Kenya Emergency, ended in 1960, some time after the capture of Dedan Kimathi and the effective end of operations. Kenya became independent in 1962 after which the entire episode slipped away into history. The African liberation struggle would change in character as the Cold War took effect, with more orthodox counter insurgency wars bringing liberation to Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola. Mau Mau, however, will be remembered as one of the first reversions to armed struggle in the evolution of indigenous black politics in Africa.