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The Mau Mau Insurgency in Kenya

During the late 1940s the term Mau Mau, the origin and meaning of which remains unclear, became associated in the minds of the European population with oath-taking and militancy aimed specifically at them. By 1950 security forces were certain that a secret organization bearing the name Mau Mau existed. Members, it was believed, were bound together by an oath, and their goal was the expulsion of Europeans from the country. Convincing evidence for the allegation was never produced, however, and Carl G. Rosberg and John Nottingham in their comprehensive analysis, The Myth of "Mau Mau," have suggested that the organization in question was probably the outlawed KCA. In August 1950 the so-called Mau Mau association was officially banned.

The Mau Mau was a secret insurgent group in Kenya that was mainly made of of people from the Kikuyu ethnic group and sworn to expel Kenya's white settlers. There was a problem with land shortages as a considerable amount of Kikuyu land had been taken up by white settlement. The Kenya African Union (KAU) under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta petitioned Britain with Kenya's greavences, but Britain did little to appease them. This led many Kenyans to believe that any progress could not be achieved through peaceful means.

Similar to their posture in the Malayan Emergency, the British had been caught off guard and failed to recognize the scale of the threat Mau Mau posed. During 1951 civil disobedience occurred, and cases of arson and cattle maiming were reported late that year and in early 1952. By then it was obvious to the British Government that there was great unrest among the Kikuyu population in Kenya. Worried settlers pressed for a state of emergency to be called, but the administration refused, looking on Mau Mau as a fanatical religious cult rather than a subversive political movement. A series of events, including the assassination of British supporter Senior Chief Waruhiu, prompted the British government to declare a state of emergency on 20 October 1952.

On the very same day the British arrested Kenyatta and five other African nationalists and KAU leaders, and were brought to trial in November 1952. The prosecution attempted to prove a connection between the Mau Mau and the KAU, and the six defendants were charged with belonging to and directing the operations of a Mau Mau society that was dangerous to good government. The trial ended in April 1953 with a verdict of guilty, and maximum sentences of seven years' imprisonment at hard labor were meted out, although one defendant was subsequently acquitted on appeal.

Political considerations weighed heavily in the court's verdict. The presiding judge's finding, which linked Mau Mau and the KAU, may have been influenced by the Lari Massacre, which occurred in March 1953 during the course of the trial. The massacre in fact underlined the point that Africans were the principal victims of the terror. It was carried out by insurgents against villagers described as loyal to their chiefs and the government. Almost 100 people were hacked to death, many animals were killed, and huts were burned in the attack.

Throughout the following eight years several programs were implemented by the British to return the colony to a state of normalcy, including widespread detention, compulsory registration of Kikuyu, livestock seizure, taxes for the additional cost of the insurgency, re-education measures, the use of reformed Mau Mau and local troops to combat the insurgency.

Most fighting during the Mau Mau insurgency took place in the Central Province and included attacks on police stations, government offices, and white settler farms. While the British were fighting the insurgents in the mountain forests, they also took incredibly strict measures against civilians, including putting them in special camps. British troops also harassed the general population, and night raids, and collecting, harassing, and screening residents of slums became common.

Action not directly of a combat nature also had great impact on the Kikuyu. The dispersed settlement pattern characteristic of the Kikuyu area was completely altered through the concentration of almost 1 million rural people into specially built fortified villages, as part of an operation that was generally completed by 1955. Dwellings formerly occupied by these people were destroyed. The independent Kikuyu school system was closed, and some school buildings were also pulled down. In Nairobi continued unrest and acts of terrorism led the government to institute Operation Anvil in 1954, in which almost one-half of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru in the city's population were moved to rural villages. A total of about 90,000 Africans were sent to detention camps during the emergency.

An important outcome of the emergency was a change in official attitudes toward African land tenure and production of commercial crops. Although the colonial administration's Department of Agriculture had advocated changes in African land tenure and consolidation of highly fragmented landholdings since the early 1930s, the influence of settlers who feared African competition in cash crops and the loss of needed cheap labor had prevented any action from being taken. Nonetheless, with government concurrence, limited consolidation through exchange of holdings by some chiefs occurred after 1952, when the recently elected Conservative government in Britain undertook a reassessment of the Kenyan situation and determined to back the colonial administration in its plans for land and agrarian reform.

The proposed reforms were contained in the Swynnerton Plan, which was completed in 1954 at the height of the Mau Mau emergency by R.J.M. Swynnerton, director of the Department of Agriculture, and provided the guidelines for African agricultural development during the remainder of the decade. Official endorsement of land consolidation was given in 1955, at which time financial assistance was also sought from the British government to speed up the process. Aided by the concentration of the Kikuyu rural population in controlled villages, most of the Kikuyu areas had been consolidated, and a large number of freehold titles had been granted by 1959, when reservation of land for the exclusive use of Europeans was legally ended.

Complaints arose over inequities resulting from efforts to meet tight schedules. There was evidence also that not all Kikuyu approved of the scheme, but little opposition was voiced openly because many people apparently believed that in the emergency situation their diagreement would be wrongly construed. An effort was made to protect the interests of detainees, but some lost their land nonetheless. The Swynnerton Plan also called for a major emphasis on expanding cash crops, a move that would be feasible because of the farmers' new ability to secure financing based on their land titles.

A secondary benefit was expected to be the employment of landless people by African landholders. More important from the European viewpoint, however, was the anticipated growth of a landed, relatively well-off African middle class that would have interests similar to those of European land-holders and a stake in maintaining the political status quo. New political leadership was expected to emerge from this group to replace that of the presumably discredited KAU.

Substantial development of commercial farming followed land reform. Although spread among a number of crops, the principal advance was in coffee, cultivation of which in the reserves had received full authorization in 1951. The acreage planted to coffee by Africans increased markedly, and the value of production rose from the equivalent of less than US$100,000 in 1954 to over US$6 million in 1960. Pyrethrum production also achieved major gains during this period.

An estimated 15,000 insurgents, identified as Mau Mau adherents, withdrew to the heavily forested areas of the central Kenya Highlands. They were organized along military lines, but communications were difficult, and operations were not well coordinated. Although the emergency continued until January 1960, Mau Mau activity had been virtually stamped out by 1956. More than 11,500 Africans, almost all of them Kikuyu, were reported killed in clashes with security forces. Some 1,800 other African civilians died in terrorist actions, and over 500 Africans serving with the government forces also were killed.

Sixty-three Europeans in security units were killed, as were 32 settlers, the latter relatively small total seeming to belie the settlers' belief that they were the main target of the Mau Mau. Forty-nine Indians, including civilians and members of the security forces, died as a result of the conflict.

The situation ended when the state of emergency was ended in 1960 and Kenyatta was released. Kenyatta later became prime minister in 1963 and president in 1964 when Kenya became a republic.

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Page last modified: 03-05-2015 19:51:18 ZULU