David Anderson’s History of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire.


By Washington Osiro

This is the second article in a series of reviews excerpted from selected books about Kenya’s pre-independence history.

The series was prompted by a reading of Item #32 in the Major Recommendation section of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) draft. Recommendation #32(c) seeks to “commission an Official History of Kenya whose production will be led by an Office of the Historian resident in the National Archives. This history should go back 1000 years…..

The article is excerpted from David Anderson’s masterpiece Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. In writing the piece, I used as a take-off point, a comment someone made about Kenya’s transition towards independence from its near-decade-long state of emergency when this article was first released several weeks ago:

“…..when we say that things were stage-managed to favour a few subversive or pro-colonial blue-eyed Kenyans, we are branded unpatriotic……

Along with sections related to the loyalists, I found Chapter 8 – “Spoils of War: Decolonizing Kenya, Memorializing the Mau Mau” – most helpful in explaining the loyalist phenomenon and its immediate and long-term impact.

In the book’s index, Anderson instructs readers to “see also Kikuyu Association” alongside the term “Loyal Kikuyu Patriots.” A reading of the recommended pages illustrates how these groups of Africans who started off seeking to “lobby (the colonial) government over questions affecting the Kikuyu people (specifically)…..return of land taken by European settlers” became enablers and sidekicks to the occupying and brutal British forces. The Oxford University lecturer writes that “Koinange became the chairman of…..the Kikuyu Association….” which had among its membership, high-ranking representatives from the Presbyterian and Methodist missions. The “four great pillars” of the KA (Kikuyu Association) were all African chiefs: Koinange, Waruhiu, Josiah Njonjo, and Philip James Karanja.

The organization also received “the help of prominent European missionaries…..accepted the leadership of the mission…..and bowed to the authority of (the colonial) government…..” This was in sharp contrast to the East African Association (EAA), a group led by Harry Thuku. EAA reportedly “rejected colonial rule and overtly questioned the legitimacy of European domination.” The defiance led to Thuku’s subsequent arrest and deportation to Kisimayu. The more docile faith-based KA and its ability to convince its European overlords (and London) to silence the local competition and more independent less malleable and popular EAA heralded the advent of the invisible foreign muscle and diabolical puppeteers behind African loyalists-cum-African “leaders.”

Anderson presciently writes that the colonial government’s violent and indiscriminate response to the protests staged by Thuku’s supporters in reaction to his arrest was “a scene that would anticipate events thirty years later…..(as) Kenyans witnessed its first (but) not last political protest.”

It is also a chain of events that set the stage for Chapter 8 – “Spoils of War.” The historian offers that in “early 1957, the forest armies had been broken…..(and) the loyalists ruled Kikuyuland with a rod iron….” In effect, the Mau Mau had lost their war against the British. Around the same time as the decade neared its end, Britain’s role in the world was also changing and the sun was setting on its empire. He adds that Britain found “wars to be too expensive and empire wars the costliest of all.” The Secretary of State for the Colonies Ian MacLeod was charged with formulating an exit strategy out of Kenya for PM Harold Macmillan’s conservative government. To say that the ramifications of the strategy MacLeod set in motion to extricate Britain from her colony are still being felt to this day would be an understatement.

Kenya is still paying the price for Britain’s failure to address, let alone ameliorate the very issues that were central to the violence of the 1950s – land and land ownership. MacLeod’s (exit) strategy was fraught with unintended consequences and loaded with a series of wicked choices despite London’s efforts to “wipe the (Kenyan) slate clean and overcome the bitterness and resentment” its occupation and the subsequent treatment of millions of Kenyans engendered. That the colonialists (with assistance from their African loyalists) sought to stymie the possibility of being held accountable via “further legal cases being mounted to seek redress for past wrongs committed during their occupation” only exacerbated the challenges the former colony was to eventually face after independence. Today, and consistent with Britain’s efforts to escape being held accountability, impunity reigns supreme in her former colony as does the run-of-the-mill abuse of power, related cover-ups of wrong-doing, and grand corruption.

There is a richness and familiarity in Anderson’s assertion that “it was London calling the shots” as Kenya inched towards independence; that Nairobi had been sidelined or co-opted into toeing the party (London’s) line regarding its future!

It also makes all the sense in the world – decades later.

Summarizing MacLeod’s exit strategy, Histories of the Hanged writes that London “took all the crucial decisions on Kenya’s decolonization….(that included) majority African rule, but no place at the table for rebels, or anyone else whose views were too radical…..” The strategy also included protections for Asians and whites with an undefined sunset clause.

Some of the white farmers who opted to leave the colony sold their land under the colonial government’s Million Acre Scheme, and unsurprisingly, only “wealthier Africans…..invariably loyalists” could afford the asking price or as Kenyans have repeatedly been told, the land transactions were between “Willing Seller/Willing Buyer.” It is not unreasonable to characterize Anderson’s insights regarding “efforts to give poorer Kikuyus land, especially in the Kinangop area” at best, as an afterthought. The efforts were also demonstrably unsuccessful. It is also this failure to give the landless Kikuyu and Kenyans a piece of the elusive “Matunda ya Uhuru,” i.e., land, that was behind Ian MacLeod’s apprehensions that “landless radicals might simply seize what they wanted from whites.” However, the land seizures did not occur as feared. Instead, it was the “wealthier Africans” who already owned tracts of land thanks to their loyalty to the departing occupier who added to their acreage. Left landless or squatters in their newly “independent” country were millions of Africans including those whose properties had been taken by the Home Guards, confiscated in abusive acts of “collective punishment,” or who lost limbs or loved ones during the country’s fight for independence. Consequently, “new movements of landless Kikuyu peasants, the Kiama Kia Muingi and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army” came to life around that time though their impact was marginal.

Bildad Kaggia who David Anderson refers to as a “Mau Mau militant” lost his land as the very loyalists he and the Mau Mau fought against assumed control and domination of “everything” in the country. The historian adds that thousands of detainees such as Joram Wamweya and Karigo Muchai along with millions of their fellow citizens were “freed into high unemployment, poverty, misery…..and constant reminders that they now lived in the shadow of their loyalist enemies.” Quoting from Ogot and Ochieng’s Decolonization and Independence in Kenya: 1940-93, Anderson writes that post-Emergency regulations in the run-up to independence appeared aimed at creating an independent Kenya with “a collaborative African leadership” that would “undermine” and shut out the former freedom fighters. London accomplished this via the three Africans elected to the Legislative Council – Bernard Mate, Gikonyo Kiano, and Jeremiah Nyagah – whose focus was solely on the interests of the loyalists.  Conversely, the “rebels,” i.e., the Mau Mau fighter, were locked out of the country’s emerging socio-political (and economic) structure.

All told, the die had been cast regarding the structure, composition, and nature of the first “independent” government of Kenya. It was a Kenyan government molded by Ian MacLeod; a white man charged with formulating the exit of an over-stretched and demonstrably atrophied British empire out of Kenya. MacLeod’s strategy effectively replaced the departing white oligarchs and landowners with a handful of handpicked (and yes, they were handpicked) African oligarchs and landowners. This latter group was set up to continue the bidding of the “exiting” colonial master via its invisible orchestration and manipulation.

In short, leading up to Kenya’s independence, London continued to call the shots and Nairobi was sidelined – in the colony’s post-independence trajectory.

Six decades later, I would join most Nairobians in arguing that not much has changed since their city and country claimed their supposed “independence” from London.