Socialist Worker

Kenya's ugly tale of colonialism

Issue No. 2160

The British arrived in East Africa in the 1890s and took what is now Kenya by savage military conquest. The invaders took the best farming land for themselves. This became known as the White Highlands where no African could own land. Much of the area had previously been home to the Kikuyu people.

Africans were banned from growing the most profitable crops.

Gitu wa Kahengeri, chair of the Mau Mau War Veterans’ Association, said, “African farmers were not permitted to grow crops like tea and coffee – they were the cash crops.”

Many Africans agreed to fight for the British in the Second World War. Gitu explains, “They were in the Far East, mainly in Burma. Some were in Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. But when they came back the government mistreated them. British soldiers were given land in Kenya, but the Kenyans didn’t get anything.”

The colonial government was attempting to entrench white rule. It offered good farming land not only to British ex-soldiers but also to Italian prisoners of war.

Demobbed Africans could find neither land nor work.

Black trade unions led some very effective strikes, notably in 1950, when Nairobi was declared a city. While the whites celebrated, African workers downed tools and went on strike. Strike breakers had their heads shaved and were made to clean public toilets.

From the late 1940s radicals expanded from their base in the unions and Nairobi’s street gangs into the main legal nationalist organisation, the Kenya African Union, which they attempted to radicalise.

They started taking oaths of resistance to colonialism. This was the movement that became known as Mau Mau.

The brutal colonial response won the war, but Britain would not again risk the costs of another insurgency in any other African colonies.

White settlers were forced to accept Kenyan independence in 1963.

Once the settlers needed direct British military support they were in no position to declare an independent racist state, as Rhodesia later would.


But independence did not solve the land issue that sparked the rebellion.

Gitu says, “The land question is still a great problem in Kenya. When we removed the British settlers it was the loyalists, Africans who supported colonialism, that got the land.

“The freedom fighters did not receive what they fought for. The collaborators received everything.

“They continued hating the freedom movement. That is what they have done to this day. The Kenyan government did not give us the land because those in high positions had not belonged to the freedom movement.

“I was an MP from 1969 to 1983. I tried to help people who had fought. I’ve been a small farmer since then. I am 79 now. We need young people to take up the struggle or it will die with us.”

George Morara says there is a lot of interest in the case in Kenya, “Since independence the Kenyan government wanted to try and keep the status quo.

“They tended to use the same instruments of oppression as the colonial power.

“The people in power in Kenya from 1963 to 2000 were very keen to only show one side of what happened and to bury the atrocities because they were beneficiaries of the independence settlement.

“From 2003 there was a lot of optimism that Kenya was setting out on a new trajectory. For once we had a chance to redefine our history. The issue of Mau Mau was a starting point, to anchor Kenyans in something to believe in.”

For more on the Kenya Human Rights Commission go to »

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