Revisiting General Kago: The Mau Mau General burnt alive by colonialists

by Evan Mbugua

In the history of the Mau Mau war, General Kago’s audacious persona is possibly one of the least told stories of Kenya’s war of independence.  And that he was burnt alive adds to the mystery.

Born Chege wa Kariuki in Rwathia, Kangema in 1920, General Kago died under a pyre of burning firewood on 31 March 1954 after he was shot and captured by the colonial government. Upon his capture, the government issued an order to the police to burn him alive. But he did not fear death. General Kago is said to have walked himself to the venue of his death. His bravery, even as death beckoned, characterised his life since childhood.

Kago’s father was a staunch member of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), an organisation formed in 1924 to present the grievances of the community to the colonial government.

As a young boy, General Kago enrolled at St. Peter’s Clavers Primary School in Nairobi but was expelled for “being rebellious” and disrespectful to the school authority.

He later started working in Nairobi, before the British Government forcibly enrolled him as a soldier in 1939 after World War II broke out. General Kago was sent to fight in Europe and the Middle East as a member of the British troops.

When the war ended, General Kago came back and became a newspaper vendor in Nairobi before moving to the Rift Valley.  By the time the government declared a state of Emergency on 20th October 1952, General Kago was living in the Rift Valley. He was already a member of the Mburu Ngembo Army, a Mau Mau affiliated militant group that was mainly operating in Rift Valley.

Due to his earlier military experience, General Kago demonstrated a great understanding of war operations and became a resourceful member of the group.

More than any other member of the militant group, he understood the tactics the British used to weaken the liberation movement. He abhorred enemies within the Mau Mau and always displayed little mercy for Africans collaborating with the British government.  His ideological leaning was in synch with the Mau Mau mission.

Like all other Mau Mau leaders, General Kago took the oath of allegiance to the movement. The Mau Mau resistance to the British rule grew fervently and played in the open at this time. Members of Mburu Ngembo Army staged several attacks on British settlers – sparking fear.

But a year after joining the underground war, General Kago and the group faced a major disruption. The government declared the State of Emergency and his stay in the Rift Valley was cut short. He was among thousands of Kikuyus repatriated to their ancestral homes in an attempt by government to put an end to vicious Mau Mau attacks on white settlers in the Rift Valley.

General Kago was taken to his native land in Murang’a. His resolve in fighting for independence never diminished. In any case, his forceful repatriation, and that of other Kikuyus, fuelled his desire for independence. He had first-hand experience in the degradation of Kikuyus to second-rate humans on their own land.

It is therefore not surprising that General Kago formed a battalion in Murang’a to counter the British establishment. His presence in Murang’a became the morale booster needed to form a liberation movement in the region.

His organisation and leadership skills endeared him to many disgruntled people in the region. It did not take long before his battalion grew from a scratch of a handful soldiers to about 600 fighters.

Being its founder and leader, the battalion members did not look far for their leader. He was installed as a General and headed a troop called the Kenya Levellation Army.

General Kago became a phenomenal figure in the struggle for independence for his guerrilla and open war tactics. His troops executed massive attacks on government facilities in the region. He was nicknamed General Makanyaga (the crusher) for the merciless style in which he faced the enemies.

For instance, in January 1954, General Kago led a group of Mau Mau fighters that attacked Githambo Police post where they stole guns. Later that month, he executed another attack at Kinyona Homeguard Post and kidnapped over 30 loyalists. He ordered for their killing.

During this attack, General Kago killed the son of Chief Njiiri wa Karanja, one of the most towering colonial figures in Kenya. In retaliation the chief killed over 20 Kikuyus he believed to be part of Mau Mau at Kinyona in what is now called “Kinyona Massacre”.

The following month, General Kago’s attacks went a notch higher. He killed Rwathia area chief after his men attacked a police post and burnt it. General Kago went ahead to lower the colonial  Union Jack and hoisted the Kenya Land and Freedom Army flag at the police post.

Buoyed by his prowess in conducting raids, General Kago aimed for more. In February 1954, his troop descended on a Power Station and disconnected electricity supply to Muranga town. They also went to Mihuti and killed area District Officer James Candler. 

After killing the D.O, General Kago received a congratulatory note form Dedan Kimathi for doing a good job.

As General Kago’s heroic and war leadership stature grew among Africans, he attracted equal antipathy from government operatives. Within the government, he soared from a dull underground enemy to a national villain.  

As such the government leaders in Murang’a, then known as Fort Hall District, had sleepless nights. They had multiple fears to contain. One concern was that General Kago’s continued attacks would trigger their sacking. But that was a softer concern compared with palpable fear of death.

In November 1953, the Murang’a District Officer sent communication to the Nyeri provincial headquarters and said:  “We have a problem in our hands. General Kago is winning the war in Murang’a and we must stop him”.

The government therefore mounted a serious search for General Kago. Brigadier Lord Thurlow, who was the commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade with headquarter at Sagana, became the head of operations as the government commenced security operations to arrest General Kago. Brigadier Thurlow unsuccessfully tried to convince General Kago to surrender.

When locals heard of the government scheme to eliminate General Kago, he became a mythical character.

The government placed a bounty of Sh 1,000 for anyone who gave information that would lead to the arrest of General Kago. To demonstrate its seriousness in arresting him the government distributed posters and leaflets bearing General Kago’s image to every part of the Murang’a.

But on 31 March 1954, General Kago was shot and captured. On hearing the news, Lord Thurlow ordered the police to burn the Mau Mau hero alive.

After the arrest the British troops chained his hands and feet and built a 10 metre pyre of wood over his head. They then drenched the wood with kerosene and cremated him. From a distance, they fired bullets to light the fire.

Soon after, a low flying airplane went round Murang’a announcing the death of General Kago. It was an attempt to instill fear among locals. But that failed and the Mau Mau war continued.  

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6 comments

Momo May 24, 2021 - 8:49 pm

Excellent narrative !

Reply
Ng'ang'a wa rigii June 1, 2021 - 1:25 am

My grandfather used to narrate this stories for me he was in kiambu as white rhino wing

Reply
David Kibe June 3, 2021 - 1:51 pm

They only killed the body,, the spirit lives on

Reply
Cege Gacuhi June 6, 2021 - 2:08 am

You are carrying out a patriotic duty Iam very proud of you

Reply
Kim Jims June 7, 2021 - 8:13 pm

Wonderful books.. rekindles the memories of our fallen heroines and heroes. Very interesting books. I can’t wait to read the next!

Reply
O.B. Kariuki July 12, 2021 - 5:15 pm

May God rest the war heroes in eternal peace and let the colonialists have eternal tribulations.

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