Book on the missing Kimathi Trial papers sheds light on Mau Mau hero

by Evan Mbugua

Over 64 years after his death, the story of Dedan Kimathi, Kenya’s foremost revolutionist leader, is replete with distortions and multiple versions.

Born Kimathi wa Waciuri, the image of the Mau Mau leader has remained the figure of Kenya’s liberation by overcoming decades of deliberate efforts to erase his stature in the Mau Mau war.

If books are a repository for history, Prof Julie MacArthur’s Dedan Kimathi on Trial: Colonial Justice and Popular Memory in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion, deserves reverence as one of the most invaluable accounts of Kimathi’s life.

The book is based on Prof MacArthur’s discovery of the missing Kimathi’s trial files that now give scholars a second look at the Kimathi trial and the events that led to his capture. Prof MacArthur not only helps us trace Kimathi’s life journey from childhood, to an oath administrator, rise to stardom but also takes readers inside the courtroom during Kimathi’s eight day trial.

But one question that has never been answered was whether Kimathi was about to surrender – as he told the court – or was escaping arrest, the version given by the police.

Prof MacArthur also collected contributions from Kenya’s distinguished scholars including former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Prof Micere Githae Mugo to fortify the book – and from other scholars on Kenyan history in a bid to give these papers some scholarly perspective.

Born in Tetu, Nyeri County in 1920, he was raised by her mother Waithuthi and attended Karunaini Primary school where he stood out amongst fellow pupils for his debating prowess and command of spoken word. Though he was a bright student, his school attendance became irregular due to lack of fees.

In his early career life, Kimathi worked with Kenya African Rifles as a cleaner, an experience that changed his perception after experiencing first hand mistreatment like other Africans in the service.  

He, thus, left the job and joined other nationalists fighting for the liberation of Africans. His first landing was at Kenya African Union (KAU), a political outfit championing the independence of Kenya.

Kimathi settled at Ol Kalou in the Rift Valley and secured a job as a swineherd in a settler’s farm. He became KAU’s Secretary General at the Thompson Falls Branch. His life had more than just politics; he was a respectable Mau Mau oath administrator.

But Kimathi did not stay in the Rift Valley for long. He left the area for Nyeri where he continued the Mau Mau agenda. When Senior Chief Waruhiu was murdered, the government declared a nationwide State of Emergency in Kenya.

After the declaration, the government increased security operations. For example, Operation Jock Scott begun days after the state of emergency was declared. In Nairobi, the government mounted a massive operation targeting Kikuyus, Embu and Meru communities for their support for Mau Mau which had been outlawed.

However, the Mau Mau movement did not wither out. Instead, the fighters increased attacks. By this time, Kimathi had managed to stay away from the police networks. But the clock was ticking.

When Chief Nderi Wang’ombe, a powerful colonial figure in Nyeri was killed in 1952, Kimathi’s name prominently featured on the list of suspects that planned and executed the murder. So, in November 1952, Kimathi was arrested.

However, he bribed his way out and headed to Aberdares forest where he met other Mau Mau fighters.

On 12th Feb 1954, a Mau Mau war faction called Kenya Parliament elevated Kimathi to the position of their leader. He possessed great military skills having served in Metropolitan Police and Kenya Police for 22 years and in Royal Navy for 3 years. He had also travelled abroad as part of the British Forces in the Wold War II.

He also had another edge over many other fighters in the forest; formal education. He was a good writer and record keeper. He wrote many letters to the colonial administration.

In one of those letters, Kimathi called for a ceasefire in the war. The East African Standard published Kimathi’s letter quoting him saying: “I have told all leaders of the war in the forest areas to stop fighting again from August 1, 1953. . .now it is only peace we want to maintain.”

The book also captures the political undertones that characterised the Mau Mau leadership.

On March 1955 Kahinga Wachanga, who was Kenya Parliament co Secretary General with Karari Njama, wrote to Kimathi informing and reported to have met government representative for talks. Wachanga was seeking a meeting with Kimathi to discuss how the Mau Mau could surrender to government.

This letter infuriated Kimathi. He read malice in Wachanga-led talks. The two never met and later fell out.

On the same month, General Stanley Mathenge walked out of the Kimathi’s Kenya Parliament to form Kenya Riigi (wooden door). Mathenge’s fall out with Kimathi almost derailed the Mau Mau agenda.

Kimathi also disagreed with other Mau Mau leaders. General Kahiu- Itina for example, left Kimathi citing unfair treatment. General Kahiu- Itina accused Kimathi of pursuing self-interests by riding on the illiteracy of the fighters.

In mid-1955, many Mau Mau fighters surrendered but Kimathi did not. The government placed a bounty of Ksh 10,000 on his head, inviting the community to report Kimathi upon sighting him. Further, his image was printed on posters distributed across the Nyeri region.

On the morning of 21st October 1956, Kimathi was shot by a police officer called Ndiragu.  The officer was guarding a trench separating a village in Nyeri and the forest.

Ndirangu reported that while going home from duty, he saw someone running. The officer did not initially recognise Kimathi. Ndirangu said he ordered the man to stop but to no success. Ndirangu fired and shot the man.

It is Kimathi who identified himself to the officer. When he was arrested, Kimathi is said to have told the police officer: ni wega- meaning thank you. Kimathi was found in possession of a Simi, a pistol and six rounds of ammunitions.

With his capture, the government knew they had the Mau Mau mastermind. He was taken to hospital for treatment. Barely 24 hours after his arrest, the police begun interrogations.

He was tried in a Nyeri Court where he pleaded not guilty to charges of violating the Emergency Regulations Act 8A (1A), 1952. He was charged with illegal possession of firearm and ammunition among other charges.

Before Chief Justice Kenneth Kennedy O’ Connor, Kimathi defended himself saying he had left the forest with an intention to surrender in accordance with an amnesty issued by government to all Mau Mau fighters in the forest.

But there was a problem with his line of defence. There was a directive that required people surrendering from the forest to walk waiving a twig as a sign of peaceful encounter with the authorities.

Kimathi, as the police demonstrated, did not have a twig on his hands. However, he had an explanation to it. He claimed to be epileptic, a condition which could not allow him to walk steadily especially with his hands of normal positioning. 

The court did not take his explanation. It instead questioned his mental condition. Asked why he was carrying a gun, Kimathi pointed to his spat with Mathenge for defence. He said there was a plot to kill him and he needed the gun to protect his life. 

After the trial, Judge O’Connor sentenced Kimathi to death by hanging. Kimathi was hanged to death on 18th Feb 1957 at Kamiti Prison and buried within the compound at unmarked grave.

His death marked a big blow to the Mau Mau but did not kill the spirit. He is the symbol of bravely. You rarely struggle to find Kimathi’s image on T-shirts and matatu graffiti.

 In his ancestral home in Nyeri County, Kimathi’s name looms large. There is a university, schools, and even an administrative ward (Dedan Kimathi) named after him. In the Capital Nairobi, the government renamed Hardage Street to Kimathi Street and erected his statue.

The book is an excellent record of Kimathi’s trial that everyone should read. It uncovers how the imperial government stage-managed Kimathi’s trial way before he was arrested similar to Rivonia Trial in Apartheid South Africa. 

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1 comment

Paul Kombo June 1, 2021 - 8:08 am

I agree that this is a riveting story. Professor MacArthur’s book Dedan Kimathi on Trial is a must read for history students who wish to understand Kenyas liberation struggle.


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