Ethiopia and the Mau Mau War

by Macharia Munene

Few topics in Kenyan history are as complex, emotional, and thrilling as the Mau Mau War that ended territorial colonialism in Kenya. Among the complexities is the number of countries that got involved either in siding with British colonialists or in giving assorted support to the Mau Mau fighters. Irrespective of the side they supported in that unique anti-colonial war, they were all affected which explains the continuing interest in unravelling Mau Mau mysteries. Those giving support to the Mau Mau were mostly those who had gained independence from colonialists or regained it from invaders. India gained independence from Britain, Philippines from the United States, and Ethiopia from Italian invaders.

Information about Ethiopian involvement tends to be mysterious because little has been written about it. Yet discussions with Mau Mau veterans, survivors, and scholars point to the Ethiopian link that remains dormant, largely unexplored, and hardly known. In part, this is because academic gate keepers in imperial centres ensure that anti-Mau Mau attitudes prevail. They struggle to deny the Mau Mau its international impact by intellectually containing it to the Mount Kenya zone. As gate keepers, imperial scholars and their local protégés, try to determine the amount of knowledge that Africans should have about themselves and the world. Subsequently, ‘gate keepers’ tend to relegate information about Mau Mau internationalism and the Ethiopian role is one, to invisibility. The reality is that Ethiopia is at the centre of serious international Mau Mau narrative.

There are many angles to the Ethiopian role in the Mau Mau narrative but the best known is the one about Mathenge wa Mirugi ‘going’ to go to Ethiopia which then turned into a point of narrative contention as to what happened. The mystery begins to disappear with research interest turning to the reason Mathenge would want to go to Ethiopia. The answer can be traced to events in the 1930s which brought Jomo Kenyatta, then in England, and Haile Selassie together. When Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the British foreign secretary Samuel Hoare suggested letting ‘El Duce’ to keep the acquisition, Kenyatta had dismissed Hoare as a ‘whore’, and forged a lasting Pan Africanist bond with Selassie.

The Kenyatta-Selassie lasting Pan Africanist bond might explain Selassie accepting Kenyans as body guards when liberating Ethiopia. Gerrishon Kaburu Ndubai, a Mau Mau survivor and researcher on the Ameru in the Mau Mau gives indication on what had happened to produce the Kenyatta, Haile Selassie, and the Ethiopian angle. Ndubai brings out the Kenyan body guards for Selassie in which Kenyan World War 2 veterans helped to liberate Ethiopia from the Italians. Among those body guards, so argues Ndubai, were Mathenge wa Mirugi of Nyeri and M’Ikiara Nyonta alias General Ruku of Meru, two men that helped to plot the Mau Mau War. Mathenge was also well known to Kenyatta, Selassie’s Pan Africanist friend.

Kenyatta was probably aware that his friend, Selassie, was supplying guns to his former bodyguards for anti-colonial activities in Meru. The Ameru also knew of Kenyatta’s oratorical skills and probable links with Selassie. In 1947, therefore, Ameru elders sent Ruku to invite Kenyatta to Meru for talks. Ruku went looking for his friend in Nyeri, Mathenge, who had access to Kenyatta. Since it seemed that Kenyatta and Mathenge already knew each other, probably through Selassie, Mathenge led Ruku to Kenyatta to deliver the message from Meru elders. In accepting the invitation, Kenyatta promised to visit but since he took time the elders worried. By the time Kenyatta showed up in Meru in August 1948, Ruku had been busy organising arms from Selassie through Moyale and Isiolo and keeping them in safe places. Kenyatta advised them to lie low, keep the weapons safe, and leave the anti-colonial talking to him.

Kenyatta, it turns out was in the thick of the Mau Mau War preparation. Besides advising Meru warriors in 1948 to keep their weapons safe and ready, Ndubai asserts, Kenyatta later appointed Mathenge the overall commander of the fighting forces, made Ruku the deputy, General China to look after logistics, and Dedan Kimathi the secretary of the war group. A similar assertion comes from General Kinyua wa Ndugire who reportedly was there in 1951 when Kenyatta showed up at Kiburi House to give them assignments. Ndugire remembers Kenyatta personally appointing Mathenge to be war commander, Kimathi to be secretary, a salary of 15 shillings, and promising land was the mzungu was out of the country. Thus Kenyatta knew what he was talking about when, at Kaloleni in 1952, he turned to Jesse Kariuki and asked whether the people were ready and Kimathi answered loudly that they were. The confidence that those preparing for possible Mau Mau War had was partly because they knew they had moral and probable material support from such places as Ethiopia. Among the advice that Kenyatta gave to his followers was to keep foreign supporters informed of their activities for they would come in handy when the need arose. With their experience in Ethiopia guarding Haile Selassie who reportedly was supplying guns by 1948, war leaders had confidence that they would not be alone. It might explain Mathenge’s planned trip to Ethiopia confident that he would get the assistance from the emperor, Kenyatta’s friend.     

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