How British struggled to contain Mau Mau

by Evan Mbugua

When Governor Sir Evelyn Barring declared the State of Emergency in Kenya on 20 October 1952, the British thought they had finally delivered the final blow to the Mau Mau movement. But as it turned out, with devastating damage to the image of the British, the State of Emergency handed to all Mt Kenya communities pragmatic justifications to join the war.

By default, the emergency accelerated the recruitment thus swelling the Mau Mau ranks.

Although it is rarely acknowledged, the lives of the British nationals living in Kenya at the time were fraught with apprehension and raw desperation.

But defeating Mau Mau was not going to be an easy task – as the British would soon realise. The forest wars were tricky.

Sir Barring was hardly two months in his new job when the government enacted emergency legislation providing for restrictions on freedom of association, speech, meeting, writing and movement of people. He had inherited a colony that was on the verge of explosion and the emergency legislation did not quieten, or lower, the political temperatures.

Among other things, the emergency legislations required all printing presses to be licensed and it prescribed mandatory registration for all societies with more than ten people. The laws also gave provincial administrators the powers to deport or restrict persons deemed to ascribe to banned organisations including the Mau Mau. A curfew was also imposed across all areas adjacent to European communities in the scheduled areas. It is these laws that established the State of Emergency in 1952.

But that never broke the resilience of the fighters. Speaking in the House of Lords on 29 October 1952, barely a week after declaration of emergency in Kenya, Lord Ogmore noted thousands of young men had moved off to the Aberdare Ranges, driving cattle and goats before them as a result of the new rules.  

“Every day there are fresh outbursts somewhere or other of these frightful happenings,” the legislator commented on the Mau Mau.

This implied that the new emergency rules were unpopular. The forest battalions became fortified as more people left the villages and sought refuge in the forests.

On realising that it had not crushed Mau Mau, as previously thought, the British government decided to enlist the services of the military. In 1953, the First Battalion of Royal Fusiliers arrived in Kenya with only one assignment; crushing the Mau Mau. Kikuyus nicknamed them Tuminyugi (straps)in reference to black leashes embedded on their caps. 

Though these military men killed many Mau Mau adherents, they would soon realise, that this assignment was going to be treacherous and that defeating Mau Mau was a full-blown war.

The army was also disadvantaged since they could not directly identify Mau Mau followers by look. Some loyalists, home guards and innocent civilians, died as a result.

The military came at a time when the Mau Mau had acquired guns and police and home guard uniforms. It was a moment of epic confusion in government strategies to counter the Mau Mau. Official records contain scanty information on the number of military personnel killed but accounts from the veterans suggest a high number. The government felt the pinch.

After a sharp rise in deaths the military, through the British Colonial Office in London, sent a delegation to Governor George Erskine (Commander in Chief of all security forces). The delegation decried the high number of military men killed. Their request was forthright; “let the military kill anyone suspected to be a member of Mau Mau”.

The request bordered on an extremist approach in war containment measures. The Governor declined the requests and, instead, settled on withdrawing the military from Kenya. He also had issues with his African loyalists, especially the home guards, being killed indiscriminately.

As the Royal Fusiliers left, the Governor knew that that would embolden the Mau Mau. He, therefore, requested for a different regiment of soldiers to Kenya.  In 1954, the second battalion from Britain arrived in the country. They were called Devonshire.

The Devonshire camped around the forest edges and demonstrated more knowledge in countering guerrilla warfare. But that alone was not enough to defeat the Mau Mau. The fighters had informers in the government ranks who leaked intelligence on impending raids. Mau Mau fighters also had an upper hand in the forest because of their local knowledge of the terrain. To counter the new charge from government, the Mau Mau changed their tactics and started conducting raids at night as opposed to daytime. This confused the colonial police and military officers. While the fighters could move in the dark, the British soldiers could not owing to unfamiliar terrain.

Again, the Devonshire battalion could not withstand the humiliation from Africans. The military therefore got more daring in their attacks probably due to desperation and delayed attainment of what they were in Kenya to achieve.

Just like the previous Royal Fusiliers battalion, the Devonshire sometimes became soft targets in the forest wars. Once again, the colonial establishment had to ask for more assistance. 

The third Battalion to arrive in Kenya were the Irish Fusiliers. Called Johnnies by the local communities, their military approach was different probably because the government had learnt from previous mistakes.

They were not as lethal as the previous battalions. These soldiers befriended the home guards to help them fight the Mau Mau. But they also carried out heinous acts of rape and torture to women as an information extraction method.

All these efforts, in their entirety, may have acted as setbacks to Mau Mau war but the fighters kept the liberation war alive.

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