How the British used propaganda against Mau Mau

by Rose Wangechi

Shortly after the Second World War, the British empire was the largest – but was short lived. The empire, soon, disintegrated as colonies started to fight for independence and self-determination.

While India attained freedom through non-violent and constitutional means the case was, however, different in Africa. It was hard for the British to let off colonies in Africa that served as sources of raw materials and resources.

Any attempt by British African colonies to get independence was met with dual counter strategies: brute force and subtle divide and rule approaches. Many times, opinion leaders who agitated for a pan African course were violently silenced. Some were even killed, while survivors endured years of incarnation.

At the global stage, European countries, and even America, remained passive about colonialism. As Kenyan Governor Sir Evelyn Barring noted, it was a “battle for information”.

The calcification of Mau Mau into a formidable movement is probably the biggest threat the British Colony faced in Africa. As attempts to nib Mau Mau at inception failed, the British marshalled troops and deployed multilayered counter strategies. 

One of the strategies seriously deployed, although rarely highlighted, was use of propaganda to demonise Mau Mau locally and internationally.

International media became lapdogs of colonialism. Coverage of Mau Mau in the 1950s focused on discrediting the group as savagery, backward and an association of terrorists.

In fact, the coverage went a notch higher to term Mau Mau the “face of international terrorism”.  Conveniently, all reasons for independence were omitted and replaced with peripheral reasons on why Mau Mau needed to be eliminated. The British never recognized Mau Mau as a liberation movement.

International exclusion of Mau Mau was systemic. The colonial establishment wrote media reports and sent them abroad for publication, influencing public opinion on Mau Mau.

On the other hand, Mau Mau did not get much positive coverage. Their disadvantages were endemic. They operated secretly and were tucked inside deep forests.

When the State of Emergency was declared on 20 October 1952, counter Mau Mau policies drastically changed.

The British managed to control the media and the flow of information. Kenyan media outlets labelled Mau Mau as “hyenas in the dark.” Filmmakers, with support from the colonialists, produced motion pictures of “frenzied savage killers in blood drinking rituals” to describe the Mau Mau.

 Mobile cinema vans directed by the government went around Kenya highlighting the alleged barbarity of the Mau Mau.

While the colonial system worked hard to discredit Mau Mau. The freedom fighters, then known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, had their eyes set on freedom from colonialism. They demanded political independence and the land given to the white settlers.

But the colonialists founded propaganda streams from anything Mau Mau did. For example, the colonialists projected the Mau Mau oath as a beastly engagement, framed its partakers as murderous, and blood thirsty people.

The propaganda divided Africans and sowed discord among communities. For example, coverage of the 1953 Lari Massacre British Pathe news outlet was openly biased.

In its reel segment named The Mark of Mau Mau, the broadcaster covered the victims of the massacre without any mention to the grievances of Mau Mau. The report details how the victims suffered. Photos of prisoners were used as part of the reporting.

All these attempts yielded little in dampening the soul of the Mau Mau course. As propaganda war raged on, the freedom fighters were in the forest staging daring attacks and pushing the freedom agenda.

The British blinked first and yielded to sustained calls for freedom. Finally, they left Kenya, a country labelled White Man’s country.  

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3 comments

Kaguo mukiria kagwa October 11, 2021 - 6:07 pm

My dad was a among the freedom fighters though he come to pass still waiting for recognition of a kind towards his contributions for our freedom. We use to surround him for his rich history about Maumau. We use to creat “plays” out of his stories while in the farm”Well may his soul plus those others who passed without tasting the soo called “Fruits of freedom” rest in internal peace. Always keep us informed all the Tyme.Thanks.

Reply
Paul Kombo October 12, 2021 - 2:41 pm

Good coverage. Let’s be clear on one thing: the Colonial administration did not only control the press, the British government had long ago taken control of the key planks of the international press. Propaganda has long been a key tool for demonizing the’enemy’.

Reply
Munyori Buku October 12, 2021 - 10:57 pm

The State of Emergency was declared on October 20, 1952, NOT October 20, 1954, as a result of escalating conflict between the freedom fighters and the colonial establishment

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