Reflections on the Mau-Giki

May 14, 2009

I’m currently reading Caroline Elkins book “Imperial Reckoning” which deals with the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the 1950s. Elkins book was the first work of (popular) history to look deeply at British colonial tactics during the “emergency” – which lasted for years and, she believes, could have cost as many as 150,000 Kenyan lives.

By contrast, Mau Mau fighters, drawn from the marginalized Kikyu people, killed about 100 white settlers and almost 2,000 black Africans. Yet for years the popular image of the Mau Mau has been the one propagated by the colonial state and the settler community – unbridled, bestial savagery which posed a mortal threat to “civilized” values.

What is striking me as I read a posting on the excellent Nairobi Chronicle blog are the similarities between the Mau Mau and the Mungiki “sect” which has been increasingly prominent in Kenya over the past few years.

The Mungiki are thought to be responsible for some grizzly killings – perhaps hundreds. But as I discovered in reporting on the death of human rights campaigner Oscar Kingara, the Kenyan state has been responsible for similar, if not far worse, crimes. Those crimes have been committed in the name of order – a reasonable homonym for civilization, and have been carried out by a deeply corrupt oligarchy which is desperate to maintain control over Kenya’s resources and, in particular, its land.

The Mau Mau began as a movement to regain control over land wrested from the Kikuyu under colonialism. It’s rallying cry was “land and freedom” and it developed a huge presence in Kikuyu society because of this. It solidified its organization, such as it was, via “oathing” ceremonies, in which recruits would consume goat flesh in the presence of a Mau Mau elder – oaths which could hardly be broken if the adherent respected their life. And colonial authorities found it very hard to break the resolve of oath-takers. The Mau Mau was a solid, grassroots peasant revolt, and the British colonial state had few clues about how to deal with it.

Like the British, the Kenyan government has responded to the Mungiki through the application of massive violence. The British constructed a system of concentration camps which encompassed the entire Kikuyu population. They “screened” Kikuyu for Mau Mau loyalties and tortured information out of suspects, in many cases with fatal results. The current government stands accused of abducting, torturing and murdering hundreds of Kenyans.

Yet as the Nairobi Chronicle reports, “there is very little talk about the political and social measures that will draw the mostly youthful membership of Mungiki into a constructive engagment with civilized society.” The Kenyan cabinet having just “vowed to crush the Mungiki sect especially in the sect’s strongholds in the Central Province and Rift Valley” such positive measures would surely be essential.

But as in the 1950s, when a “rehabilitative” system was supposed to operate in the colonial camps, there is no sign of measures to ameliorate the social conditions that give rise to the Mungiki.

Strikingly, the Mungiki have spread through oathing ceremonies, as did the Mau Mau and, as in the bumbling colonial regime, “hardly a day goes by without police breaking up a Mungiki oathing ceremony.”

The group represents a reaction to decades of deepening inequality (and neoliberal policies). As the Chronicle also reports, “feelings of disempowerment and isolation make groups like Mungiki very attractive” while “[the] Mungiki provides a basic social net for its members, who regard themselves as one big family. It provides social grounding to a dispossessed and angry youth and helps them to comprehend the difficult circumstances they find themselves in.”

It is easy to imagine that the Mungiki will evolve into a revolutionary force, if it isn’t already. It’s the Mau Mau reborn, and the Kenyan government closely resembles the colonial state.

The Chronicle again:

“Instead of the government devising a creative, inclusive and long-term solution, it attacks the millions of poor and excluded youth with guns, jail terms and torture. By doing so, the government is confirming what the poor believe about it: that it is a tool of oppression used by the rich to suppress the poor.”

The Mungiki also recalls the kind of dissent and militancy which gave birth to the Iranian Revolution, but in Kenya things are if anything more complicated than under the Shah. The Mungiki, like the Mau Mau, are seen to be predominantly Kikuyu. Yet Kenya is multi-ethnic – and volatile – as post election violence showed in 2008.

The Chronicle fears that “Other communities in Kenya have their own gangs created by the same circumstances that led to the growth of Mungiki” such as the Kisii or the Kamba. “At the Kenyan Coast, disaffected youth are joining movements whose ultimate objective is to secede from the rest of Kenya” while “in Northern Kenya, youth are joining cattle rustling gangs” and “North Eastern Kenya is providing recruits for militant groups fighting in Somalia.”

The state, which has abrogated responsibility for social policy, and is in any case hamstrung by its position in the global economy, appears both unable and unwilling to bind these forces together. The tragedy of colonialism, which vastly concentrated landholding and poisoned inter-ethnic relations by privileging certain groups, continues to unfold, in complex and alarming ways.

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