Loyalism and Mau Mau


Daniel Branch.  Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.  xx + 250 pp.  $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-11382-3; $24.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-13090-5.

The two related themes in Kenya’s history that have drawn the most debate and interpretations are land and the Mau Mau war.  Daniel Branch’s study is amongst the most recent analyses of the Mau Mau conflict.1  Generally, the book analyzes how the loyalist section of the Kikuyu community in central Kenya emerged and allied with the colonial state in a counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the Mau Mau uprising in the early 1950s.  This campaign helped to transform an originally anticolonial movement into a civil war and an incumbent violence that pitted Kikuyu loyalists aided by the state against Mau Mau insurgents.  The cleavages that ripped the Kikuyu community apart during the conflict were consciously sustained into the post-Mau Mau, decolonization, and postcolonial periods in a way that privileged the social, economic, and especially political aspirations of loyalists at the expense of the former insurgents and their sympathizers.  Thus, the book enriches the nationalist interpretation of Mau Mau in the creation of modern Kenya by shifting the focus away from the insurgents and their imperial foe, to loyalists.

Branch succinctly narrows the discussion to three main objectives all outlined in the preface.  First, he seeks to outline the conduct of the war and especially its ambiguity in shaping the cleavage that emerged between the loyalists and Mau Mau supporters.  Second, he sets out to demonstrate how violence became essential to the direction of the conflict, and specifically how the conflict was transformed into a civil war.  Finally, he seeks to explore the legacies of the war for both the Kikuyu community and national politics during decolonization into postcolonial Kenya.  In spite of the complex issues and themes involved in this study, the author accomplishes these objectives with considerable success.

Branch’s approach to analyzing Mau Mau is a departure from the often familiar historical narratives that esteem the nationalist perspectives that cast Mau Mau insurgents as heroes while neglecting the role of loyalists in shaping the histories of the nation and portraying them only as allies or collaborators of the state.  At the very best, they have been an invisible group in an otherwise dynamic conflict that has left an indelible mark on Kenya’s history.  Consequently, the author is unequivocal about his mission to carve a niche for loyalism in the Mau Mau debate by focusing on the dramatic years of the insurgency into the postcolonial era.  Thus loyalism is the grand theme that provides the crux around which every chapter is analyzed, and gives the book its structure and value among studies of the Mau Mau war and its legacy.

The analytical guideline to the whole study is Branch’s key assertion that an accurate narrative or explanation of events in Kenya during the dramatic years of the 1950s can prove elusive without foregrounding the loyalists; and that an attempt to understand the nature of local (especially Central Kenya) and national politics in the postcolonial state has to incorporate the conflict between the Mau Mau insurgents and the loyalists in the period preceding independence.  A close reading of the book reveals sustained conflict and tensions between the two camps even long after the war had ended in1956, so much that Branch perceives the persistence of these polarized relations after independence in 1963 as a reason to cast modern Kenya as a post-conflict as well as a postcolonial society.

The book is organized into six chapters that are preceded by a preface and an introduction.  The preface briefly justifies the study in relation to the most recent studies on Mau Mau and current politics in Kenya, issues that should have been used to reinforce Mau Mau historiography that the author meticulously outlines in the conclusion.  The lengthy introduction could have been designated as chapter 1 given its value in espousing the theoretical foundations of the work.  It also analyzes the parameters that define the entire study, namely loyalism, insurgency, civil war, violence, counterinsurgency, and decolonization.  The map of Kenya preceding the introduction is an excellent idea but colonial (or even modern) Central Province, the geographical area that is the focus of the study, should have been distinctly marked out.  So should have been Meru, one of the geographical areas that is central to Branch’s study.

Key points raised in the introduction, and which become clear later in the text, are currents of revisionism that the author elucidates around issues that have previously informed the Mau Mau debate.  For instance, Branch maintains that loyalists were not a small, elitist, privileged lot, but a diverse group whose actions were motivated by a complex set of factors unconnected to those that propelled the insurgents against the state and which were embedded in “local histories” of Central Province (pp. 4-5).  The author hopes that an appreciation of such an analysis will help overcome simplistic explanations of the causes of Mau Mau while also aiding our understanding of how members of the Kikuyu community clashed with one another in a cycle of violence that escalated into civil war.  He further justifies the label “civil war” for an otherwise anticolonial war by arguing that a significant majority of Mau Mau sympathizers or those actively involved in insurgency were indeed killed by the loyalists.

Overall, the chapters keep to the main themes of the book in a logical sequence that details intra-Kikuyu experiences before, during, and after the Mau Mau war.  Chapter 1 outlines the origins of loyalism in Kikuyu society, but reflects a familiar narrative of the political economy of the British conquest of Central Kenya at the turn of the twentieth century that cultivated the embryos of the loyalist base.  Colonial chiefs in particular were well positioned to consolidate their new political and economic bases, but not without challenge from the vast dispossessed populations and the emerging educated Kikuyu elite.  Branch also unravels, albeit briefly, the familiar discourses of the events leading up to the Mau Mau war, especially the failed attempt by the elite to have the state introduce reforms to assuage social and economic problems that besieged the Kikuyu community.  The chapter also details the dynamics of oathing to reveal that the event was not only a precursor to the insurgency against the state, but that it also it signified the impending violent conflict between the insurgents and the loyalists.  Most important, oathing reinforced the emerging loyalist base as the state relied on this group to administer an unsuccessful counter-oathing campaign.

Chapter 2 focuses on the nature and degree of violence between the loyalists and insurgents once the war broke out.  The Lari Massacre of March 25, 1953, which Branch identifies as “the conflict’s signature event” (p. 58), is used to refute the popular assertion that the incident was a senseless act of murder by the Mau Mau insurgents, an interpretation first conceived by the government and loyalists, who subsequently used the incident to demonize the movement.  Rather, Branch sees the event as symbolizing a classic case of a violent civil war between insurgents and loyalists in which the latter paid a high price for a series of divisive decisions over land that had benefited them and their families and which had remained unresolved from the decades preceding the Mau Mau war.  Lari also made loyalism a safer and more attractive exit option for those bothered by the insurgents’ indiscriminate targeting of innocent women and children.

The author seeks to demonstrate in chapter 3 that the defeat of Mau Mau by November 1956 was a process largely achieved by the emergence of a much broader loyalist constituency from mid-1954, a development enabled by a shift in the control of the war that was unfavorable to the insurgents.  A particular strength in Branch’s analysis here follows Roger Petersen’s rationale for understanding how momentum in times of conflict swings towards loyalism.  The swing could be due to factors identified as triggering or sustaining mechanisms.2  Chapter 3 is dedicated to analyzing triggering mechanisms while sustaining mechanisms are deferred until the next two chapters.  Increasing violence between the adversaries was a major triggering factor that crystallized temporary allegiances into permanent identities so much that according to Branch, it marked the civil war’s “logical apex” (p. 99).  In explaining how violence contributed to crystallization of “identity repertoires,” Branch is clearly influenced by Armatya Sen’s and William Kelleher’s analyses of similar developments in conflicts in different geographical contexts.3  Crystallization of identities in turn reinforced the salience of ethnicity in Central Kenya as was evident when some sections of the Embu and Meru communities, in the bid to distance them from Mau Mau and to avoid the ruthlessness of counterinsurgency measures, defined themselves as non-Kikuyu.

Chapter 4 details the importance of the non-military counterinsurgency as a major sustaining mechanism for loyalism that completely swung the momentum of the conflict in favor of the loyalists.  Taking the form of an elaborate state-sponsored reform program, this mechanism guaranteed the loyalists economic and administrative rewards, while it also ensured the final defeat of Mau Mau.  The elite loyalists in particular benefited from the land consolidation process, thereby creating a landless and land-starved class and attesting to the pitfalls of one of the most significant land reform programs in the history of Kenya.  Subsequently, land remained the single most important medium for contesting the memories of Mau Mau between loyalists and their opponents from the late 1950s into the postcolonial era.  This confrontation also realigned around the question of political leadership and patriarchy in Kikuyu politics in what Branch describes as the quest for self-mastery.  The loyalists appropriated the right to that leadership by appealing to Mau Mau experiences to reassert their claims to communal membership and leadership within a sense of “moral ethnicity,” which they had lost before and during the insurgency.  The value of chapter 4, however, lies in the author’s effort to pursue the unexplored question of labor opportunities for the loyalists during the reform agenda of the post-Mau Mau period.  While the elite loyalists filled the ranks of the Provincial Administration and its security apparatuses, the poor loyalists accessed employment in formal and informal sectors mainly outside of Central Province that spared them the bitter encounters that surfaced between the returning ex-Mau Mau detainees and the elite loyalists back at home.

Chapter 5 offers competing visions for an independent Kenya between the loyalists and the ex-insurgents in the context of the decolonization politics of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Although the insurgents and their supporters lost the military contest to the loyalists and the colonial state, Branch argues that this group perceived the impending independence as their victory, and an opportunity to initiate sustained social and economic reform.  The author subsequently reinforces a classic nationalist interpretation of the Mau Mau to which he builds a counternarrative that exposits loyalists interests in an independent Kenya that counteracted those of Mau Mau sympathizers.  The author successfully shows how the Africanization program and the political reforms that accompanied decolonization were hijacked by loyalists as further avenues to consolidate their political and economic security against Mau Mau supporters.  In principle, the main emphasis of chapter 5 is to demonstrate that the process of decolonization helped create what the author terms an indigenous “bureaucratic authoritarianism” dominated by loyalists which assured them political and economic ascendancy into the postcolonial state, but one that closed avenues of compromise with the ex-insurgents and their supporters.

In chapter 6, Branch seeks to confirm that the postcolonial state in Kenya inherited the legacies of conflict that Mau Mau produced within the Kikuyu community, but one that reverberated through national politics outside of Central Province.  Once marginalized from positions of influence, Mau Mau sympathizers appropriated the language of the insurgency to show their disenchantment with the African leadership for abandoning the radical nationalist agenda of reform after independence.  They channeled their challenges against the loyalists and the state through the ranks of local authorities, the Kenya African National Union party branches in Central Province, and other organizations with links to the Mau Mau war.  Jomo Kenyatta shared with the ex-Mau Mau detainees a common bond that was enshrined in his detention for being involved with the insurgency; but his appeal to reconciliatory rhetoric and his choice to ally with loyalists alienated Mau Mau voices in most of Central Province from him and his government.  Most important, government indifference to land reform fractured national politics so much that by 1966 the alienated radical pro-Mau Mau Kikuyu leadership unsuccessfully allied with the Kenya Peoples Union, a Luo-dominated opposition party that touted land reform as one of its main political agendas.  The effect was the addition of an “external” ethnic dimension, through national politics, to the feuding in Central Province that had for a long time been defined along wealth and class lines.

Branch’s analysis of the influence of Daniel arap Moi’s presidency on Kikuyu internal politics after 1978 is revealing but its significance downplayed.  While he acknowledges that Moi’s strategy to marginalize Kikuyu political elites served to both derail internal disputes in Kikuyu society and transform members of that community into a rare unity against Moi, he hesitates to mark this as a major contradiction to the seemingly inherent divisions in Kikuyu community that stretch back to the 1940s, if not earlier.  This “new phase” of Kikuyu politics has tended to resurface where ethnic insularities throughout Kenya have proven invasive at critical times in national politics, such as in the 2007 general election that the author mentions in the book’s conclusion.  His inclusion of the Mungiki in shaping the historical memory of Mau Mau and the nation-building narrative in the postcolonial state is laudable but should have been given further treatment, especially its role in the anti-Moi struggle as well as its appropriation by the Kikuyu political elite in Kenya’s national politics since 1990.  An expanded treatment of these two main aspects could have enriched the study’s focus on the post-Kenyatta period, especially as they relate to the evolution of Kenya’s current political landscape.

Furthermore, significant portions of the conclusion delve into the critical historiography of Mau Mau and Kenya’s national politics that should have been ideal for the introduction; but the author’s decision to stick to this style is innovative as he seeks to break tradition with conventional writing.  Branch’s definition of the Embu and Meru communities as “Kikuyu,” while serving his intention to include these communities in his analysis of loyalism within Mau Mau studies, is problematic as it follows the colonial composite definition that perceived these two communities to be related to the Kikuyu.  That colonial definition, as the author acknowledges, was mainly for administrative expediency.  Yet his insistence on it is contradicted by the assertion in chapter 3 that as the “identity repertoires” developed at the height of the military counterinsurgency, the salience of ethnicity was amplified to the extent that the Meru and Embu communities were defined, or chose to define themselves, as non-Kikuyu (p. 101).  In a related vein, eleven of the fourteen interviews carried out for the entire study were conducted only in Meru while the geographical scope of the work covers the entire Central Highlands.

Overall, the book’s main strengths lie in the author’s effort to relate an overarching historical episode to the ongoing national debate about nation-building in Kenya.  The timing and the topic are instructive, coming in the wake of the controversial presidential election of 2007 in which ethnicity, and particularly the Kikuyu political constituency, was key to its outcome and controversy.  The title and themes effectively reinforce our understanding of Mau Mau in more refreshing ways and easily provide readers an opportunity to rethink existing interpretations of a subject that continues to attract more interest.  The detailed use of case studies based on individual and household experiences in the conflict proves useful in building micro-histories into grand historical narratives.  This approach by the author further reveals exhaustive sources of information that were explored.  They range from archival material, oral interviews of actual participants or their acquaintances, Kikuyu oral literature, national and local (Kikuyu) newspapers, to literature from the social sciences, while the several pictures are integrated effectively into the narrative.  Until now, few studies on Mau Mau have analyzed the insurgency outside of its geographical confines.  Branch’s attempt to place his analysis in dialogue with similar theoretical analyses and empirical studies concerning Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America highlights Mau Mau’s importance in global studies.  It therefore will appeal to a global audience, while its value to historians and other scholars across the social sciences is undoubted.  This book has carved itself a place in the annals of the history of Mau Mau and Kenya.


1  The two other most recent studies on the subject but mainly from an imperial-nationalist perspective are David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005); and Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

2  In theorizing the shift in momentum during the Mau Mau war in favor of loyalists, Branch borrows liberally from Roger Petersen, Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

3  See Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (London: Penguin, 2006); and William Kelleher, Troubles in Ballybogoin: Memory and Identity in Northern Ireland (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

Martin Shanguhyia, The College of William and Mary.  This review was first published by H-Africa (August, 2010) under a Creative Commons license.

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