Thursday, July 10, 2008

Evil Rising: demonising the Mau Mau


The history of anti-imperialist insurgency is predictably littered with demonic imagery. The foes of empire are invariably barbarised, and of course this is as true of the Iraqi resistance as it once was of the Mau Mau. But the Mau Mau were considered uniquely evil, unlike other enemies of the British Empire such as the Communists in Malaysia, even though the suppression of the latter was almost as brutal. The Mau Mau was a movement that the British could only consider a recrudescence of African savagery and tribalism. Louis Leakey's 1954 book, Defeating Mau Mau, described the movement as an essentially religious one, a debased version of Christianity, that had attempted to usurp legitimate grievances for its own unspecified (but nefarious) ends. Those grievances, for Leakey, did not call into question the supposition that "European civilization" or "the white man was superior", but rather confirmed it. The grievances had only arisen as a result of the civilizing impact of whitey, so the argument went. The settler leaders, who relied on the labour of the Kikuyu on the 'White Highlands', were certainly convinced of their innate superiority, and were enraged by the resistance to their dominance.

The Mau Mau had emerged initially in 1948, just when the old European colonial powers were looking vulnerable, and just after the Kikuyu Central Association - the main political organisation that had existed beforehand - was banned. The immediate cause of their emergence was the occupation of lands in the central highlands by 30,000 white settlers, who appropriated the labour of 250,000 indigenous workers in the process and had to defeat often highly localised resistance to achieve dominance. The Kikuyu were those most affected by this process, with 1 and a quarter million of them driven into a 2000 square miles of land. By 1948, the reserve system - strikingly similar to the forms of segregation that had existed in South Africa until that time - was entering into a severe crisis. A chiefly minority remained wealthy, but the majority were being driven into utter destitution as they were worked to the bone and subject to austere political surveillance and repression. The colonial authorities believed that the declining returns experienced by the Kikuyu on their diminished land was really the result of the 'primitive' farming methods of the natives, and so restricted them to subsistence production, denying them access to the expanding colonial market, which of course made the problem worse. So, although they had provided not only the stock troops of the labour market but also fought on Britain's behalf during the Second World War (in fact many of the early Mau Mau had been soldiers for the British), they were treated contemptuously, exploited intensely, and their political demands were ignored. Such were the "legitimate grievances" that colonial writers paid patronising lip service to.

The longer term cause of the emergence of the Mau Mau was the rise of nationalism, particularly among Kikuyu women, since the 1920s. And this is such an important element of the story that early accounts tended to give it as little attention as possible. Women were central to the Mau Mau's non-combatant wing, the 'passive wing' as the British called it, and were thus a target of British policies and propaganda designed to wean them away from the movement. In fact, the colonial records tended to treat the women in the movement as either victims or prostitutes who had become intimate with Mau Mau members. They were either 'forced' into the movement through degrading rituals, or taken up as 'concubines'. And, in the course of Mau Mau resistance, the British made a great effort to portray women as the main victims of its (actual and alleged) atrocities, even though women constituted a small minority of those actually killed.

Aside from denying that crucial role of women in the insurgency, the British had to separate the Mau Mau from any claim on Kenyan nationalism, which would be potentially sympathetic. Instead, it had to be seen as an exclusively tribal movement, not only predominantly Kikuyu but in strict opposition to other tribal/ethnic groups in the country. (This happens an enduring issue in the historiography, with anti-Mau Mau intellectuals both inside and outside Kenya benefiting in part from a refulgence of imperialist sentiment in the 1980s and 1990s.) Leakey's account of the movement during the 1950s was the dominant one in colonial accounts of the period: the Mau Mau were tribalist and religious, not nationalist. Their "insane frenzy" and "fanatical discipline" could only be the manifestation of a cultish outfit, organised around leaders lusting for power (whereas the white settler elite and the colonial powers were apparently averse to their own enormous power). The Colonial Office held that the Mau Mau leaders not only wanted power, not only could not be animated by the real injustices of the colonial system, but were rejecting its benefits. Thus, the Mau Mau "seeks to lead the Africans of Kenya back to the bush and savagery, not forward into progress", according to a report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In fact, as the historian Bruce Berman explains, this account of the Mau Mau as a fanatical cult was immediately taken up by the Western academia, particularly American anthropologists who inserted it into an account of "tribal revival movements" and "crisis cults" which had been developed to explain native American resistance to the white colonials.

Secrecy was a crucial component of the counterinsurgency, in part because it was decided that the less that left-wing anti-colonialists in Britain knew about what was going on, the better. What was known was therefore bound to lead to erroneous conclusions, even among the principled minority who were vocally hostile to colonialism. Of course, to the extent that this was successful, it enabled the British to subject people to processes of 'villagization' (concentration camps) and mass executions. Together with the hangings, the horrible conditions in the 'villages' for the duration of the war killed up to 100,000 Kenyans according to Caroline Elkins. British officials used a range of measures for controlling the imprisoned population, including sexual violence and physical punishment. Of course, it need hardly be added that the main victims of this widespread sexual violence were women, precisely the supposed objects of British paternal protection.

Well, today's counterinsurgency propaganda has as its goals the desire to separate the resistance from any claim on Iraqi nationalism, which would be potentially sympathetic. It has to bestialise the resistance by making it seems as if the minority of atrocities characterise the whole. It has to demonise it as inherently, and essentially, misogynistic, as well as a religious/tribal affair. And it has to deprive us of access to honest reporting on the situation, through various strategies of media management, including the odd ad hoc death penalty for those not embedded with the troops. To the extent that it is successful, it acculturates people to the grave atrocities that the occupiers see as necessary to maintain their rule and secure a pliant regime.