Histories of the Hanged, Histories of the Living: Kenyatta’s Mashujaa Day Speech and the politics of Kenyan national unity

Uhuru Kenyatta arrives at the Mashujaa Day Speech, October 20, 2020. Source: Kenyans.co.ke

National politics always draws in historical debate, particularly when new identities are forged in the wake of major changes. Consider only how in the wake of Brexit populist appeals to nationalist unity against the continental foe were peppered with references to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and the Blitz. Histories and heritages are hereby consistently rewritten, in plural and contested ways, to fit the political necessities of the moment. Nothing makes this more patently obvious than the President of Kenya’s speech in honour of Mashujaa Day this Tuesday. 

Kenya is perhaps uniquely prone to the endless cycle of remembering and commemorating, silencing and forgetting, with history both everyday presence and ubiquitous discourse, but profoundly malleable and subject to taboos. Nothing testifies to this more than the three men on stage at Gusii stadium this Tuesday.

The President, Uhuru Kenyatta is the son of the country’s first leader Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, while the effective leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, is the son of the country’s first Vice President (and Jomo’s perennial rival) Jaromogi Oginga Odinga. The third player in the dizzying game of Kenyan political life is the Deputy President William Ruto, who positions himself as the successor of his late ethnic compatriot, the second President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. What makes this historical relevancy even more stark is that both President and Vice President were indicted by the ICC for ethnic post-electoral violence in 2007-8, and are now feuding, while Odinga has been reconciled with Kenyatta since the famous 2018 ‘Handshake’. 

This background, combined with a significant contemporary debate over constitutional amendments (the so-called Building Bridges Initiative), makes the appearance of all three men on stage at Kenya’s Mashujaa (or Heroes) Day ceremony all the more stark. While in previous years Kenyatta, who has been president since 2013, limited his remarks on the national day to hopes for national economic success, this years speech was a remarkable exploration of the politics of history and national unity in contemporary Kenya. Kenyatta’s extensive discussion of the Mau Mau Conflict, which devastated Central Kenya from 1952, is remarkable for its revelation of the process of historical myth-making in contemporary Kenya.

Mau Mau was a predominately Gikuyu (the largest ethnic group in Kenya to which Kenyatta belongs) uprising against British colonial rule, that saw vast swathes of the Gikuyu tribe detained in a series of camps described by Caroline Elkins as ‘Britain’s Gulag’. However, this conflict was also a intra-Gikuyu civil war, as described extensively by Daniel Branch, with loyalist Home Guards squaring off against guerrillas across the 1950s. Historians have spent decades arguing over whether the rising was a genuine nationalist revolt against colonial rule, or a narrowly Gikuyu affair, and thus less central to Kenya’s independence. Moreover, independence from Britain was not won in the course of the conflict, as happened in Zimbabwe or Algeria, but after the Mau Mau were defeated, through constitutional negotiations that culminated in Uhuru (independence) in 1963. Postcolonial Kenya kept intact much of the colonial apparatus and loyalists in positions of power. Jomo Kenyatta had been detained throughout the Emergency period, blamed by the British for the rising (while he had little to do with it). Upon assuming the helm of the post-colonial state he called on Kenyans to ‘forgive and forget’ the fractious past, instead claiming that ‘we all fought for Uhuru’ and that remaining Mau Mau were ‘gangsters’. The ‘forgive and forget’ rhetoric lasted until 2003, when Mau Mau organisations were unbanned, opening a contest for historical memory that remains with us till today. 

Uhuru’s speech references his father’s dictum. However, far from acknowledging the Mzee’s role in suppressing the Mau Mau’s contribution to independence, Kenya’s President quotes his father as calling on the nation to “forgive; but…NEVER forget”. A remarkable volte face. In Uhuru’s worldview: Mau Mau teaches us that “liberation is a process” and “those who whitewash and dodge their history become victims of its ugly parts”. The reversal of his father’s meaning reflects the process by which history has stopped being something to suppress or else face its divisive implications. Instead Uhuru actively transforms Kenya’s historical narrative while accusing other transformers of political manipulation. A heroic, nationalist Mau Mau, fronted by Jomo Kenyatta has become ‘true’ history, to the exclusion of others in the conflict. 

In Uhuru’s narrative of Kenyan nationhood, Mau Mau is not alone but part of a lineage of violent resistors. He elevates pre-colonial warriors like the Gikuyu Chief Waiyaki wa Hinga to the status of nationalists, construction a pantheon of Kenyan heroes stretching across the aeons. Hereby this new Kenyan national narrative is essentialist and almost spiritual, claiming a Kenyan nationhood was always below the surface waiting to be given expression. The men that did so, Kenya’s “Founding Fathers” are a series of men: Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Harry Thuku, Daniel arap Moi, Masinde Muliro and Paul Ngei. This list, likely compiled because of its ethnic diversity, masks the complexity of Kenya’s independence. Muliro and Moi where in a different party to Kenyatta during the struggle for independence, fighting for a federal Kenya and threatening civil war in 1963. Ngei also defected from Kenyatta’s KANU to form the African People’s Party, a vehicle for Kamba ethnic interests. Thuku, while a prominent leader in the 1920s, turned his back on the struggle and was one of the most prominent loyalists during the 1940s and 50s. And then there is the visceral rivalry between Jomo and Odinga Sr., inflected by alternate positions in the Global Cold War, that saw the former imprison the latter, ban his party and play up ethnic politics among both Kenyatta’s Kikuyu and Odinga’s Luo. What is perhaps most remarkable is that from this list of founding fathers are missed the figures that might truly qualify as trans-ethnic Kenyan nationalists, the Luo trade union leader Tom Mboya or the Asian journalist Pio Gama Pinto who played an essential role in fostering Kenyan independence.

Remarkably, Uhuru telescopes the Mau Mau struggle and the constitutional battle into one moment, in order to justify his own constitutional amendments in the present. Mau Mau becomes a “war against the British Empire”, “won” by the guerrillas, who “together with the Founding Fathers” drafted the constitution of independent Kenya. For Uhuru, Mau Mau was a struggle to wield together Kenya’s 42 nations, and the story of Mau Mau is the defining story of Kenyan nationhood. The reality was that there no ex-Freedom Fighters at the constitutional table, the post-colonial government continued to suppress them and it was instead the loyalists that gained most from land resettlement. Bitterness from ex-guerillas and ex-detainees regarding their bad treatment in the 1960s by Jomo Kenyatta’s government remains a open wound till today. 

After this creation of a hegemonic Kenyan national narrative comes Uhuru’s real purpose – constitutional review. He cites the four constitutions that Kenya had between 1954 and 1964 as evidence that a constant review of the national consensus is essential and historically justified. Here he makes an even greater historical leap than his ‘forgive and forget’ reversal, as these constitutions were not the product of Kenyan national debate but imposed by the British government in order to slow down and control African progress to independence! Kenya’s history is hereby reduced to a political football, playing into Kenyatta’s personal objectives, and intra-elite conflict is suppressed in favour of a new hegemonic narrative. In this, Uhuru hopes to mobilise a united nation for economic progress, constitutional review and national unity. However, reconciliation cannot be achieved by silencing the complexities of the past, and the conflicts Uhuru has tried to paper over are revealed by looking at contemporary Kenyan public discourse. 

Any cursory search on social media reveals that this constructed image of Kenya’s national struggle masks a plural and contested view of the past. One example sees Uhuru Kenyatta labelled a black colonialist, while Raila is a “21st century Home Guard who collaborated with the OPRESSOR”, and in this replay of the Emergency Ruto will inevitably be “recorded as the Mau Mau” of this political moment: 

Another, tellingly called Muumbi (the Eve-like founding matriarch of the Gikuyu tribe), asserts matter of factly that “Luos were homeguards”. Prominent Kenyan economist David Ndii had a wave of Mau Mau-inspired abuse thrown at him when posting a picture of his grandfather who served with the British Army in the Second World War, accusing Ndii of benefiting from the loyalist land-grabbing of his ancestors. In interactions such as these a new generation of Kenyans use the ever multiplying tools of digital communication to stake out a historical identity and make ethnic claims on the ‘fruits of Uhuru’, the right to benefit from statehood. While politicians may refrain from this rhetoric in times of relative stability, hoping to consolidate the nation behind reformist measures, it is always bubbling underneath the surface as these few tweets denote.

Fabricating quotations and presenting a singular narrative elides the complexity of Kenya’s past. Western historians have had their role to play in this as well, with historians like Caroline Elkins actively involved in both the nominally detached act of historical inquiry and the profoundly political act of memorialisation as described by Lotte Hughes. Loyalists, neutrals and members of other tribes all require a place in Kenya’s history for a genuine national narrative to emerge, predicated on plurality and diversity. If western historians simply treat decolonising the academy as inverting colonial hierarchies, replacing tribal villains with emancipatory heroes without nuance or critique, Africans and other indigenous people remain bereft of the agency that shaped global history. History ‘from below’ and provincialising Europe means recognising within the history of the Global South the complexity and diversity of its lived experiences. Within Kenya, a simplistic nationalist history ensures elites will continue to speak only for their narrow interest groups and with the election in 2022 promising to be as contested as 1992 and 2007, ethnic violence remains a dangerous possibility. 

2 thoughts on “Histories of the Hanged, Histories of the Living: Kenyatta’s Mashujaa Day Speech and the politics of Kenyan national unity

  1. I thought this was a great read Niels, I look forward to seeing more. One quick question, I was curious as to why you decided to go with Gikuyu as the nomenclature for the ethnic group described rather than Kikuyu or Agikuyu that are sometimes used. I’ve struggled with this in my own work.


    1. Thank you very much! I think I made the choice primarily because it seems that contemporary scholarship is trending towards that spelling, but I similarly struggled with what to go for.


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