A contribution by Charlie Companyero
The Mau Mau Revolution was one of the greatest upheavals in African history. It was the expression of centuries of resistance to authoritarianism among the Kikuyu people, the native inhabitants of Kenya. Except for parts of Uganda, which had a system of rule by hereditary despotic chiefs, all of the East African tribes lived in radically democratic societies prior to the coming of the white man. Originally governed by a king, centuries ago the Kikuyu through popular rebellion literally abolished the State, substituting a voluntary society. According to Jomo Kenyatta, a founder of Mau Mau, the new system had such rules as: “Socially and politically all adult men and women should be equally full members of the tribe, and thereby the status of a king or nobleman should be abolished. It consisted of a federation of councils, beginning with the members of the family (the basic economic unit of land ownership), extending to the village, then to the district, and ending on a national level. The right to recall representatives from the different councils was absolute; “. . . in fact, it was the voice of the people or public opinion that ruled the country.” The Kikuyu stateless society “continued to function favorably until it was smashed by the British government, which introduced a system of government very similar to the autocratic government which the Kikuyu people had discarded many centuries ago.” The British imperialists appointed chiefs to overlord the people and set up a tyranny resting on centralization. Kenyatta helped form Mau Mau to destroy this, for: “In the eyes of the Kikuyu people, the submission to a despotic rule of any particular man or a group, white or black, is the greatest humiliation to mankind.
The Kikuyu anarchist tradition which culminated in the Mau Mau Revolution has been best described in the book by Donald L. Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within: An Analysis of Kenya’s Peasant Revolt. The latter author being a major participant; virtually all other works on the subject were written by white racist sycophants of British imperialism. Early in the work Darnett queries:
Were there, it might now be asked, any peculiar features of traditional Kikuyu society which help explain this people’s independent response and, ultimately, revolutionary reaction to colonial rule and white dominance? The answer, I believe, is in the affirmative. It centers around two closely related aspects of Kikuyu society which were fundamentally incompatible with the imposed colonial system and conditioned an independent response to it. The first of these, a decentralized and democratic political system, fostered among the Kikuyu a deep-seated suspicion of the highly centralized, authoritarian system imposed by the British and a tendency to reject the legitimacy and resist the dictates of the latter. The second, an age-grade system wherein leadership emerged on the basis of demonstrated personal qualities such as skill, wisdom and ability, underlay the Kikuyu rejection of British-appointed ‘chiefs’ and their tendency to by-pass the latter and organize independent associations under popular leaders when the occasion arose to seek a redress of grievances.
In detail the Kikuyu stateless society: There was no “unitary or centralized political structure,” and within the Kikuyu sub-tribes political power was held by a number of fairly small and semi-autonomous geopolitical groupings. Disputes were settled and common affairs deliberated on by spontaneously formed councils. Each council elected a muthamaki, who had no personal power, unlike the life-term, salaried chiefs the British later imposed. “As the spokesman of a ridge councilor ad hoc bururi council, a muthamaki was not a ‘Chief’ in either the conventional or anthropological sense. He was the chairman and representative of a body which reached decisions through discussion and consensus and owed its authority to lower-level councils.
In brief, we have seen that the traditional Kikuyu political structure was decentralized and inherently democratic, with effective decision making and enforcement powers resting for the most part in numerous local hierarchies of councils within each sub-tribe. We have noted, with respect to this kiama or council system, that:
(1) councils were convened as the occasion demanded and reached decisions on the principle of discussion until unanimity was achieved;
(2) the particular council convened (sub-clan, village, neighborhood, etc.) was determined in each case by the scope and nature of the question or dispute at issue;
(3) composition was based on the principle of lower-level representation on higher-level councils,’ with the higher-level councils owing their authority to the lower;
(4) the spokesman or muthamaki of a given council, whether that of the village or the ridge — which represented the largest fixed administrative unit — was responsible to and acted in the name and with the approval of the entire body; and
(5) positions of leadership were achieved, within a system of age-grades or ranks, rather than ascribed and were limited in duration by the periodic accession to political authority of junior generation-sets.
The British imperialists, great “civilizers” that they were, imposed upon the Kikuyu the opposite extreme of totalitarian statism and economic and political slavery. Centralized, dictatorial rule was instated, and such basic freedom as speech, press, assembly, and the like were suppressed. Economic freedom was a luxury for whites only. The Kikuyu’s land was seized for the use of white settlers and the blacks forced to work as wage slaves; compulsory labor and taxation supplemented this, as the colonial administrators openly admitted, and provided as well, free construction and education funds for the privileged whites. Huge unused forest reserves were held out of production, from which the black masses were not even allowed to gather firewood. In 1936 the British ruled that squatters could have only one acre per wife, fifteen sheep or goats and no cattle, and there were all kinds of restrictions on the types of crops blacks could grow — all of this because the inefficient whites could not bear the competition of the efficient blacks. Government restrictions of every kind were enforced against blacks, from license fees to severe restrictions on freedom of movement. Blacks could not enforce contracts against whites, and were not allowed the right of inheritance or enforceable land titles, the better to keep them subjected to the white exploiters.
To a people so accustomed to complete freedom, such slavery was intolerable. Opposition was sporadic until the great peasant revolution of 1953-56, which set in motion the political forces which led to the lowering of that filthy Union Jack in Kenya in 1963. The anarchist heritage of the Kikuyu expressed itself not only in their willingness to bid for liberty or death, but also in the methods by which they carried out their tasks. There was a considerable measure of continuity, at least as regards certain major patterns, between the traditional Kikuyu social system and the structure and organization of the underground movement and guerrilla forces which emerged within the colonial context.
The basic cells of Mau Mau were the local villages, in which everyone cooperated in common tasks. The old council system, organized from the bottom up through consensual election of representatives, was reinstated. Local cell councils pressured the lingering to join, mainly by the threat of ostracism. Popular support of Mau Mau is revealed in that up to 90 percent of the Kikuyu population took the Oath of Unity.
While there was a Central Committee at the top, it mainly coordinated action and expressed the policies the masses desired. In practice, action was initiated by the local cells. In the first months there was no clear-cut division of labor, hierarchy of roles, or differential privileges, and leaders (who had no formal ranks) were selected by informal consensus. Later the Ituma Trinity Council was formed to give central direction to the movement; but just as the power of the local leaders depended on the loyalty their warriors were willing to give them voluntarily, compliance with its recommendations depended on the decisions of the local groups. A similar institution was the Kenya Defense Council, which was comprised of the leaders of the forest guerrilla groups. Enforcement of this council’s decision a, which were unanimously decided, depended on its members’ individual persuasive abilities, and expressed a decentralization of power and authority.
These features of decentralization reflected the voluntary nature of both membership in and recognition of the Kenya Defense Council, as well as the prior distribution of effective power among groups whose members were bound together by strong leader-followers locality ties and loyalties … [The relatively weak Council] was advantageous since without significantly altering the existing distributions of power amongst the various leaders, it allowed for a considerable degree of cooperation among the latter in the planning and coordination of policies, rules and tactics. Another advantage of this decentralization lay in its allowing for a very high degree of flexibility of maneuver and individual initiative among the many forest sections.
Needless to say, the goal of Mau Mau was a return to the free economic and political institutions which characterized the Kikuyu before the coming of the imperialists, and it was fitting that their slogan was simply “Land and Freedom!” True, the complete stateless society of former years has not yet been completely reinstated, but one must not expect miracles. Kenya has done away with the worst iniquities of the State, those imposed by the British; while continuing to head in the direction of the old libertarian traditions, Kenya’s progress is impeded by the fact that several of the “educated” Kenyans were brainwashed by statist ideologies of the British and that neo-colonialism continues. The liberation of the whole African continent is an indispensable condition for the complete liberation of the masses from black elites and neo-colonialism.