This year marks sixty years since Kenya’s independence in 1963. Gathanga Ndung’u is scathing of the cabal of wealthy turncoats who have led Kenya’s independence. Ndung’u celebrates a real hero of liberation, Mukami Kimathi, who died in Kenya as the coronation of a royal parasite was being marked in the UK.
By Gathanga Ndung’u
Amid the chaos and randomness of life, sometimes we are served with stark synchronicities that must not be ignored. These windows of opportunities, give us a moment to pause, reflect and see the connection between two seemingly unrelated events.
A case in mind is the recent passing on of Mukami Kimathi, the wife to Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi who was largely the face of the anti-colonial war in Kenya which culminated with the fall of the Union Jack on 12 December, 1963. Kimathi’s death coincided with the coronation of King Charles III who is inherited the scepter of power from Queen Elizabeth II. While pomp and glamour rocked Westminster Abbey earlier last month, gloom and somber reflection filled the small town of Njabini as Kenya mourned one of its independence heroines.
The hoisting of the Kenyan Flag in Uhuru Gardens ushered in a new era of self-rule in 1963. Finally, the fruits of the protracted struggle that had started in the early 20th century by warriors such as Samoei Arap Koitalel, Muthoni Nyanjiru, and Mekatili wa Menza, finally paid off. The air was pregnant with expectations from the new Kenyan-led government with the promise of a democratic state, of the people, for the people, and by the people. The land and freedom that was at the center of the struggle was now controlled by one of our own. This meant that we could now chart a path to prosperity determined by the people. Tragically, as we know, the dream was quickly broken by a cabal of rapacious political turn-coats.
As history would later unfold, the first prime minister and president of Kenya, Johnson Kamau Ngegi (Jomo Kenyatta), and his clique turned against the dream at the expense of the newly formed nation. Impoverished by over-exploitation by the British Government, Kenya was in dire need of visionary and pragmatic leadership to steer the country from agriculture to a more diversified economy that would ensure the growth of a non-agricultural sectors such as manufacturing and public services.
The dream to eradicate diseases, ignorance, and poverty was shelved to allow the elite to buttress and consolidate wealth for their families and friends. The political and economic elite embarked on a looting spree of whatever was relinquished by the colonialists: white highland farms and other properties across the country through the infamous One Million Acre Scheme in which Kenya received a milti-million pound loan to buy land from white settlers living the country. This was a tactic to diffuse the danger of a radical land redistribution movement.
The power had been transferred from a foreign oppressor to a homegrown oppressor who was hellbent on using state machinery to maintain the newly acquired wealth and status. Together with their close allies and family, they formed a comprador class which continued to rule on behalf of the former colonial master.
Fake independence and resistance
Kenya’s independence sixty years ago this year was reduced to a mere flag which had to a large extent, no socio-economic impact on the majority of Kenyans. With a meagre 12% high potential farming land, most Kenyans worked as casual labourers on white owned-farms. These farms grew cotton, coffee, tea, pyrethrum and horticultural produce for exports.
Fully conscious of the betrayal, some KLFA warriors led by Musa Mwariama and General Baimunge, went back to the forest to continue fighting for land. The president did not lift the ban on KLFA and proscribed and labelled it as terrorist. What ensued was a crackdown of our independence heroes who felt cheated by the independence settlement. This marked the beginning of the assassination and exile of some of the leaders and fighters. To fortify the new power, dissidents were silenced too through imprisonment and assassination such as the shooting of the fiercest critics, Pio Gama Pinto in 1965. Having established the foundation of the newborn state on the rubble of cronyism, nepotism, betrayal, and corruption, Kenya’s second president perpetuated this grubby legacy.
After the fall of the apartheid government in South Africa, Nelson Mandela – who claimed to have been inspired by the leader of the armed struggle in Kenya – visited Kenya hoping to meet Dedan Kimathi’s Mausoleum or grave site. To his dismay, the two governments which had ruled for more than thirty years had not bothered to locate Kimathi’s remains from Kamiti Maximum Prison which is believed to hold his remains although in an unknown location.
Just as Kimathi was forgotten, other heroes still alive were forgotten and continued to wallow in abject poverty with only a few former fighters being given small parcels of land. Despite their active campaigning to secure the state’s recognition and support, they never felt the warmth of an independent state as the dream was hijacked and individualized by a few.
Mukami Kimathi – a freedom warrior
During the KLFA war, Mukami organized the women battalion, helped in administering oaths, coordinated spies in the Mount Kenya Forest and also ensured mobilization of resources for fighters and other logistical issues. Her contribution in the struggle spanned both the pre and post-independence period.
All these sacrifices were ignored too, by the different independence governments until Mwai Kibaki recognized the KLFA movement and offered a small amount of land to her but which still was not a recognition befitting the role she played in the country’s independence. Most freedom fighters continue to die without any recognition from the government or compensation.
Yet the government failed to fulfill her only dream of being able to bury the remains of her late husband. Every year 20 October when we celebrate Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day), it is always an opportunity for the government to pay lip service to war heroes. This continues as the elite continues to acquire illicit wealth while consolidating political power to propagate their vast and unquenchable interests in various sectors of the economy. Through this, the country has become what J.M. Kariuki foresaw as a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.
Royal rituals, visits and reparations
On the other hand, the British Government has been reluctant to compensate war heroes in Kenya despite many calls for reparations. Instead there are only a few instances with only a handful benefitting from ‘reparations’.
An example was the £19.9 million payout to three KLFA veterans granted by the British High Court. Despite this unwillingness, the British Government has continued with its grandiose coronations, royal weddings and burial rituals. It has also continued to participate in invasions, wars and conquest, whose cost would have otherwise helped to compensate the KLFA and other victims of Britain’s atrocities around the world.
The state rushed to give Mukami Kimathi a state burial ‘befitting’ her status, yet she lived a spartan life. Her burial was an attempt by the Kenyan government to redeem itself and avoid any backlash from the public. Unsurprisingly, the Kenyan Flag was not hoisted half-mast even for an hour to honor her courage, sacrifice, and commitment to the country’s independence, yet it was hoisted half-mast for three days following Queen Elizabeth’s death last year. Kenya continues to betray the collective dream by not recognizing our history while also erasing significant parts of our history.
Mukami’s burial ceremony, which was attended by political honchos, was turned into another elite parade where the leaders in both government and opposition exchanged insults without taking time to let the family and other mourners reflect on the rich legacy which she was leaving behind. Outrageously, the cost of her state burial would have been enough to provide for her and her family when she was alive.
King Charles III has announced, his plans to visit Kenya later in the year to deepen ties that date to the colonial era. For activists we should use this visit to push for reparations for the many victims of atrocities committed by the colonial government in the concentration camps that were set-up across the country. His visit should only be permitted if his agenda is to provide a way for restoration, compensation, and healing to the broken families and individuals who were incarcerated, tortured, maimed, and killed.
The UK King’s visit should be largely centered on ‘undoing’ the dispossession which his family and country orchestrated. The government cannot claim to be putting the interest of its citizens first when it is clearly not interested in fighting for the justice of its people. Before we embark on trade deals, military cooperation, and knowledge exchange, let us first heal our historical wounds rather than covering them up.
As we celebrate 60 years since independence this year, Oginga Odinga’s – Kenya’s first vice-president – autobiography,Not Yet Uhuru, reverberates strongly to the current state of the nation which was sadly foreseen.
Gathanga Ndung’u is a community organiser with Mathare Social Justice Centre which is under the Social Justice Centres’ Working Group. He is also part of Revolutionary Social League brigade that organizes political education in different political cells in the respective centres in Nairobi.
Featured Photograph: Mukami Kimathi died on 5 May 2023 and is buried in Njabini, Kinangop, Nyandarua County (5 May 2023).