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The fortuitous discovery of the court transcripts of the trial of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi pierces the deliberate official silence of many years and thrusts this important historical figure right to the centre of British imperial history in Kenya.

Without a doubt, especially given the historical significance and centrality of Kimathi in the struggle for independence, there is a real possibility that the publication of this archival find (in the 2017 Julie MacArthur edited volume, Dedan Kimathi on Trial) could fling open the door to a grim and an uneasy past and bring into question not merely the skewed sense of British colonial justice but also the entire imperially inaugurated order and related issues of social and historical injustice. After all, the subjugation, domination, and social control of Africans, and the exercise of power in the allocation of resources and services under the colonial order, was through a flimsy and dubious cloak of legality.

Throughout human history, when the legal process establishes a right of one particular person, group, or institution, it simultaneously imposes a restraint on those whose preferences impinge on the right established. In this particular case, in the name of the law, the rights of white settlers were assured and their privilege entrenched even while the just and legitimate aspirations of millions of Africans were delegitimized, repressed, and extinguished without contemplation, with arbitrariness disguised as legality.

The legal illegality of empire

Moreover, the colonial order was contrived through legal prestidigitation. From the outset, the imperial legitimacy of power was, therefore, contested, and most segments of the African population in Kenya understood that the colonial order had been possible only through the legal production of illegality, that, indeed, colonial law cloaked illegitimate power.

Kimathi was convicted on two charges—unlawful possession of a firearm and unlawful possession of ammunition—contrary to the Emergency Regulations of 1953, under which it was found that he threatened public safety and order, contravening a colonial order that rested on the rickety stilts of the legal production and social construction of illegality, which is what had inspired the Mau Mau threat in the first place.

It is, in fact, curiously surprising that Kimathi’s defence team never once argued, in entering its plea, as Mandela and Walter Sisulu, among other defendants, had in the Rivonia Trial. Making a formal plea, the former had courageously stated that it was the government that should have been in the dock and not him. The latter had stated, “It is the government which is guilty, not me,” adding, after being rebuked by Quartus de Wet, the presiding judge, who asked him to plead either guilty or not, “It is the government which is responsible for what is happening in this country.”

The oppressive colonial order resting, as it did, on the social and legal construction of illegality, was not on trial, which, in retrospect, casts a shadow of doubt on this case. In other words, it was a blatant miscarriage of justice.

As if this was not enough, as British colonial authorities were wont to do, Kimathi, the embodiment of anti-colonialism, and by extension, a fighter against all that was evil in the heady, violent 1950s, was ignominiously executed and buried in an unmarked grave, his remains forever lost. With this physical, psychic, and existential erasure, it must also have been hoped that his memory was evermore expunged from the face of the earth. He was not only to be humiliated and dehumanized but also to be forgotten.

As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o observes, this can be seen as part and parcel of, generally, European, and specifically, British imperial dismembering practice of power intended, at once, both to pacify colonial subjects, and as a symbolic act, a performance of power, intended to produce docile minds. The commutation of capital punishment was an integral aspect of colonial networks of power and violence. In addition, Kimathi’s execution was a stark enactment of colonial power intended to reinforce an imperial order and impose the authority of the colonial state. And this enactment of power over Kimathi as a colonial subject meant even more: this feared and hated “terrorist” was dismembered from memory, what he stood for now choked off, and the dangerous ideas and memories that he carried, buried.

The man that colonialists wanted Kenya to forget became a byword for contempt and derision spoken only in hushed whispers. Kimathi, his image now besmirched, like that of many others whose lives were shamefully ended on the gallows, and his memory all but wiped from the public eye for at least half a century, was an ambiguous historical figure unlike self-styled but celebrated fathers of the nation. Even after independence, a street named after him was only a token honour. But the significant military role he had played in the fight for freedom stubbornly remained a part of the national metanarrative and of the school curriculum. For most people, he remained an unspoken hero.

But, as Simon Gikandi points out, there was a gradually spreading ripple of public acclaim emanating from Karunaini, Kimathi’s birthplace, which naturally became the epicentre of the sustained memorialization of the man and what he stood for, despite years of neglect in the Kenyatta and Moi years. In the immediate neighbourhood of Karunaini, numerous elementary and secondary schools are named after him, the highest honour paid to him by the Nyeri elite led by Mwai Kibaki, who in 1972 established the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology. After assuming the presidency, Kibaki then took the memorialization a notch higher by commissioning the Kimathi statue that stands at the head of the street named after him in the centre of the country’s political and commercial capital, Nairobi.

All this came at a time when Kenyans were witnessing a distantly related reincarnation of Mau Mau, the growing Mungiki movement among Gikuyu rural and urban youth. This then is what explains why, in an intimate conversation, in 2006 with two close friends from my church in Nairobi, one concerned observer expressed fear that the Kimathi statue would send the “wrong” message in the country and signal “the return of his spirit”. Whatever that might have meant, it was not far from the truth.

In my belated rejoinder to my friend’s remark and, appropriately using Biblical imagery, this recognition that came late in the day, was Kimathi’s haunting blood bitterly crying out to be remembered, and for justice, from an unmarked grave. His voice joined at least a thousand others whose micronarratives are effectively detailed by David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and thus continue providing witness to British colonial political oppression, exploitation, injustice, and police and military brutality from their graves.

This moment in Mau Mau history in general, and the commemoration of Kimathi in particular, marked the zenith of the retrieval from near oblivion of one of the most violent periods in Kenya’s history that a few would rather not remember. That a small ripple could have reached such a national crescendo, and from the Nyeri region, which was particularly hard hit by the divisions and the violence that arose in the 1950s, and without the slightest demur from so-called loyalists, would warrant an urgent re-evaluation of what it meant to be a “rebel” or a “loyalist” in that decade.

Resistance consciousness

It is quite remarkable that a young peasant of Kimathi’s humble background could have taken such a militant stance against the British, becoming such a formidable imperial headache. This did not happen simply because he, as then alleged, was a demonic, bloodthirsty rebel or a deranged psychopath hell-bent on violence. This sort of offhanded criminalization and obvious dismissal has clouded a clear view of the man.

Kimathi’s stature and resistance was achieved through an ever-widening circle, starting from self-identity to his relationship with, and organization of, key figures that he knew face-to-face (read: Mau Mau forest fighters). This was followed by his keen understanding of, and appeal to, a solidaristic collective organization from which he drew upon the consciously organized resources of a social movement in pursuit of his individual agency.

Furthermore, although this is also where he floundered, he did attempt to involve the organizational capacities of generalized agencies such as other global liberation movements, and exemplars of revolution and their publications, and local and international media, which he read or knew only remotely through their representations.

In the first concentric circle of Kimathi’s organization of resistance was a deep-seated resistance consciousness the spring of which was sufficient self-cognizance to enable him to act as a coherently organized individual or to exercise reflexive agency in power relations. Moreover, his inclination to join the nationalist movement; to become a member of the Kenya African Union (KAU), for which he served as the Ol Kalou branch secretary; and his subsequent involvement with the militant outgrowth  of  the Anake a 40 (Young  Men of the 1940s)—the Muhimu—made up of ex-servicemen, urban gangs, and frustrated political activists from whose ranks he rose quickly to become a respected oath administrator and organizer, all must have stemmed from a solid base of intensive self-organization.

This sort of political activity demonstrates that Kimathi, as an individual, was organized enough to be able to seek to enrol, translate, interest, or oppose others in state-making as a public project of power. This demonstrates his existence under conditions of well-framed reflexivity. Kimathi well understood how power relations constituted his identity, which is what ignited reflexivity that propelled him to pursue possibilities of what he could be(come). This reflexive self-organization of himself as a “resistant subject” was based on framed knowledge about who he was and what he could or should be, which is what enabled him to take a stand against the established colonial order.

Kimathi lived at a crucial period of transition from African traditional ways to a racially hierarchical colonial modernity—at a time, therefore, when the very private experience of having a personal identity to discover, and a personal destiny to fulfil, became a subversive political force of major proportions.

Moreover, he knew about and sought to exploit the deep, fertile soil of brewing African dissent and real grievances, and naturally, the latently explosive transcript of indignation hidden beneath it. Kimathi’s ambition was to animate the collective cultural fantasy and dreams of violent revenge of subordinate but long-suffering Africans who, however, never gave their personal hidden transcripts expression, even among close friends and peers.

At the level of analytical understanding, this is what should matter to us most. It matters little, then, the idiosyncrasies attendant to the pursuit of his stand or whether that stand was an act of outrage or rebellion, or an existential gesture. Equally, important as they are to our full understanding of the man, it matters little what ascriptions or variable representations and multiple interpretations his image attracted contemporaneously or thereafter.

Next, at the level of social organization, Kimathi was able to implicate other important players, some of whom he knew through face-to-face relations. Put differently, he was able to draw upon resources of social organization greater than, or beyond, himself, such as ecologies of local community networks, and, by extension, the forged alliance of ethnic kin- ship and enlarged moral imagination of the Gikuyu.

This level can be said to have been reached when Kimathi took to the Nyandarua Forest, where he rose to become one of the most important leaders of the Mau Mau rebellion. It is in the forest that he would found the Kenya Defence Council, and a freedom fighters’ Kenya Parliament as attempts to bring order, hierarchy, and centralization to the scattered Mau Mau forces. This could well have been the time when Kimathi, contemporaneously, started to attract and embody all manner of competing ascriptions and symbolize many of the contradictions represented by Mau Mau, Kenyan anti-colonialism, and nationalism writ large.

It is while in the forest that a relatively well-prepared Kimathi, as a “resistant subject”, a man of courage and practical power, launched his career proper—before, of course, taking the reins of state power. Having experienced, first-hand, misfortunes that he rightly attributed to the colonial structures of domination that resulted in systematic oppression, and having witnessed the wishes of the people, and judging himself to be a formidable man of will, Kimathi thought he knew how to come to their end, and, whispering to this friend, and arguing down that adversary, sought to mould society to his purpose.

Looking upon people as wax for his hands, he started to take command of them as the wind does the clouds, in order to lead them, in glad surprise, to the very point they would be. And as a leader of men, he was, for a time, followed with acclamation. But this stage also marked the beginning of his undoing.

After all, there are obstacles and limits to the construction of any collectivity, or people as a body. There is nothing automatic about the emergence of “a people”. With him were people who, while sharing certain substantive values, consisted of multiple selves, people constituting their identities in a plurality of subject positions. Although aspiring to forge the wishes of the people into a new polity of citizens, an ordered, lawful, and progressive society, as a leader of a loose coalition with divergent interests, Kimathi easily became a blank canvas upon which were inscribed various political demands and ends.

In addition, he was a suspended hegemon in the making without firm or well-established authority, a floating signifier rather than a fixed one that was pinned down, ordering the form of debate, irrespective of the content. Not having achieved fixity that avails hegemonic power, his authority was subject to the harsh audit of his peers. It comes as no surprise then that Kimathi was less known for his prowess as a field general than for his motivational speeches and his legendary obsession with the output of bureaucratic prose, a discursive practice that is a constant site of struggle over power.

In his power stratagem, Kimathi believed the pen was mightier than the sword. The power struggle was not just within the movement and its top leadership but also within the wider political frontiers of the colonial state. Ultimately, this is what defused the violent forest struggle for land and freedom, arresting the momentum of Mau Mau’s militant demand for independence. Competing loci of personal authority impaired collective action and blunted the first impulse of social obligation, muddling the core and shared substantive value between all Mau Maus as encapsulated by their central argument about “moral economy”.

Confrontations and divisions between forest fighters, and, specifically, challenges to Kimathi’s authority, no doubt affected the stories that these opponents of colonial power wanted to tell Kenya and the world. Furthermore, this fragmentation of resistance lacked all vital centralization and a shared quantifiable strategic objective. As a result, while initially successful in tapping into the energy, general mood of dissent, and resources of a movement that had discrete but wide support of the majority of people in Central Province, solidaristic organization there and elsewhere in the colony and beyond did not quite take root.

In spite of his prowess at drawing on global exemplars of revolution and political thought, Kimathi’s predicament was exacerbated by lack of success to connect with “generalized others” like such révolutionnaires elsewhere in the world and media organizations. In the long run, the colonial state caught up with this central figure whose personal resistance had become the keystone upon which the struggle to defeat tyranny, imperial hegemony, and regime of colonial “normalcy” or order rested. Once the influence of the person at the centre of the Mau Mau rebellion was snuffed out, the back of the resistance was broken.

Thus ended the ambition of a man of courage and measured practical power to mould society to his purpose. But it is important to turn to the fulcrum on which this personal ambition and carefully cultivated identity turned: that is, various technologies of self-expression and, therefore, self-inscription and self-formation. Specifically, this refers to Kimathi’s identity-shaping disciplines and discursive practices through which he sought to transform himself into a formidable man of will and a practical man of action and power, and which also enabled him to assume, as a personal mission, the alignment of ordinary people’s everyday projects with authoritative images of the colonial social order.

A closed double riigi

As Derek Peterson has observed, Kimathi’s ensemble of representations and disciplines necessitating incessant writing, bureaucratic recording and record-keeping materials, typewriters, printing machines, and so forth were ways of imagining a counter-state. More than being a hobby or obsession, it does seem that Kimathi understood the nature and inner workings of power—above all, that it is textual, semiotic, inherent in the very possibility of textuality, meaning, and signification in the social world. Moreover, his letter writing and record keeping can, and should, be seen as discursive resistance or discursive articulation of resistance that informed Kimathi’s sense of self-identity and purpose.

Kimathi’s identity-shaping disciplines and discursive practices were a way of engaging with social reality, which cannot be known unequivocally but only through its representation in language. He was exercising discursive consciousness by putting things into words or giving verbal expression to the promptings of action. His use of speeches, text, writing, cognition, and argumentation can, and should, be seen as reliance on language to represent possibilities, and to position possibilities, in relation to each other. In other words, he used language to define the possibilities of meaningful existence.

Although he was known to have written profusely, however, there is precious little that exists of Kimathi’s records to shed light on his thinking, what he understood his cause to be, and his stand. Nevertheless, it is worth making a gallant effort to reveal his thoughts.

For all his disrepute, Kimathi’s sharpness, illustrated in his few surviving historical records, is not in doubt. Indeed, there has not been a more comprehensive testimony to the man’s intellectual acuity until the recovery of transcripts of his trial. Although meant to argue for the prosecution, an expert witness, a medical doctor, stated that Kimathi was a “reasonably intelligent man, intelligent above the standard of a man of his education.” This rings true in the pages of his scant writing. His is a feeble and isolated prophetic voice crying out from the wilderness of colonial oppression, that of socioeconomic neglect of African reserves and exploitation.

Nor was it a voice that was taken seriously. But what one deduces from the little writing available, and specifically that selectively adduced in the trial as evidence (Exhibits Nos. 22A, 23, and 24), is a person of more than average intelligence and a man wholly committed to a just cause, something that is echoed in Maina wa Kinyatti’s The Papers of Dedan Kimathi, the veracity, provenance, access, and translation of which, in academic circles unfortunately, is still much in doubt.

Scattered throughout are gems of Gikuyu wisdom from a man moved to action, not out of flippant emotions but from the depths of the experience of colonial injustice and the pressing need for redress. One gleans appeals to the colonial authorities to rely less on coercion or  fear and more on truth; appeals for mutual trust, respect, and friendship, and mutuality in giving and acceptance; appeals for truth and justice; appeals for shared prosperity while appreciating that all people cannot be rich; appeals for the need for reconciliation; and appeals for peace and mutual coexistence and the hope that blacks and whites in Kenya be of one heart.

One also finds, in these few pages, a stunning tenacity in the justifiability of the cause for which he was fighting. The reading of the three Kimathi letters also shows a clear understanding of his cause: Kimathi and others were fighting for the country and its people, for wĩathi (self-mastery) and for truth and justice.

And, in this worthy struggle, surrender was out of the question. It was something that could not get into the minds of intelligent people. Indeed, it was preferable to sell one’s soul instead of having to surrender it. Surrender would also not bring about an end to the war. It was also quite clear, in Kimathi’s mind, who Mau Mau were, and it was not just a matter of white and black as the problems that beset Kenya affected both races. As such, justice could not be expected from the barrel of the gun.

Mau Mau was the cry of a people suffering from poverty and exploitation. It was a vehicle to liberate Kenya, to regain the Kenyan soil that Europeans had occupied by force. The poor man was Mau Mau, and therefore, bombs and other weapons could not finish the movement. In fact, if the exploitation of the Africans did not stop, Kimathi said, it was to be expected that the war in Kenya would continue for a long time.

Violent confrontation between the two sides could not bring about fairness or truth. Only peace could hold the Kenyan house together, as opposed to ruling Africans with the colonial whip in their faces. There was need for reconciliation (ũiguano), and mending of the “paining” part of the colonial body politic, beyond the rift occasioned by the war. The fight was not one of everlasting hatred but was, rather, a necessary but regrettable pause calling for the creation of a true and real brotherhood between white and black, so that the latter could be regarded as people, as capable and equal human beings.

All said, one may be forgiven for seeing, in Kimathi, a quite different kind of man from these letters. A Kimathi who was not a mastermind of evil and a militant man of violent action but also an understanding diplomat in his own right, especially considering his constant appeals for peace.

Nonetheless, Kimathi’s cause and what he stood for, his thinking about the colonial order and his action(s) against it, and his appeals, were not taken as seriously as he would have wished. Indeed, because of it, his letter writing and record keeping, and the content therein, even proffers of peace, were met with a closed double riigi (door)—that of the colonial authorities on the one hand, and that of sections of the forest Mau Mau and their leadership on the other.

Kimathi faced opposition from his fellow forest fighters over strategy revolving around his peace efforts as well as challenges to his authority. This rift stemmed from literacy, which in the forest often became a dividing line, especially among the movement’s leadership. While exercising identity-shaping disciplines and discursive practices, Kimathi elevated himself over his peers, whom he was often given to criticizing as unlettered. They, in turn, accused Kimathi of having been poisoned by Christianity and Western education. It is not surprising that the modestly educated, like Kimathi, and the highly educated, like Karari Njama, were disturbed by traditional Gikuyu practices and superstitions, for instance, precolonial oath-taking elements, yet tolerated them for their utility.

In due time, those who clung to traditions and superstitions, deeming themselves to be authentic Gikuyus, retreated to the house of Gikuyu customs and closed the woven door (riigi) behind them. These Kimathi critics were weary of his bureaucratic Kenya Parliament with its incessant writing and record keeping and talks of making peace that they found untrustworthy. They accused Kimathi and other educated Protestant leaders of using their illiterate followers for their own selfish ends.

On the other hand was the riigi of the colonial authorities. The colonial authorities, and the court, chose to look beyond Kimathi’s motivations, what he stood for, and what he was fighting for. That mattered little. It is little wonder that Kimathi was tried within the narrow legal parameters of a court of Emergency assize. Why he was in possession of both an unlicensed revolver and six rounds of ammunition was not in question.

Kimathi’s proffers of peace and appeals for redress of pressing African grievances; for the colonial authorities to rely less on coercion or fear, and more on truth; for mutual trust, respect and friendship, and mutuality in giving and acceptance; for shared prosperity while appreciating that all people cannot be rich; for the need for healing and reconciliation; for peace and mutual coexistence, and the expression of hope that blacks and whites in Kenya be of one heart; and for justice and truth, came to naught. Indeed, what he represented, the truth of the weak spoken in the face of power, was inadmissible and unacceptable.

Kimathi’s insubordination against the constituted colonial order and its laws, and the insurrection that he had led, had breached the bounds of established rules of structured consensual interaction, including whatever conflict existed between the imperial authorities and their “lawful” African subjects. His war sought to reconfigure the socioeconomic formation of the state, the political order within it, and its power structure. The violence and its envisioned objectives went beyond ordered conflict within the structured rules of interaction that colonial authorities oversaw.

What is more, Kimathi’s truth and knowledge were at loggerheads with the ideas and beliefs that had (re)produced the colonial political, economic, and social structure. Structurally, what Kimathi stood for was dangerous to the systemic colonial structure and had to be rooted out and crushed. What Kimathi stood for was, therefore, feared by, and undesirable for, the colonial authorities. He was the paragon of radical and revolutionary thought that demanded far-reaching reforms and fundamental decolonization.

The door to this “dangerous” road had to be firmly shut, even if it meant granting flag and political independence to Kenya. Indeed, independence was one way of preventing this possibility: it was a safety valve that ensured that the madding crowd of have-nots could not at any time leap over the barriers and invade the pitch of sanitized politics of “law and order”, as they had in 1952.

In death as in life, Kimathi represents the deep politics of moral ethnicity that continues to pit the haves against the have-nots, that is, at once a dynastic, factional, and generational game. This, then, is what explains why he continues to be the revolutionary touchstone by which radical politicians such as J.M. Kariuki, writers acutely sensitive to social and political forces and relations of production, and socially conscious musicians, evaluate politics in Kenya.

Kimathi remains, perhaps more than any other public figure in Kenya’s history, the focal point of nationalism, the smouldering embers of which promise to glow brighter into an ever-shining dawn of the quest for popular statehood.

A belated eulogy

The emerging image of Kimathi is that of a simple man who acted with courage when he experienced systematic colonial oppression. It is this courage that propelled him to take a daring stand and to fight as a David against an imperial Goliath for basic human rights and shared prosperity, dignity, truth, justice, mutual respect, and coexistence. In so doing, he exemplified Ralph Waldo Emerson’s three qualities of greatness, which conspicuously attract the wonder and reverence of mankind.

First, Kimathi demonstrated a purpose so sincere that it could not be sidetracked by any prospects of wealth or other personal advantage. It is this virtue that steeled his nerves as he waited for his end and must have enabled him to embrace self-sacrifice. It is such self-sacrifice that made renowned heroes of Greece and Rome such as Socrates, Aristides, Phocion, Quintus Curtius, and Regulus.

Second, he was a man of practical power who sought to memorialize and, therefore, immortalize, the thoughts of powerless peasants in sculptures of wood and stone, brass, and steel.

Third, Kimathi excelled in courage, which no imperial terrors— neither bombs from the sky nor the gallows—could shake. His own truth and knowledge were the antidote of fear. Kimathi had the conviction that the imperial agents with whom he contended were not necessarily superior to him in strength, resources, and spirit. A self-made field marshal, his speeches motivated his itungati (troops of young “soldiers”) reminding them that they were men and that their enemies were no more. It is this same sacred courage that steadied his pen as he scribbled his last letter, addressed to a Father Marino (from a Catholic mission in Nyeri). From a stoic pen flowed words of a man who was persuaded that he had attempted to accomplish the cause that he was put in colonial Kenya by the Creator to do.

Penning these last words, I wonder whether, as a professing Christian, Kimathi thought he was indestructible. Whether his only fear was facing his final judge, the Almighty, and not those who could kill the body but were unable to kill the soul or destroy his legacy. Otherwise, how could he have taken on the British unless he believed he was more than a match for his antagonists then and in the long sweep of history? Was death his final hope for escape from the imprisonment of an oppressive colonial architecture of legal strictures and exploitative policies; from the manacling of individual and collective wills; and from imperial spatial deletion and delimitation constraining the individual field and basis of action and, therefore, African agency? And how could he have been impenitently “so busy and so happy preparing for heaven” on the very eve of his execution (by hanging by the neck until dead) unless he was consumed by the best and highest courages that are the beams of the Almighty? Did he believe himself to have fought the good fight, to have run and finished the race and remained faithful to a just cause that had, for him, shone like the noonday sun?

We may never know the full answers to these questions. But one thing is without doubt: there was once a man in a leopard skin jacket and hat under a castor oil tree in the thick tapestry of sickly wafting mist of the Nyandarua Forest of the cold Aberdare Ranges of Central Kenya. A man who consigned himself there because he loved the idea of a free country more than anything in the world, even his life. A man who, aiming for neither wealth nor comfort, ventured all to put, in one act of violent resistance, the invisible thought in his mind. A man who is in anybody’s eyes and for all times will remain, a liberator, for he sought the ideal of self-mastery and freedom stemming from the restoration of alienated African lands.

This man, Kimathi, must stand like a Hercules, an Achilles, a Rüstem, or a Cid in the mythology of the Kenyan state; and in its authentic history, like a Leonidas, a Scipio, a Caesar, a Richard Cœur de Lion, a Nelson, a Grand Condé, a Bertrand du Guesclin, a Doge Dandolo, a Napoleon, a Masséna, and a Ney.

But this is now a matter before the court of public opinion, which must decide this now reopened case: one between what Kimathi stood for and his stated cause, and that of Mau Mau, versus an obsolete, and unjust and legally illegal British colonial justice system.