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The recent death of Field Marshall Mukami Kimathi re-ignited the long-drawn-out debate about finding the site where her husband, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, was buried so that his remains can be exhumed and reburied.

The re-emergence of the debate was partly triggered by her family stating that Mukami had asked to not be buried until her husband’s remains were recovered so that they could be buried together next to each other. In the end, the government seems to have persuaded the family to proceed with the funeral.

Since Mukami was a public figure—mainly on account of being the widow of Dedan Kimathi—it was expected that senior political figures would flock to her funeral. President William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua were present as was their main competitor in the 2022 presidential election, Raila Odinga, who was accompanied by several notable figures including Maina Njenga, the former leader of Mungiki.

During Mukami’s burial, the president and his deputy made a commitment to fulfilling her wish of finding Kimathi’s bones and reburying them next to her. It is unlikely that many of the people who heard this promise believed it. This is not just to do with the trust deficit that the current regime is suffering from, but also because this commitment has been made by previous governments. In fact, some analysts have argued, Kimathi’s remains are unlikely to ever be found. I am inclined to agree and, presumably by this point, our national leaders understand this as well. This begs the question why they keep making this promise, or rather, what makes it difficult for them to acknowledge that they may never find Kimathi’s remains and bring the matter to a close.

In my view, as I argue here, successive governments have found it difficult to close the debate because of the central place that Kimathi has come to occupy in anti-establishment politics as the Kenyan political elite has continued to run the country in extractive and oppressive ways. As a brave freedom fighter who stood up to the oppression of the colonial government, and who died before Kenya gained independence thus remaining untainted by the corruption and oppression that have characterized post-colonial regimes, Kimathi presents the image of citizenship that is at odds with what the Kenyan government demands of Kenyans, while at the same time, he is seen as the kind of leader whose values differ from those of the Kenya’s post-colonial leaders.  For this reason, untamed, Kimathi’s memory is a problem for the state for the same reason that he is a hero to those who fight against oppression: he stands as a challenge to the model of obedient, respectful, and compliant citizenship that the Kenyan state demands of its citizens in the face of oppression and neglect. People leading the anti-establishment struggle have therefore taken Kimathi as their hero and thereby immortalised him. Thus, the discourse about Kimathi’s bones is illustrative of a country that is at war with itself—a war that will produce neither easy victories nor victors.

The long search for Kimathi’s bones

Dedan Kimathi Waciuri was born in Nyeri in 1920. He joined the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1940 where he is said to have learned how to handle guns. In 1947, he joined the Kenya African Union (KAU), a political organisation formed in 1944 to agitate for independence. Kimathi rose through the KAU ranks to become one of its most prominent leaders. In 1952, following the Mau-Mau uprising, the British colonial government declared a state of emergency, forcing many Mau-Mau, including Kimathi, into hiding. This turned the uprising into a guerrilla war. Kimathi was captured in 1956 and taken to Kamiti prison where he was hanged the following year.  The exact location of his burial has been a matter of contestation. Over the years, several people have claimed to know where he was buried and some have even claimed to have been witnesses to his execution and burial, but they have offered contradicting accounts which have not yielded much.

The debate about retrieving Kimathi’s bones for reburial has been going on since Kenya gained independence in 1963. In the early years of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s regime (1963-1978), the government recognised Kimathi as a hero. A major street in downtown Nairobi was renamed after him as well as several health and educational institutions in Nyeri and elsewhere in central Kenya. The most notable of these was the Kimathi Technical Institute, which later became Dedan Kimathi University. However, the Kenyatta presidency was marked by demands from Mau Mau veterans, who claimed that they had been neglected by the government, and denied recognition and compensation. Land formed a big part of their demands and, indeed, land was allocated to some of them, including Kimathi’s family.

He stands as a challenge to the model of obedient, respectful, and compliant citizenship that the Kenyan state demands of its citizens in the face of oppression and neglect.

Still, this did not fully address the Mau Mau question. Their calls were echoed by some politicians, including JM Kariuki who would later be assassinated, giving the discourse of betrayal more prominence. There are myths about the Mau Mau, Kimathi and Kenyatta that I shall not go into here. However, an important one to note is the claim that Kenyatta was behind Kimathi’s capture and execution because he wanted an easier path to the leadership of the country following independence. The veracity of such claims is often hard to establish, and the truth might be more complicated, as is often the case. Be that as it may, these myths serve important political purposes. Because both Kenyatta and Kimathi were leading Kikuyu figures, Kenyatta’s leadership tended to be compared with Kimathi’s legacy. In light of the evolving post-colonial crisis that was blamed on poor leadership, it is not surprising that people might want to imagine what things would have been like under Kimathi’s leadership. Mau Mau politics were a crucial factor here.

Importantly, when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice president, fell out with Kenyatta and broke away from the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to form the Kenya Peoples’ Union (KPU) together with other politicians in 1966, they decided to take up the Mau Mau cause as part of their wider agenda demanding a fairer distribution of wealth in the country. And since Dedan Kimathi was widely known and acknowledged to be the leader of the Mau Mau, his place in the fight against inequality and in support of redistributive policies in post-colonial Kenya had begun to take shape.

There followed a public debate about retrieving Kimathi’s bones so that he could be accorded a respectful burial as a national hero. For instance, in 1968, GG Kariuki, then member of parliament for Laikipia West, raised the question of exhumation of Kimathi’s body in parliament and also asked for a monument to be erected in his honour. At the time, the government signalled a willingness to embark on that pursuit. If it were to succeed, that would have been the best time as there would have been more people who might have been able to provide information. In response to GG Kariuki’s question, the then Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange said that the government would proceed as proposed by GG Kariuki, relying on Mau Mau elders to locate the grave so that Kimathi’s remains could be re-buried in the Nairobi City Centre. Koinange also announced that a monument in Kimathi’s honour would be erected at the junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street.

Because both Kenyatta and Kimathi were leading Kikuyu figures, Kenyatta’s leadership tended to be compared with Kimathi’s legacy.

The government’s attitude seems to have changed soon thereafter, in the wake of Tom Mboya’s assassination in 1969. Melissa Wanjiru-Mwita’s analysis of the debate on the politics of the renaming of a street in Nairobi after Tom Mboya gives us a sense of a state that was quickly coming to terms with the politics of memory. Little wonder then that, soon after Tom Mboya’s assassination, the government backtracked on its pledge to build monuments in memory of national heroes in the country. Speaking specifically of Kimathi, Kamwithi Munyi, who had previously been very vocal on Mau Mau issues before his appointment as Assistant Minister, said “Singling out one freedom fighter for a ceremonial reburial would not be consistent with the spirit of building a united nation… It would be a waste of public funds and time to locate graves and exhume their remains.” Evidently, the Kenyatta government wanted to draw the matter of Kimathi’s legacy to a close. It did not succeed.

In fact, during Daniel arap Moi’s presidency, the campaign for the retrieval of Kimathi’s bones for reburial gained even more steam. This needs to be understood in the context of the governance crisis that marked the country’s politics at the time, especially the brutality meted against those who opposed Moi’s rule. This is already well documented. Still, many groups emerged that challenged Moi’s rule, amongst them the Mwakenya group. Some of these groups identified Kimathi as their hero in their struggle against oppression. In The Dedan Kimathi Papers, Maina wa Kinyatti, a former political prisoner and member of Mwakenya, writes, “Kimathi lives on in the continuing struggle of our people for democracy and social justice.”

It is therefore hardly surprising that the Moi government was opposed to any efforts to retrieve Kimathi’s remains and offer him a state funeral. In July 1993, the question of locating Kimathi’s grave was again raised in parliament by Kiraitu Murungi, then an opposition member of parliament, triggering intense debate. The then Minister for Home Affairs Francis Lotodo said that the government could not locate Kimathi’s grave as, in his words, “The colonialists buried the late Dedan Kimathi in a mass grave along with others who then faced similar fate.” Raila Odinga, then member of parliament for Lang’ata, rejected this claim, insisting that there were people who knew where Kimathi had been buried. Lotodo insisted that attempting to find Kimathi’s remains would be futile because they would only “end up getting skulls and you will not know which one belongs to Kimathi”.

As opposition leaders—including Raila Odinga and Kiraitu Murungi who had challenged Moi’s government on the Kimathi question—came into the government when Mwai Kibaki won the presidency in 2002 buoyed by the wave of a united opposition, it was now their turn to attempt to solve the puzzle. Even though this is unlikely to have been a priority for Kibaki himself, addressing past injustices was an important part of the agenda of the government as many of the people in his government had suffered abuse under the Moi regime. Moreover, as some analysts have argued, Kibaki—himself a Kikuyu from Nyeri—could not be seen to be doing nothing about it. Importantly, Kiraitu Murungi was now the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and the task of resolving this matter lay squarely in his docket.

“Kimathi lives on in the continuing struggle of our people for democracy and social justice.”

In the very first year of Kibaki’s presidency, several important things happened, both hits and misses. A major win was when Dr Chris Murungaru, then Minister for Internal Security, lifted the ban on Mau Mau that had been in place for over 40 years. This move effectively re-designated Mau Mau as freedom fighters rather than terrorists as they had been termed by the colonialists. Even though the minister said that lifting the ban would not be accompanied by compensation for the Mau Mau fighters, calls for the Mau Mau veterans to be honoured gained steam. A major flop, and a source of great embarrassment for the government, was when they brought an Ethiopian peasant farmer, Ato Lemma Ayanu, into Kenya as the “long lost” Mau Mau hero General Stanley Mathenge. Later, a taskforce that Kiraitu Murungi had appointed reported that they had not been able to find Kimathi’s grave, and the prison authorities were not sure that he was buried in the prison compound. What an anti-climax. The following year, on 15 January 2004, Kimathi’s family was given access to Kamiti Prison in the company of eight individuals who had claimed to know where the body was buried but again the search proved futile. The Kibaki government then shifted their attention to erecting a statue of Kimathi in Nairobi, which they did.

Claiming the spirit of Kimathi 

Curiously, the failure to trace Kimathi’s remains did not stop politicians from making claims that the government would retrieve Kimathi’s bones. At the national level, some of these statements have been in response to calls for the government to address the matter or to criticism for not doing enough to celebrate our national heroes. Of course, we cannot disregard the opportunism of politicians who want to claim the Kimathi legacy and be seen to be on the side of the country’s majority poor. That being said, it is by looking a bit more closely at Kimathi’s memory within the context of Kikuyu politics that we might be able to better understand why claiming the spirit of Kimathi matters so much. This question has been explored by other analysts in the historical context and therefore it may not be necessary to go into it here. Instead, it is perhaps more productive to consider the present moment. For this, we need to go back to Mukami’s funeral and zoom in on two men: Rigathi Gachagua and Maina Njenga.

Rigathi Gachagua, then first-term member of parliament for Mathira Constituency in Nyeri, was picked by President Ruto (then Deputy President) as his running mate in the run-up to the 2022 election. The pair ran on an anti-establishment ticket, promising the poor people (“hustlers”) that they would institute a bottom-up economic model and root out the so-called dynasties that had captured the state. During that contest, and thereafter, Rigathi frequently claimed to be a descendant of Mau Mau. However, the veracity of these claims—among others that he has made—has been called into question.  Their main competitor in that election was Raila Odinga who, with a long history of anti-establishment politics, was now on the same side as Uhuru Kenyatta who had previously been his bitter rival. Raila was also joined by a coterie of other politicians with mixed histories, ranging from the former fiery Justice Minister Martha Karua to Maina Njenga, the former leader of Mungiki. The Ruto-Gachagua ticket won the election.

As Uhuru Kenyatta seemingly exited the scene, the question turned to who the new Mt Kenya kingpin would be. While Rigathi was seen as a potential front-runner by virtue of holding the second-highest political office in Kenya, his ascendancy to that position was not guaranteed; there is a history of politicians who have occupied high office without being able to ascend to the position of kingpin. Even though it seemed likely—and it still does—that allegiances in the Mt Kenya region would be split, this did not put a stop to the discussions. Some insisted that Uhuru would remain the kingpin, and this became more pronounced as he returned to the domestic political scene to reclaim control of the Jubilee Party. Others said that Rigathi would be able to grasp the position while yet others suggested, more quietly, that it would be Maina Njenga. Then, in mid-April, about two weeks before Mukami died, a video emerged that sent  shockwaves in central Kenya.

We cannot disregard the opportunism of politicians who want to claim Kimathi’s legacy and be seen to be on the side of the country’s majority poor.

Apparently first aired on TikTok, the popular social media platform, the video showed Maina leading a sizeable group of young men in song and prayer. As the video spread though WhatsApp groups, the question on many people’s minds was: Is Mungiki back? I watched the video several times, trying to figure out what it was about it that not only caught and sustained my attention, but also elicited strong emotions within me. There was so much about the video that was familiar and yet everything felt strange. As I discussed it with some friends about a week later, I was able to put my finger on what it was that made the video so compelling. Here was a group of young men, seemingly hundreds of them, standing in orderly fashion, listening attentively as Maina spoke, responding enthusiastically to his calls, and when he led them in song, every single one of them seemed to know the song well and sung it in almost the same fashion in which we sing the national anthem. The kind of cohesion and coordination that the video displayed cannot emerge by chance. And whatever this grouping was, whatever the event was, it was clear that Maina was firmly in charge. Whether he intended it or not, the video signalled that Maina had effectively fired his first shot, claiming a stake in the battle for supremacy in central Kenya. A shot which, I might add, excited some in as strong measure as it filled many others with trepidation.

Significantly, the song that Maina led the group in singing was a Mau Mau song whose core message is that wendani (which translates to a communal love that we can also describe as unity and solidarity), is of a higher value than wealth. The song narrates the story of Mau Mau uprising, including detention of Kikuyu people by the colonialists, and how wendani was crucial to the survival of the community. Kariuki wa Kiarutara has done a rendition of the song, Kung’u Maitu, which is the reason why the song may feel familiar to many Kikuyu people even if they do not know the original Mau Mau song. Given the context of the unfolding supremacy battle between unequally matched opponents, we can read the singing, led by Maina, as an invitation to Rigathi to display his Mau Mau credentials. The stage was Mukami’s funeral. Rigathi required the support of Kwame Rigii to sing a Mau Mau song, Mwene Nyaga. On that front, Maina won.

In the video, Maina, who now describes himself as a bishop, then seems to open a second battle front. While Mungiki, the grouping that Maina led, was seen as a traditionalist movement, Maina mixes both Kikuyu spiritual rhetoric with Christian rhetoric. Since the Kenya Kwanza government has taken a heavily evangelical tone, Maina seems to take advantage of the Easter season to signal his Christian credentials. In the short speech he makes, he says that the purpose of the event is to celebrate unity and “to remember the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Talking of the rising Christ, he says, in a rather vague fashion but one which elicits excitement in the crowd, “We’re rising with him.” He then asks the group to turn around and face Mt Kenya so that they can pray. His prayer blends both the Kikuyu prayer (Thaai) and the Christian prayer. Given the significance of Christianity in central Kenya, especially the evangelical movement, Maina would not be able to claim a victory here so easily. And since Rigathi’s wife is a pastor, he has credibility among evangelical church leaders. He is able to move around churches in a way that Maina may never be able to do.

Whether he intended it or not, the video signalled that Maina had effectively fired his first shot, claiming a stake in the battle for supremacy in central Kenya.

Of course, Maina’s challenge was not going to go unanswered. Soon, Maina was being pursued by the police. His homes were raided. Police said that they found a gun in one of his houses. He was summoned to the DCI where he showed up in a day that was full of drama. Many of his supporters showed up and spent the time singing Kikuyu traditional songs. Similar scenes unfolded when he was arraigned in court in Nakuru. Maina said that the government was pursuing him to stop him from attending Mukami’s funeral. In the end, he was able to attend the funeral. And even though he did not speak, his presence was noted. The effect that this has had however, is to reintroduce talk of dealing ruthlessly with Mungiki into the public discourse. Led by Rigathi, senior government officials have warned that the government will not allow a return of Mungiki. This has led to justified fears that the government may carry out executions of young Kikuyu men in a manner similar to what happened during Kibaki’s presidency, drawing the condemnation of many including the UN Special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions.

Strategically, however, and simply by virtue of wielding state power, the one arena on which Rigathi could easily upstage Maina and claim the Mau Mau legacy without turning him into a martyr, is to deliver on the promise to retrieve Kimathi’s bones. Succeeding in doing so would mean that Rigathi would have achieved what other senior Kikuyu leaders have been unwilling or unable to do. It is therefore unsurprising that he would make the promise, yet again, that the government will attempt to recover Kimathi’s bones. Whether it will make any meaningful efforts that go beyond what has been attempted in the past remains to be seen. I am not holding my breath.

Beyond these political contestations, however, we must also ask ourselves if it matters whether Kimathi’s bones are retrieved or not. To my mind, whether they retrieve the bones or not, Kimathi’s legacy has been firmly cemented by the decades during which he has come to anchor the struggle for freedom and liberation in Kenya.

May his spirit continue to inspire generations of Kenyans to action against our oppressors.