In postwar years the African population of Nairobi doubled in size. More than half of the inhabitants were Kikuyu, their ranks swelled by a growing tide of desperate, impoverished vagrants. Adding to their numbers were groups of ex-servicemen returning from the war with high expectations of a new life but finding little other than poverty and pass laws. Unemployment, poor housing, low wages, inflation and homelessness produced a groundswell of discontent and worsening crime. Mixing politics and crime, the ‘Forty Group’ – Anake wa 40 – consisting largely of former soldiers of the 1940 age group who had seen service during the war in India, Burma and Ethiopia and other militants were ready to employ strong-arm tactics in opposing the government’s policies and in dealing with its supporters. The trade unions, gathering strength in Nairobi, carried the agitation further, conducting a virulent campaign against the granting of a royal charter to Nairobi. In the African press, too, the tone was becoming increasingly strident. By 1948, the oathing campaign, started by squatters in the Rift Valley and taken up in the Kikuyu reserves and in Nairobi, was in full swing. At fervent gatherings, Kikuyu songs, adapted from church hymns, were sung in praise of Kenyatta and prayers recited to glorify him. In all, several hundred thousand Kikuyu took the oath.
The rising temper of the Kikuyu made little impression on the British governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, a solitary, unapproachable figure from the old colonial school, contemptuous of African nationalists, more preoccupied with the recalcitrant white community than with signs of African discontent, and singularly ill-equipped to deal with the crisis unfolding before him.
Kenyatta, too, found difficulty in controlling the surge of militancy. He favoured constitutional means to oppose colonial rule but was outflanked by militant activists prepared to use violence. In 1951 a hardened group, including two prominent trade unionists, Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia, captured control of the Nairobi branch of the KAU [Kenya African Union], proceeded to gain a virtual stranglehold over the national executive and then formed their own secret central committee with plans for an armed uprising. Kaggia, a former staff sergeant in the army, had seen wartime service in Africa, the Middle East and England. Outbreaks of violence – murder, sabotage, arson and forced oathing – became more frequent.
The move towards violence split the Kikuyu people. Both the old Kikuyu establishment – chiefs, headmen and landowners – and the aspiring middle class – businessmen, traders, civil servants and government teachers – opposed violence. So did large numbers of Christian Kikuyu. But by 1952, much of the Kikuyu tribe was caught up in rebellion.
Kenyatta tried to ride out the turbulence, seeking to defuse the crisis rather than to stir it up. Leading activists in Nairobi, while using his name to justify their actions, regarded him with profound suspicion. When the government asked him to denounce Mau Mau publicly, he duly obliged, using a traditional Kikuyu curse. ‘Let Mau Mau perish for ever,’ he told a huge crowd in Kiambu in August 1952, ‘All people should search for Mau Mau and kill it.’ His speech infuriated the central committee. Summoned to a meeting of the central committee at KAU headquarters in Nairobi, he was clearly surprised to discover who its members were. ‘We said, “We are Mau Mau and what you have said at this Kiambu meeting must not be said again”,’ recalled Fred Kubai. ‘If Kenyatta had continued to denounce Mau Mau, we would have denounced him. He would have lost his life. It was too dangerous and he knew it. He was a bit shaken by the way we looked at him. He was not happy. We weren’t the old men he was used to dealing with. We were young and we were serious.’
As the violence grew worse, with daily incidents.of murder, forced oathing and intimidation, a new governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, on the advice of his officials, concluded that the best way to deal with it was to lock up all KAU leaders. In October 1952, shortly after his arrival, Baring declared a state of emergency and ordered the detention of Kenyatta and 150 other political figures, a move taken by Mau Mau activists as tantamount to a declaration of war. In growing panic, white farmers in the Rift Valley expelled some 100,000 squatters, providing Mau Mau with a massive influx of recruits. Many headed straight for the forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya to join armed gangs recently established there. Far from snuffing out the rebellion, Baring’s action intensified it. It was only after the emergency was declared that the first white settler was murdered.
The brunt of the war, however, fell not on the whites but on loyalist Kikuyu. They became the target of Mau Mau leaders determined to enforce complete unity among the Kikuyu people before turning on the whites. Nearly 2,000 loyalists died. The official death toll of rebels and their supporters was listed as 11,500, though modern researchers put the real figure far higher. Some 80,000 Kikuyu were detained in camps, often subjected to harsh and brutal treatment. As the tide against Mau Mau turned, gang leaders in the forests tried to keep control by employing ever more perverted oaths, horrifying to the Kikuyu and to whites alike. By comparison, the white community escaped lightly. Though white farmers in isolated farmsteads often lived in fear of attack, after four years only thirty-two white civilians had been killed, less than the number who died in traffic accidents in Nairobi during the same period.