Daniel Howden: Freedom fighters betrayed by their leaders

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The Independent Online

The spectacle of ageing Mau Mau fighters finally being granted a hearing in the courtrooms of their former colonial oppressors has excited only a muted response in Kenya itself.

For some the case is an uncomfortable reminder of how little the rural foot-soldiers of the historic revolt benefited from the independence their failed rebellion eventually brought.

Kenya's first post-independence leader, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu like the Mau Mau fighters but unlike them he was urban and educated. He opposed their espousal of a return to traditional African ways and actually mocked Mau Mau leaders as he set about enriching a Kikuyu elite in Nairobi, many of whom are in power to this day. Those who fought British rule quickly discovered that their new leaders wanted to inherit, not overthrow, the colonial system.

That resentment, fuelled by landlessness, rural poverty and a population explosion has never gone away. And the dreadlocks, secret oaths, rites and ceremonies of the Mau Mau are now practised for a lesser cause.

The Mungiki, or "multitude" in the Kikuyu language, are the self- proclaimed successors to the Mau Mau in what has mutated from a youth movement into a mafia. Founded in the 1980s to defend Kikuyu farmers in land clashes with rival ethnic groups, it has evolved into the country's largest criminal network. The sect controls large areas of central Kenya, while running protection rackets in Nairobi and earning a reputation for ritualistic torture and murder.

The state's response to the Mungiki has been a wave of extra-judicial killings, according to a recent UN report and little or nothing to address the poverty and exclusion that underpins the sect.

The children of the Mau Mau are the same failed subsistence farmers who eventually migrated to Nairobi's horrific slums from which they have been able to witness the excesses of the Kikuyu elite which helped to fuel last year's post-election violence.

The high levels of joblessness and tribal friction – which is periodically exploited by Kenya's politicians – mean that the pool of impoverished potential recruits is even greater now for the Mungiki than it was 50 years ago for the Mau Mau.