British divide-and-rule tactics against Mau Mau


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by Rose Wangechi October 25, 2021

When the British established a colony in Kenya, they had hoped that any form of resistance would be minimized through a combination of force, education or conversion of locals into Christians: They were wrong.

The takeover of land belonging to Kikuyu, Embu and Meru communities had not only created land pressure but also brought discontent in the central Kenya and other regions. More so, the mass land appropriation disrupted live patterns and creating a new class of squatters in what was christened White Highlands. It was this discontent that would snowball into resistance and later morph into full-blown war.

From the early days of the Protectorate, Kikuyus, Embu and Meru were categorized as potentially subversive. In fact, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, the notorious British soldier and intelligence officer, observed that while Kikuyus were industrious, the community was largely troublesome.

 In 1930s, the colonial government became suspicious of the community after the formation of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), an organisation that championed the interests of the community. KCA was at the intersection of the liberation efforts and compliance with laws imposed on Africans.  

Ever since they stopped the Harry Thuku riots in Nairobi, the colonial government had found this to be the new strategy to counter any political uprising. They would also ban the political movements leaving them without any organised group to negotiate peace.

When the Mau Mau war broke out, the British banned the  Kenya African Union (KAU) which had mushroomed from the KCA ashes and started their divide and rule efforts as a war strategy.

The first scheme was to separate other communities in Kenya from the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru.  

 The success of this scheme remains debatable depending on who is describing it. But the British christened submissive communities as ‘nationalistic’ while freedom fighters were labelled ‘terrorists’.

With relish and determination, the government heavily invested in silencing the communities further. A villagisation policy was established to divide the community in loyalists and terrorists.

Determined to make Kenya nerve of their colonial empire, the British could not allow Mau Mau to succeed and any passive support for the Mau Mau was met with brute force.

The Kikuyu, Embu and Meru were portrayed as ‘evil’ for taking the comradeship oath. The British justified their brute force by applying a simplistic line of defense; they needed to protect other communities from the perceived Mau Mau indoctrination.

The colonial government was weary of spread of the Mau Mau revolutionary ideologies to other tribes like the Luo, Luhya and Kipsigis. But they had more reasons to worry; the Kamba community, the backbone of the Regular Army and Police in Kenya. The government was concerned with Mau Mau penetration in Kamba region.

There was, thus, immediate need to separate Kikuyu, Embu and Meru from other tribes. And because physical features could not be a differentiator, the government introduced special identification for members, Kipande system,  of the three communities, a subliminal way of differentiating them.

The Kipande system denied members of the three communities the rights to join a political party unless they possessed a Loyalty Certificate from the Government. This locked out most of Kikuyu, Embu and Meru from participating in political activities until independence.

There was also a plan to bar Kikuyu, Embu and Meru from taking up African leadership. In his memoirs, Sir Michael Blundell, a Kenyan settler farmer and member of the Legislative Council between 1948 to 1963, notes that tribesmen who helped the government suppress Mau Mau were rewarded with appointments to the Council.

But the segregation intensified as the war progressed. Colonialists began publishing books slanted towards skewed details of the Mau Mau war. For example, a book titled Introduction to the History of East Africa by Z. A Marsh and Kingsnorth claimed that the Mau Mau war delayed Kenya’s independence. It also claimed that the villagisation policy was meant to improve service delivery including supply of piped water to Africans. That was not the case.

In another book titled Emergent AfricaW. E. F. Ward misleads readers by asserting that villagization was spontaneous. He further claims that the Kikuyus craved villagisation and willingly took their women and children there.  Books authored by Africans were banned including Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya. It was bannedin 1939.

But these efforts failed. The freedom fighters mounted one of the biggest revolutionary wars in Africa. In 1963, Kenya attained independence, ending decades of external rule.  


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