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cc Exploring the Mau Mau reparations case and Kenya’s subsequent decades-long struggle with the politicisation of land, Leigh Brownhill advocates the importance of social reparations and individual compensation for atrocities committed under British colonial policies, programmes, soldiers and settlers. British land reform policies implemented to punish the Mau Mau ultimately contributed to the impoverishment and social inequality of wide segments of Kenyan society. Although Brownhill believes that individual reparations for Mau Mau survivors and their families are necessary and appropriate – particularly with regard to Kenyan women continuing to carry the burden imposed by British counter-insurgency – she argues a more inclusive, social reparations-based approach will curb inequality in a way faithful to original Mau Mau principles.

The Mau Mau reparations case highlights both the atrocities suffered by Kenyans struggling for freedom in the 1950s and the long-lasting impact of the socio-economic structures that the British left firmly in place when they finally ceded control over the country in 1963. Of all who survived the atrocities meted out by British soldiers and their settler and Home Guard allies, women carried the heaviest burden. This is especially clear once we take into account the British policy of land privatisation. The White Highlands had been expropriated decades earlier, but the enclosure policy was implemented in the native reserves in earnest only in 1954. These enclosures dispossessed many Mau Mau men, and all women, by redrawing boundaries and redistributing properties. Grossly unequal distribution of land has amounted to collective punishment of the individuals who were divested of their interests in land, and all of their subsequent generations who have inherited the poverty that the British imposed in their anti-Mau Mau land policy.

Systematic murder, rape, torture, mutilation, forced confinement, forced labour, collective punishment, theft, destruction of property and mass incarceration were all used by colonial soldiers and civilians in the course of mounting a counter-insurgency war against the Mau Mau. To justify their actions at the time, the British called the Mau Mau terrorists. For the torturer, the term terrorist dehumanises the victims and legitimises any form of violence against them; it announces to members of the public that they should be grateful that someone is willing to exterminate the supposed terrorist threat against them. The use of the term also implied that anyone caught sympathising with or supporting the aims, goals, and objectives of the Mau Mau was liable to be deemed a terrorist too. By calling them terrorists, the colonial regime sought to silence questions about the legitimacy of the grievances of the Kenyan peoples and the illegitimacy of the colonial occupation, which the British maintained in Kenya by force of arms.

Kikuyu women, in particular, suffered all of the same injustices as their men-folk during the 1950s. In addition, women experienced forced marriages, rape-induced pregnancies, and the crushing of women’s customary controls over fertility, controls which were always tied up with women’s rights in land and were operable, only jointly, in common with others. Women across Kenya were excluded from land ownership despite being the main farmers. To this day, women comprise the majority of the landless in Kenya’s rural and urban areas. They are the majority among the very poor. They continue to carry the bulk of the burden imposed by British counter-insurgency policies and programmes. At the same time, they remain responsible for the subsistence and well-being of their families. Mau Mau women deserve special attention in the reparations case; in fact, an even more inclusive approach is critical.

For reparations to deliver justice, they must include social reparations that address the vast social problems rooted in the inequalities constructed during the colonial era. Alone, individual reparations – or payments to individual survivors and their families – are likely to exacerbate inequality and injustice because, by definition, only a limited number of survivors could be recognised, while the majority would be excluded. The example of the reparations paid in the landmines case offers a caution. Many of the Maasai and Samburu who received reparations in the form of individual compensation for deaths and injuries from British landmines were swindled by conmen, or otherwise lost the funds through speculation and outright binge-spending. A similar fate faced Canadian aboriginal people, who recently received individual reparations from the Canadian government for abuse suffered in church-affiliated residential schools. Worse, in the Canadian case, a number of recipients committed suicide because the reparations payments forced them to confront once again, in isolation, their memories and long-buried pain and suffering.

Another reason for including social reparations in this case, rather than individual reparations alone, concerns the very goals of the Mau Mau struggle. The militants of the Kenya Land Freedom Army and their wide network of supporters certainly did not fight solely for their own little piece of land, or their own individual rights. They fought for land for all, freedom for all and rights for all. If reparations for the wrongs committed against Kenyans are to recognise the spirit and intent of the freedom struggle, they should centre on the extension to all Kenyans of horizontal, participatory democracy and universal access to life’s necessities.

This brings us to a final reason that social reparations promise to deliver justice in ways that individual reparations alone cannot. It is not only Mau Mau fighters, but also much wider segments of Kenyan society who have suffered the impact of British colonial policies originally designed to punish the Mau Mau. Land privatisation led to high and growing levels of landlessness among almost all of Kenya’s ethnic groups, and contributed to Kenya being one of the most unequal societies in the world.


The 1954 Swynnerton Plan for the Intensification of African Agriculture reorganised African land relations and farming toward exclusive, private male ownership, and export cash-crop production. The plan involved a massive redistribution of land, which was also used as collective punishment and furthered the colonial efforts to break up collectivity, unity and solidarity among the Kikuyu. The plan called for the ‘consolidation and enclosure’ of all land, and the boundaries of every farm in Central Province were redrawn between 1954 and 1960. The new owners were encouraged to fence in their property, and title deeds were issued only to male heads of households.

The plan entrenched the power of African loyalists, protected the settler political economy, and laid the foundation for the post-colonial integration of Kenya as a subordinate player in global agro-industrial markets.

The East Africa Royal Commission (EARC), a body set up in 1953 to consider how to ‘develop’ land in east Africa, originally promoted the establishment of a small landed class of African men. The commission sought to provide title deeds to a cluster of loyalist chiefs and traders in each ethnic area. The Kikuyu loyalists’ moderate demands for title deeds looked especially reasonable to the British, particularly at a time when the Mau Mau had taken up arms to abolish British private property in Kenya altogether. With the declaration of a state of emergency (basically martial law) in 1952, the colonial administration was keen to reward those few men who stayed loyal to the Queen. At the same time, the administration took off the gloves when dealing with those who threatened to topple the colony by equal force of arms. Ghai and McAuslan note that:

[B]y authorizing the round up and detention of thousands of Africans, mainly Kikuyu, by requiring those that remained in the Central and Rift Valley Provinces to be grouped together in fortified villages, by restricting movement, by forfeiting the land of those who joined the rebels, and by increasing the use of forced labor, all actions taken in order to meet the challenge of Mau Mau, the administration at the same time gave itself the opportunity of replanning the holdings, and remoulding the tenure system of much of Central Province on a scale which could not have been, indeed was not by the EARC, envisaged for in normal conditions (Ghai and McAuslan 1970, p. 117).

Ruthenberg also recognised that emergency powers made it easier for the British to enforce policies that the people opposed. He noted that colonialists in Kenya ‘no longer feared to push aside traditional customs. The British were – at least in Central Province – in a position of absolute authority and thus able to carry out and control development measures with hardly anybody in a position to object’ (Ruthenberg 1966, p. 9).

The British government supported the Swynnerton Plan with a £5 million fund. The changes the plan effected in the reserves included the loss of customary land rights of the ahoi (tenants), and the creation of landlessness and all forms of insecurity amongst women and poor men. This result was expected by Swynnerton himself, who saw landlessness and social inequality as a normal part of the ‘modernisation’ process. The plan’s focus on cash cropping led to a flight from food production in the reserves. By the mid-1960s, food shortages and hunger resulted from this overemphasis on cash crops. This trend worsened over the years of neoliberal structural adjustment programmes and reached disastrous proportions most recently with the 2008 and 2009 global financial meltdown.

The European settler community supported the Swynnerton Plan because it protected the colonial economy. They hoped that ‘the development of the vast potential of the Non-Scheduled areas [native reserves] would lessen the desire for land in the Scheduled areas [White Highlands] and would thus give long-term stability to the large farm economy’ (Ruthenberg 1966, p. 14). Consistent with the policies of the colonial administration throughout its years in Kenya, the Swynnerton Plan disrupted Africans’ subsistence political economies in order to better secure the property rights and commodity production regime of Europeans.

Okoth-Ogendo argued that the land reform program began as a ‘counter-revolutionary measure’ of rewarding Home Guards and punishing Mau Mau. It soon took on ‘a broader political objective, i.e. the creation of a stable peasantry’ which could quiet the general clamour for land and produce high value crops for export (Okoth-Ogendo 1978, p. 163). Okoth-Ogendo spells out some of the consequences of the land reform process carried out in Kikuyuland in the 1950s and in other areas of the country throughout the 1960s:

The very narrow view taken on land rights in the statutes made it virtually impossible to bring to the register all the multiple rights claimable under customary law. In almost all communities public grazing lands disappeared as people moved in to claim every bit of land under the rubric of cultivation… Those who were most directly affected were people such as women and children, both of whom had actual or potential rights of access to the use of the land, but were without the power of ultimate control over it (Okoth-Ogendo 1978, p. 177–178).

Emergency-era land consolidation policy negatively impacted the subsistence options of hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu for generations to come. Land consolidation was carried out in the reserves of other ethnic groups in the 1960s. As the cash economy could not possibly employ or sustain all of those made landless during the land privatisation exercise, a general crisis of subsistence was set in motion. This crisis is evident in the 21st century in the growing numbers of malnourished Kenyans, falling life expectancy rates, and the unhealthy conditions prevailing in both city slums and many rural villages.

Given the upsurge of violent politics in Kenya leading up to and following the 2007 general election, we can see that it is not only the landless who have inherited the strange fruits of the land policy that the British used to fight Mau Mau. Representing a key legacy of the Swynnerton land policy, the independent Kenyan state has found itself obliged to use large amounts of force against dispossessed people – some of whom actively resist their utter exclusion from any legal means of livelihood – in order to maintain a grossly unequal distribution of land. Kenyan statesmen have inherited the British colonial administration’s disrespect for human rights. Philip Alston’s report confirms this.

Reparations can go farther than compensating individuals. They can also rebuild community relations between women and men, and among ethnicities. Social reparations are due to the whole of the Kenyan people for the damage to social relations of trust, solidarity, and mutual care that resulted from the land privatisation policy the British imposed in the native reserves under a state of emergency. Generations suffered direct and injurious losses to their life possibilities and well-being when their fore-parents were dispossessed. Social reparations could be delivered in kind, in the shape of water systems, micro-power generation, housing, land for small-scale and cooperative farming, free schools, clinics, sports facilities and other shared, common amenities. The prominence of women’s groups in Kenya, focusing on environmental, economic and social reconstruction, and more recently on peace-building and conflict resolution, suggests that channels already exist for social reparations to be managed and disseminated fairly in a bottom-up manner likely to evince the confidence of governments and community members.

If both individual and social reparations are pursued simultaneously, reparations can work to mend past harms and contribute to rebuilding current social ruptures. Individual reparations alone may exacerbate inequalities by excluding the majority from recognition and compensation. On their own, individual reparations might also violate the intent of the Mau Mau freedom fighters, which was to obtain ‘land for all’, not special recognition for the few. Finally, the long-term negative impacts of the land privatisation policy pushed during the emergency (especially in the form of landlessness and impoverishment) have been felt by almost all Kenyans. Whether called ‘willing seller willing buyer’, a land market, land grabbing, or politically motivated ‘ethnic clashes’, the politics of Kenya have for decades revolved around this burning question of land. Land policy devised by the British to subjugate Kenyans to a world commodity market, and imposed upon them at the point of a gun in the 1950s, continues to define relations of ownership and dispossession in the 21st century. Perhaps by recognising and repairing the lingering effects of these past injustices, including homelessness, landlessness, and hunger, some of the most serious threats to Kenyans’ collective well-being can simultaneously be addressed.

* Leigh Brownhill is a writer, editor and researcher interested in social movements, feminism, and the political economies of food and energy in a global context, with particular reference to the African continent.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at


Ghai, Y.P. and McAuslan, J.P.W.B. (1970) Public Law and Political Change in Kenya: A Study of the Legal Framework of Government from Colonial Times to the Present, Nairobi, Oxford University Press
Okoth-Ogendo, H.W.O. (1978) ‘The Changing System of Land Tenure and the Rights of Women’, in Okeyo, A.P., et al (eds), The Participation of Women in Kenya Society, Nairobi, Kenya Literature Bureau
Ruthenberg, H. (1966) African Agricultural Production Development Policy in Kenya, 1952-1965, Berlin, Springer-Verlag