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The struggle for land
on 15 June 2006
The early chapters of Anderson book give a concise background to the Mau Mau emergency, rooting it in the land hunger of the Kikuyu people, exacerbated by land seizures, population growth and the expulsion of Africans from white-owned farms and the towns. He includes a survey of Kikuyu political mobilisation from the 1920s and their growing frustration with government stonewalling.
The main section contains a harrowing account of the use of the death penalty to combat the Mau Mau insurrection. Anderson draws particular attention to the extension of the death penalty from murder to new offences, and its use as a political weapon.
Anderson is best when he lets the testimonies of the trials speak for themselves. Although he is generally fair in presenting the evidence, his conclusions seem to treat those condemned largely as victims. There were something like 2,000 Kenyans murdered by Mau Mau, who were the truer victims. He presents some evidence of judicial bias, dubious evidence, excessive punishment and failure to follow due process, although many of the most unjust sentences were overturned on appeal. Many of those convicted where in fact guilty of the crimes charged, and much of Anderson's objection seems to be to the use of the death penalty.
One of the less satisfactory parts of the book is Anderson's attempt to argue that Britain was hanging Kenyans when abolishing capital punishment at home, but this seems to misrepresent the general support for hanging in Britain until after the 1950s. Another is his treatment of the Lari massacre, where he says the killers (mainly of women and children) were calling to account the chiefs guilty of corruption in land distribution. Other writers have suggested a less simplistic interpretation of the background to the massacre, but using a phrase like "call to account" for what was mass murder is taking moral relativism too far. Finally, although Anderson identifies land hunger as a cause of discontent, and notes that many Kikuyu had less access to land after the Mau Mau struggle, he does not examine the broader issue of access to land in modern African societies, whether Kenya, Zimbabwe or elsewhere.
Despite his agenda of rehabilitating the Mau Mau condemned and his repugnance for capital punishment (which is of the present century, not the 1950s) this is still a book worth reading for its evidence, but draw your own conclusions.