Dedan Kimathi: 63 years of injustice

Dedan Kimathi

Lauren Brown

As the world shakes under the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are turning to black history to understand the roots of the ingrained racism plaguing modern society.

Britain has a dark, racist history buried beneath the sanitized stories of empire perpetuated through the historical narrative and further via the curriculum presented to its school children.

One such history is that of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya – a violent and controversial part of both Kenyan and British history. In reaction to the violence of the rebellion, the British colonial government created a system of detention camps which saw the incarceration of some 80,000 Kikuyu people in Kenya.[1] Within the camp system detainees were aggressively interrogated, thousands were subjected to horrific abuse and several inmates lost their lives.  Many Kikuyu still face the repercussions of the uprising to this very day.

Encapsulated within the history of the Mau Mau rebellion is the story of Dedan Kimathi, the self-titled field marshal of the anti-colonial forest fighters. He was executed by the British after a short career of anti-British ‘terrorism’.

Kimathi rose to prominence within the movement in the early 1950s, first acting as an oath administrator – a method of initiation and a way of ensuring loyalty within the Mau Mau movement. He became a leader of the fighters who made their way into the forests to fight against British forces after the declaration of the State of Emergency in late 1952.[2]

The government was so desperate to catch Mau Mau’s leaders that they embarked on an unrelenting campaign to ‘eliminate’ Dedan Kimathi, offering large rewards for his capture. Colonial officers pushed the narrative that ‘as long as the top grade Mau Mau leaders remain alive, their existence will always represent a major threat to security.’[3]

The government’s tribal police finally captured Kimathi in the early hours October 21st, after he was shot by a tribal police constable.

After a laborious and intricate trial, on November 19th 1956, Chief Justice Kenneth O’Connor found Kimathi guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition – actions made illegal by the Emergency Regulations put in place by the British Government.

On February 18th 1957, Dedan Kimathi was sentenced “to hang by the neck until death”, making him a symbol of Britain’s brutal determination to maintain order in Kenya and also establishing him as a martyr of the Mau Mau movement.

Colonial officers buried his body in an unmarked grave within the grounds of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Kenya, where he is believed to have lain ever since.

On February 18th this year, the Nyeri County government marked the 63rd anniversary of Kimathi’s death at Karuna-ini in Tetu, the site where he was arrested.

This commemorative ceremony was deeply anchored in hope, as on October 25th 2019, The Dedan Kimathi Foundation announced that Kimathi’s body had finally been found.[4]

The foundation claimed that his remains had been discovered after ‘numerous concerted efforts’ to find him. Evelyn Manjugu Kimathi – Kimathi’s youngest daughter and the chair of the foundation –  labelled the development not just as great news for the family, “but also the larger freedom struggle heroes fraternity.”[5]

Elelyn Kimathi said she would seek an order to exhume his remains, but as of yet, his body has not been excavated, with no updates on the search being broadcast  or reported in the media.

Contrastingly, Kenya’s Interior Ministry dismissed the claims and labelled the reports as false.[6]

The contention surrounding Kimathi’s body, his lack of exhumation, and the media silence on the matter is disconcerting, but predictable.

There was a period, somewhat recently, where the Mau Mau rebellion and its modern-day implications were a hot topic in the academic community and the British press. Beginning in 2011, a series of court cases highlighted the heinous past of the British Government, as former prisoners from the British detention camps in Kenya camp called for justice from the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) for the atrocities committed by British officers within the camps.

The success of the case was monumental. The former detainees received compensation, a public apology, and even the erection of a memorial in Nairobi, fully paid for by the British Government.

The cases also revealed that the British Government had been hiding thousands of colonial documents for decades at a warehouse in Hanslope Park, which it was then ordered to release.[7]

It seemed that an era of post-colonial apology and retrospective justice had begun. However, since 2018, it appears this accommodation for apology and retribution has lost its allure.

In 2018, 40,000 Kenyans took to the English courts seeking justice for the same treatment in the camps.  Yet, the Kimathi & Others v The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2018) case was dismissed on the grounds that a fair trial was impossible due to the fiftyyear delay. [8]

In personal injury claims, Section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980 states that under certain circumstances, a claim that would otherwise be considered out of time or ‘statute-barred’ in legal terms, can otherwise be heard.[9] The court can dis-apply the usual three-year time limit where it is deemed equitable, yet in the case of the 40,000 Kenyans who were allegedly abused by the British in the detention camps, the case was not allowed to continue.

In the High Court, pointed to the severe effects of the passage of time on the defendant’s ability to defend the claim as a crucial factor, especially due to the ‘depleted cogency’ of the available evidence.[10]

The case was dismissed due to the fifty-year delay and a lack of ‘clear’ evidence. However, the defendants were prevented from lodging the case before 2011 thanks to the British Government’s hidden tranche of colonial documents. These documents detail the abuses in the camps.[11] They are now available for consultation in the British National Archives and thus could be utilised in a trial. However, the damage appears to be done, as their concealment prevented earlier claims from being made.

How can any form of justice be obtained if these claims are dismissed due to the passage of time? How can this be just, when the British Government had systematically hidden such evidence to prevent knowledge of its colonial crimes?

The British Government has also proven unhelpful in the quest for Dedan Kimathi’s body, as it has refused to conduct an investigation into his whereabouts.

Therein lies the problem which continues to plague the victims of the detention camps. The British government, aided by the negligible contribution of the Kenyan authorities, will not support any efforts towards securing justice for the victims of the Mau Mau detention camps.

This obstinance means that the Kimathi family cannot fully grieve and instead must continue their decades-long endeavour to find Dedan Kimathi.

Therefore, Kimathi’s story must stand as a stark reminder of the British government’s tenacity to reshape and conceal elements of the past for its own benefit.

This refusal of justice for all of the victims of the detention camps allows the UK government to paint its colonial actions as pious and allows its actions in Kenya to be justified as part of the fight for the continuation of its glorious ‘civilising’ empire.

However, as the Black Lives Matter movement inspires so many to look to the past to understand the struggles faced by the black community, a renewed interest in colonial apology seems to have been born. As statues of slavers such as Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes are brought down, a new historical narrative of Britain’s real racist history might finally emerge from the shadows.

Lauren Brown has a masters degree in History from the University of Dundee, she has multiple publications on Kenyan history, particularly focused on the Mau Mau rebellion. She is currently the assistant editor for Scottish Financial News and Scottish Housing News. Follow her on Twitter – @LaurenBroon.

[1]James Meredith, Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour (Jonathan Ball Publishers: South Africa, 2014) Chapter 61, page 4.

[2]   (eds) Julie MacArthur, Dedan Kimathi on Trial: Colonial Justice and Popular Memory in Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion (Ohio University Press, Athens, 2017) p.1.

[3] The National Archives, WO276/431, ‘Special Forces’, ‘GHQ Operation Instruction No: 35’, 9/12/1955.

[4]  Hillary Orinde, ‘62 years after hanging: Dedan Kimathi grave found’, Standard Media, 25th Oct 2019. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

[5]Hillary Orinde, ‘62 years after hanging: Dedan Kimathi grave found’, Standard Media, 25th Oct 2019. Accessed: 21/01/2020

[6] Steve Njuguna, ‘Govt dismisses reports that Dedan Kimathi grave found at Kamiti’, Nairobi News, 26th Oct 2019. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

[7] David M Anderson, ‘Mau Mau in the High Court and the ‘Lost’ British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?,The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 39,Issue 5, (Routledge: London and New York, 2011)

[8] BC Legal, Permission to Appeal Refused: Kimathi & Ors v Foreign & Commonwealth Office [2018] EWCA Civ 2213,, ND. Accessed: 02/02/2020

[9] Oxford Human Rights Hub, Kimathi and Others v Foreign & Commonwealth Office,,, ND. Accessed: 05/02/2020.

[10] Casemine, Kimathi & Ors V The Foreign and Commonwealth Office,,, ND, accessed: 08/03/2020.

[11] David M Anderson, ‘Mau Mau in the High Court and the ‘Lost’ British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?,The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 39,Issue 5, (Routledge: London and New York, 2011) p.699.