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Case: Lessons Learned from the British Counterinsurgency campaign in Kenya 1952-1956


Major Lars Mouritsen, Institut for Militære Operationer, Forsvarsakademiet

Nærværende artikel er udarbejdet som et Lessons L earned studie i forbindelse med forfatterens skoleopholdet Joint & Combined Warfighting School ved Joint Forces Staff College i Norfolk Virginia US i perioden 10. september til 16. november 2007. Lessons L earned studiet indgik som en del af tilvalgsfaget “LowInt ensity Conflicts, Insurgency & Counterinsurgency Warfare”. Emnet var valgt ud fra selvvalgte kriterier om en konflikt, der var fra det afrikanske kontinent, der kunne blusse op ig en, og der evt. kunne få dansk interesse. Konflikten viste sig efterfølg ende ig en at blusse op i Kenya, hvor nogle af uoverensstemmelserne i den nyeste konflikt kan føres tilbage til konflikten i studiet. Studiet gengives i den originale udgave og dermed på engelsk. Formalia er dog tilpasset Militært Tidsskrift.

“Your only alternative is either cooperate with the Africans as equal human beings by creating friendship and good relationship which your bombs and guns will never achieve – for t hey only increase enmity, or quit Kenya and le ave the African to manage his own affairs. I i ntend to make it clear to you through this l etter that the more you fight the Africans, the more you endanger your fut ure in Kenya. You cannot kill ideas by killing people”

Kenyan Brig. Gen Karari Njama Chief Secretary, Kenya Parliament September 1954


The first nationalist insurgency after W orld W ar II took place in Kenya from 1952 to 19561. It started in August 1950, when the colonial government outlawed an organization known as Mau Mau, and subsequently described all insurgents and their activities by this term2. This Mau Mau movement, not being national, focused on the activities and efforts of only one Kenyan tribe, the Kikuyu. Kenya was a colonial country with diverse population. The population numbered more than five and a quarter million with the Kikuyu tribes comprising 30 per cent3 with scattered territories4. There were almost 30,000 Europeans and an Asian population of over 120,000 living in Kenya in the 1950s5. In th e be ginning of British colonialism London ne eded to develop th e colony’s production therefore settlers were urg ed to come to East Africa, where there were plenty of cheap land, abundant labor, and large potential profits6. The European settlement rose in 1902-07 to prove a determining factor in the development of Kenya’s peasant economies7, and the Kikuyu figured prominently during this period8. The Mau Mau started as a peasant protest with nationalistic Kikuyu’s protesting against an unequal economic structure supported by discriminatory laws and institutions9. A group of men formed a society called Mau Mau from amongst the members of a legal political organization called the Kenya African Union (K.A.U.). As the K.A.U. was spread all over the country, the society could expand accordingly10. In 1950 Kenya was on the verge of one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars of decolonization fought in Britain’s empire11, and the British colony Kenya was declared in a State of Emergency and a call for British military aid on 20th October 195212 13. This was declared by the n ew Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, whom arrived in Kenya on 30th September 1952 after Sir Philip Mitchell in decades consistently had discounted, that Kenya was approaching a crisis of authority14. This paper will focus on elements of the counterinsurgency campaign identifying lessons learned with the British actions within Kenya and towards the Mau Mau movement.

The Mau Mau insurgency

The Mau Mau movement, stron gly affected by the gen eral wisdom of the time15, was a deliberate program of insurgency, designed to enable supporters to dominate the whole Kikuyu tribe and then the other tribes in Kenya16. It gradually became organized for war and its members divided themselves into two groups known as the Militant Wing and the Passive Wing. The Militant Wing lived mostly in the forest and consisted of gang members. The Passive Wing comprised those people who provided money, supplies, shelter, recruits and intelligence for the gangs17. The Militant Wing could use the Passive Wing in order to conduct operations in the urban areas and maintain the Lines of Communication. The Mau Mau was organized in great detail and complexity, and the official estimate in August 1953 was between 10,000 and 15,00018. The ideology was a complex phenomenon with at least four major aspects; secular, moral-religious, African national and Kikuyu tribal19. It was based on an oath, in which they swore to the leaders, the warriors and the country’s name20. The oath was intended to bind the members together with a chain of superstition to support more violent acts21 and was enh anced with a ritual. This forced them outside the structure of the original tribe and the influence of the elders with the intention of seizing the leadership22. The revolution of the Mau Mau was symbolized in the demand for Land and Freedom, even though freedom was an end-product23. Obviously a wish for land and a non-colonial state of K enya was the End State on which the insurgency campaign was focused. Essential for the success was the support from the local people to provide the insurgents with a safe environ ment to have freedom of movement. Mau Mau attacked a number of European farmers, and Africans loyal to the government in Nairobi24 but made no attempt to sabotage major state installations25, however they robbed indiscriminately26. The indiscriminate robbing was fatal in order to keep the support from the people, which could be identified as their Center of Gravity. As the Mau Mau movement was fin anced from money collected in the Nairobi-Kiambu base27, the reduced support of the people would also inflict the economy of the movement. As a regression away from civilization Mau Mau used torture and terror as a weapon, and later it changed form to a much larger scale of a long standing internal conflict among the Kikuyu28. This became an open confrontation betwe en revolutionary groups radically altering black-white relations along with the political as well as other institutions with the purpose of breakin g with the imposed colonial structure and pit force against force29. It was not a national movement, because it was only represented with the one million Kikuyu, a one-fifth of the African population in Kenya30. However there was an enormous grass root support to Mau Mau cause, which was directed at both the white and black faces of British colonial rule, notably the settlers and the colonial-appointed chiefs31. The Mau Mau campaign used, as well as other African nationalist movements32, a distinct pattern that can be split into three phases33. Creation of an ideological platform with nationalistic support based on Kikuyu objectives would be the first phase. Second phase would be the period, where leaders with varying political ideologies appeared seeking for support and causing polarization. In the third phase the individual leaders or political groups would gain a tribe funded power base in support of their objectives.

The Counterinsurgency

Great Britain initially sent Major-General W.R.N. Hinde to Kenya after decades of ign orance with the amateurish briefin g to jolly t hings along as Personal Staff Officer to the Governor. Kenya was a responsibility of the British Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, but following his visit in May 1953, the decision was made to separate Nairobi from Cairo, and General Sir George Erskine was appointed as Commander-in-Chief, Kenya with full command of military units but operational control only over police and auxiliaries. Erskine however brought a letter authorizing him to take over the civil government and proclaim Martial Law if necessary. 34

After his arrival Erskine obtained awareness of the situation, and he initially estimated that bad administration was one of the causes of the violence35 and established an organization to counter the violence. The organization consisted of provincial headquarters with provincial emergency committee and underneath district headquarters with divisions both coordinating the provincial and the district police headquarters e.g. training and administration36. The coordination between the military command structure and the civil authorities, central and local, was crucial37 in order to have success in the counterinsurgency campaign. The cohesion in this interagency could be identified as Center of Gravity in the campaign. The British battalions were spread out in Kenya and divided into small sub-units to support the local police and were conducting defensive tasks around the affected areas38. The use of local military was important to the cohesion and the long term support of the people, and in August 1953 there were three sorts of soldiers in Kenya. There were the battalions of the King’s African Rifles (K.A.R.), a unit of the Territorial Army called the Kenya Re giment, and a number of ordinary British infantry battalions. The K enya Police Reserve (K.P.R.) and the Kikuyu Guard were local security forces and reflected sections of the communities involved. The K.P.R. represented the white settlers, and the Kikuyu Guard represented the Kikuyu chiefs, headmen, property owners, traders and landowners faced with fear of loosing their land39. These two local security forces and especially the Kikuyu Guard played a decisive role40 in the later defeat of the insurgents as stated in the quote below. “The K enya Regiment w as designed to produce officers for the K.A.R. in the event of full scale war. It consisted of young European settlers who had been called to the colors at the start of the Emergency. The K enya Re giment, consisting as it did entirely of young potential officers, most of whom h ad spent their whole lives with Africans, was the most formidable military force confronting the Mau Mau”.41 Erskine suppressed the Mau Mau insurgency, h owever neg otiations with the political wing were inconceivable42, and this resulted in arrest of political leaders on 20th-21st October 1952. Unfortunately this had the undesired effect of accelerating the recruitment of the insurgents43. In order to isolate the insurgency a large number of K enyans were detained, and regulations g ave the g overnment powers to order detainees to work in the interests of endin g the State of Emergency or of the public as a whole44. This was a short term solution and would later be crucial in the long struggle in perspective of support from the people. In the counterinsurgency campaign decisive points can be identified. A very good example for this instance is they wanted to destroy the lines of communication between the forest groups and their city supporters in order to shatter the city’s Mau Mau hierarchy and cells45. One way of doing this was the usual British Army Hearts and Minds methods to acquire consent in the areas in which they worked46 and thereby effecting the environ ment for which the lines of communication went through. Another element in the isolation of the insurgents was the start of a British mass deportation of Kikuyu to the reserves in early 1953, and the colonial government setting up screening centers throughout the Rift Valley and central provinces47 48. The protection of the people and their support to the g overnment was a classic part of this counterinsurgency campaign. Operations were conducted to isolate and destroy the Militant Wing, and they could all be divided up in two phases49. In the first phase the soldiers would move to form a cordon in the depth from the forest edge and commence as many ambushes as possible supported by aircraft and artillery bombing of the forest inside the cordon to drive the gangs outwards on to the ambush positions. In the second phase the troops on the cordon would start to patrol inwards towards the area which had been bombarded in order to defeat or capture the survivors. The British troops in the forests were replaced with members of the King’s African Rifles, as well as young settlers from the Kenya Regiment. This was later known as the infamous pseudo-gangsters50, who hunted down the last remaining guerrillas platoon by platoon51. The positive experience with the use of local security forces in countering insurgency was identified as a main reason for success in these types of operations.

Lessons Learned and Conclusion

The Mau Mau movement alien ated themselves from the n on-Kikuyu tribes52 with their torture, terror, and the indiscriminately robbing, which was fatal to their Center of Gravity. The effect was the lacking support from the people effecting their operation al environ ment, which became crucial throughout their campaign. The phases in the campaign can be compared to Mao Zedon g’s three phases53, in which they did not achieve local dominance in the first phase. Thereby they failed to unify the African people regardless of any inconvenience they caused to Europeans or Asians54. Failing the elements in first phase and n ot protectin g their own Center of Gravity, they lost the war for Land and Freedom. The Mau Mau lost the insurgency campaign, h owever they won their country, their End State, on the long term. One could say that the Mau Mau movement did not have success on the operational level but it had success on the strategic level. The British identified the insurgency problem very late in the colonial Kenya but they made the changes with a new Governor, Commander-inChief, and the military organization just in time. They apparently maintained the interagency cohesion, the campaign Center of Gravity, defeating the insurgency in the short term. However on the long term they did not maintain popular support for the colonial state, this must b e s e en in perspective of the ending of colonialism in Africa in 1950s and 1960s and the inability of the Europeans to govern the large properties. This is obvious in a letter to a colonial major from Brig. Gen Karari Njama, Chief Secretary, Kenya Parliament in September 1954; ““Your only alternative is either cooperate with the Africans as equal human beings by cre ating friendship and good relationship which your bombs and guns will never achieve – for they only increase enmity, or quit Kenya and leave th e African to manag e his own affairs. I intend to make it clear to you through this letter that the more you fight the Africans, the more you endanger your future in Kenya. You cannot kill ideas by killing people””.55 The very rough isolation doctrine and the fact that all detainees were treated as prisoners of war56 had the undesired effect of minimizing support from the people of Kenya. It might have been too much of a colonial footprint, which again influenced the people to wish more independency from the colonial power. One could say that the British colony had success on the short term operational level, but the campaign itself had an influence on the strategic level in the long term. The campaign showed success in using local forces and the need to act quickly and swiftly in countering insurgency. The most important lesson learned in Kenya is that there must be cohesion not only interagency, and according to Clausewitz balance in the trinity of the state57, but also between the levels of operation in order to have success. If not so the levels can cause undesired effect on one another. In this campaign the operational level had an undesired effect on the strategic level ending with the Kenyan independence in 1963 with a Kikuyu as head of the government. “At independence, Jomo Kenyatta, who had been imprisoned at the start of the insurgency in 1952, became the head of the Kenyan government, a g overnment that was controlled and dominated by th e Kikuyu”.58


Barnett, Donald L. and Njama, Karari (1966): Mau Mau from within. Maggibbon & Kee Ltd. New York. Clayton, Anthony (1984): Counter-Insurgency in Kenya 1952-60. Department of Political Studies Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Sunflower University Press, Kansas. Elkins, Caroline (2005): Imperial Reckoning. H. B. Fenn and Company Ltd. Canada. Kitson, major Frank (1960): Gangs and Counter-gangs. Robert Cunningham and Sons Ltd. Alva, Scotland. Melshen, Dr. Paul (2007): Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, 1945-80 (pp. 85-98). Article hand-out in Low-Intensity Warfare elective, JCWS Class 08-1, 2007. Smith, Rupert (2006): The Utility of Force – The Art of War in the Modern World. Penguin Books Ltd. London, England.


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1 Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, p. 88.

2 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 2.

3 Mau Mau from within, p. 24.

4 See Annex 1. Map over Kenya with Kikuyu Reserves from Imperial Reckoning, p. 6.

5 Mau Mau from within, p. 24.

6 Map of Kenya and Kikuyu Reserves. Imperial Reckoning, p. 3.

7 Mau Mau from within, p. 31.

8 Ibid, p. 33.

9 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 1.

10 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 14.

11 Imperial Reckoning, p. 28.

12 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 3.

13 Mau Mau from within, p. 70.

14 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, pp. 4-5.

15 Ibid, p. 1.

16 Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, p. 88.

17 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 15.

18 Ibid, p. 16.

19 Mau Mau from within, p. 199.

20 Ibid, p. 191.

21 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 5.

22 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 14.

23 Mau Mau from within, p. 200.

24 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 23.

25 Ibid, p. 30.

26 Ibid, p. 27.

27 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 22.

28 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 1.

29 Mau Mau from within, p. 72.

30 Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, p. 88.

31 Imperial Reckoning, p. 28.

32 Angola, Congo, Guinea, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe in the 1960s and 1970s. Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation.

33 Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, pp. 97-98.

34 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, pp. 5-8.

35 Ibid, p. 7.

36 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 12.

37 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 2.

38 Ibid, p. 22.

39 Ibid, pp. 18-19.

40 Ibid, p. 29.

41 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 11.

42 Counter-Insurgency in Kenya, p. 1.

43 Ibid, p. 21.

44 Ibid, p. 15.

45 Ibid, p. 24.

46 Ibid, p. 34.

47 Imperial Reckoning, p. 62.

48 See Annex 1. Map over Kenya with Kikuyu Reserves from Imperial Reckoning, p. 6.

49 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, p. 192.

50 Pseudo-gangsters were local security forces operating on the same violent terms as the insurgents under British command. Gangs and CounterGangs.

51 Imperial Reckoning, p. 54.

52 Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, pp. 88-89. 

53 First, to form cells in the community, ideally deep in the rural areas and on a border with a sympathetic neighbor, in order to achieve a local dominance by corrupting and replacing government through massive use of propaganda and indoctrination. In the second phase this local area was developed into a sanctuary by expanding the cell structure and linking with other liberated areas to form a region in which forces were prepared and food and weapons could be stored. The third and final phase formed forces consolidated the sanctuary and operated against government forces in other areas where the cell structure could support them. The Utility of Force, pp. 168-169.

54 Gangs and Counter-Gangs, pp. 145-146.

55 Mau Mau from within, p. 387.

56 Imperial Reckoning, p. 97. 203

57 Clausewitz ide a of the remarkable trinity of the state, the army and the people, which to me means the government, the military – all the armed forces – and the population. The Utility of Force, p. 57.

58 Tribalism and African Nationalist Wars of Liberation, pp. 88-89.