How psychology defeated Mau Mau

Source: New Scientist

How psychology defeated Mau Mau 

Steve Connor and Andy Thomas
12 January 1984

The British government pioneered what it called “psychological warfare” against the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the early 1950s, according to documents released last week under the 30-year rule. The aim was to take complete control of all information services in order to “sow discord” and “mislead” members of the Kikuyu tribe in the hope of destroying those that followed Mau Mau, a secret society within the tribe.

The documents are correspondence between British officials in Nairobi, and the Colonial Office and War Office in London. On 12 August, 1953, General “Bobbie” Erskine, at General Headquarters, East Africa, wrote to the War Office expressing dissatisfaction with the “present conduct of the psychological approach to the Kikuyu tribe”. He requested a man of high quality “who understands the technique of psychological warfare”.

Erskine did not get his way. But the reply from E. B. David in the Colonial Office set out the psychological battleground as seen from London.

David wrote: “I do not know whether there is any generally accepted definition of ‘psychological warfare’; but in the present context reduced to its simplest terms it is a question of exerting pressure on a particular group of people in order to condition their minds in a particular direction, and not to be overscrupulous about how this is done.”

David identified two targets: “The real Mau Mau who must be reckoned and treated as an enemy [and] the vast mass of the Kikuyu tribe who are the battle-ground on which this struggle is being waged.” The object was to “deprive them of the will to continue and struggle” and “to this end you might wish to use means designed to induce surrenders, to sow discord, to mislead if necessary – in short to sap their strength in every way”. This sort of warfare involves “fabrications, deceptions, even forgeries and other tricks of the trade”. The British concentrated on a campaign of inducing surrender by inviting captives to denounce Mau Mau and spreading rumours of clemency. One notable success was the turning of Waruhiu Itote, a top Kikuyu commander (see photo).

Psywar victim: Waruhiu Itote, changed sides 

David told Nairobi officials to study a report on psychological warfare that was prepared by British officials in Malaya.

Crawford set up a working party which produced a report in October 1953. It looked at the Kikuyu and two other tribes, the Embu and the Meru. Within each, it identified four different targets for the campaign: the loyalists, the “waverers”, active supporters of the Mau Mau, and “gangsters” who live in the forests. Because of the difficulty in separating these classes, the report stated: “It is felt to be wrong to separate ‘psychological warfare’ from normal information work … “. It also identified that “women present a particular problem … since it appears that [it is] the women, as much as, if not more than the men, who are keeping the spirit of Mau Mau alive”. The working party stated its objectives: to tell Kikuyu that “Mau Mau is an evil thing. It is the invention of wicked and unscrupulous men.”

In October 1956, military defeat was complete with the capture of the rebellion’s chief commander, Dedan Kimathi. About 13 000 Africans died in the rebellion; 32 European civilians lost their lives. Several years later, Britain granted independence to Kenya. The new leader was Jomo Kenyatta, one of those interned during the uprising.

• Psychological warfare was the subject of a secret conference between the British and Americans held at Phoenix Park, Singapore in January 1953. Sir John Sterndale Bennett, the British deputy commissioner-general for Foreign Affairs, told the conference of the difficulties that the British faced in Southeast Asia in quelling “the communist menace”. He said that “the populations in this part of the world are largely illiterate but can easily be stirred up by the spoken word … “. Much of the British expertise was gained in Malaya and, 15 years later, the US employed similar tactics in Vietnam.

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