Forgetting Mau Mau, Remembering Lonrho

Monday, 24 June 2013
Richard Dowden

I am glad the Kenyans caught up in the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s have finally got compensation from the UK Government for being tortured. As the deeply racist and imperialist Enoch Powell said at the time, Britain did not deserve to have an empire if its security forces behaved in such a way.
I hope we will now be able to read those files that the Foreign Office buried at the time and pretended no longer existed. For years they told researchers they could not be found or must have been lost.

It took an order from the High Court to produce them and that is when the UK Government caved in.

Perhaps Leigh Day, the law firm who resurrected the cases, will now trail around Cyprus, Aden, Malaysia, Northern Ireland looking for victims of small wars where the British Empire fought rebellions. This could get expensive. Watch this space.

The real scandal however is the treatment these victims have received from the Kenyan government since independence. Its role in forcing Britain out of Kenya is still unclear as the rebellion was effectively over by 1955 and Kenya did not become independent until 1960. Britain was giving up its empire anyway but it could be argued these old men had actually fought the British though not necessarily as a national Kenyan struggle for independence.

Kenyatta came to power using the Mau Mau rebellion but at independence he turned his back on them and they have been ignored or even repudiated by the Kenyan state ever since. After all the vast majority of their victims were Kikuyus or other Kenyans. Maybe now with the Kikuyu in power for another presidential term, this the time to be open about the history, hold a national debate and bring about reconciliation.


I was sad to see that Lonrho had finally died. The “unacceptable face of capitalism” as Prime Minister Edward Heath called it in 1973, was an evil empire much beloved by capitalists for its high returns and by journalists for an endless stream of outrageous stories.  It was founded by the maverick businessman Tiny Rowland who had been interned in the Britain during the Second World War and became an anti-establishment figure – a buccaneer who broke all the rules of company governance.

Its origins were in agriculture in Rhodesia (Lonrho was short for London Rhodesia) but it spread all over Anglophone Africa into mining, hotels and trade, employing white Rhodesians, South Africans and Brits at a time when the war against white rule in southern Africa was still burning fiercely. Journalists looked everywhere for evidence of truly evil plots, backing a coup or smuggling arms to South Africa, but never really found anything.

Rowlands deployed his extraordinary charm on African politicians from presidents to rebel leaders. He saw that if you wanted to do business in Africa, personal connections were far more important than in state institutions, laws and regulations. He gave them gifts from trinkets or cars, lifts in his planes and often substantial sums in return for concessions and special treatment for Lonrho companies. He also arranged for the children of presidents, generals and ministers to go to British public schools, gave them personal loans and put them up in his hotels in Africa and Britain.
In return, his companies were given a free rein and paid specially negotiated rates of tax.

In 1986 I drove from Harare to Beira, the Mozambican port on the Indian Ocean with two colleagues. The road and the railway come down from the escarpment at the border and then run straight across the plain to the sea – about 180 miles. At this time Renamo, the South African backed rebel movement, had knocked the railway out of action and was attacking vehicles on the road. It was a movement of pure terror, enforcing its power by brutality; killing and mutilating with no comprehensible political programme or attempt to win people over by persuasion.
The few small run-down little towns on the route harboured camps of people who had been forced to flee their homes. Outside the towns no houses remained standing, fields had reverted to bush and we passed the wrecks of several trucks and cars shot up and burned out. Whenever we saw someone – which was not often – we would stop and ask about the rebels and whether they were in the area. We laughed and joked a lot. We were scared.

Then as we approached Ndalatando we suddenly emerged from miles of scrub and bush into huge fields of crops. We drove through a gateway and up a driveway towards some buildings and we were greeted by a white man in shorts and a bush shirt. This was the Lonrho estate – about the size of the Isle of Wight, some 380 square kilometres growing maize, wheat, sugar and scores of other crops. Naturally we asked how it survived in the war. “There have been no attacks here,” we were told.
“So what sort of protection do you have” we asked. The reply: “We don’t need any, it’s peaceful here”. At which exact moment we heard men chanting and stamping and round the corner jogged a platoon of about 100 armed men, their AK47s strapped to their backs. The white man wiped his face and dismissed them as night watchmen.

Later on we talked to some of the workers and discovered they were paid in plastic tokens exchangeable at the company store. So here was a vast Lonrho work camp in a war zone protected by a private army with forcibly recruited labour paid in plastic tokens! We asked them why the company didn’t pay their workers in Metical, the national currency? The reply: “Oh no you can buy real things with the Lonrho tokens. We are happy with them. The Meticals are worthless”.

I sometimes wonder whether Tiny Rowland was the forerunner of big Western capitalism in Africa – close personal relations with the politically powerful and using that connection to get concessions to do as he pleased and create a state within a state.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.