On 18th February 1957, Dedan Kimathi was hung on the grounds of Kamiti Prison and his body tossed into an unmarked pit presumably to destroy any chance that his followers may seek to make a shrine of it. But ideas need no shrines and Kimathi’s name survived those of his executioners. Those who had idolized him heard of his death via radio or through the lips of a gloating prison guard while sitting in one of Kenya’s numerous detention camps.
How alone they must have felt behind the barbed wire in some arid corner of Kenya. How far independence must have seemed. How hopeless their situation must have felt now that such a potent symbol of their struggle had been executed.
What was Dedan Kimathi’s crime? Take your pick. By the time Justice O’Connor passed his sentence three months earlier, Kimathi had been accused of everything from murder and arson to theft and leading a banned organization.
But was he guilty?
Well the answer depends on whether or not you recognize the legitimacy of the laws under which he was convicted.
Yes he may have killed and stolen and done all those things that are incidental to war, but he did so with more legitimacy than the colonial government and its African confederates (none of whom would ever be prosecuted for their comparably worse atrocities) could ever claim. Not to dwell too much on jurisprudence, but it is a fact that the laws which Kimathi is said to have broken also institutionalized racism and forced labour. If you defend their legitimacy, why not defend the Nazi’s 1936 Nuremberg Laws or dismiss the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as terrorists? You wouldn’t.
What self-respecting man in Kimathi’s shoes would have acted differently?
That we remember the name Kimathi in our streets and monuments today as well as in contemporary fashion and music suggests his legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of contemporary Africans remains unchallenged.
This is especially true of us African youth increasingly unwilling to pay our dues and patiently wait in line for our dinosaur leaders to offer solutions. We shall seize the future by force!