Mr. Rifleman & Mr. Machine Gun Imperial policing in colonial Kenya, and beyond.

A Kenyan boy stands in front of an old prison, left over from the days of British Empire.

As he lingered despairingly in a filthy over-crowded jail cell, the young Ngugi wa Thiong’o worried that his opportunity to attend college, a privilege closed to all but a few young Kenyans in the late 1950s, was gone.  Ngugi, who would become one of Africa’s most celebrated novelists, had not committed a crime.  In the eyes of the African policemen who arrested him on the fabricated charge of tax evasion, his real sin was to have graduated with top marks from the elite Alliance High School, thereby earning the privilege of rising above them in the colonial social order.  The policemen, who Ngugi dubbed “Mr. Machine Gun” and “Mr. Rifleman” for the weapons they carried, reported to a settler district officer who, in addition to being the embodiment of the imperial regime, was no older than Ngugi himself. “The officers are tall, big, older, armed.  Their boyish boss is shorter, thinner, and civilian clad, looking harmless except for the pistol hanging from his hip, which he keeps touching as if he is afraid of his own officers.”  Though the Messrs. Rifleman and Machine Gun perjured themselves in convincing the young official that Ngugi had attacked them while resisting arrest, the case eventually fell apart for lack of witnesses. Still, the shame of being unjustly imprisoned in filth and squalor for days still haunts Ngugi.  “What can top this absurdity of my being held in a garrison for nothing more criminal than stating that I have been to Alliance?  Wrestling with these memories has neither helped numb the pain I feel nor blunted the humiliation.” Having come of age during the brutal Mau Mau counter-insurgency campaign in the 1950s, Ngugi was well aware that the imperial regime could be autocratic and ruthless.  But his dehumanizing experience in the over-crowded prison was a personal reminder that colonial subjects had no rights.

Kenya became an independent nation within just a few years of this incident and the empire that had employed Ngugi’s tormentors has long since disappeared. In turning down an invitation to become a Dame of the British Empire Doris Lessing quipped: “Well, first of all there is no British empire, no one seems to notice this.” Indeed, empires remain a central feature of contemporary policy and cultural debate despite the fact that they no longer exist. Taking on greater resonance after the September 11th terrorist attacks, the French and British empires became models for strategists who advocated direct imperial-style rule of resistive regions like the Middle East to thwart terrorism and promote global stability.  Yet, by strict definition, there are no more empires.  While critics and theorists frequently charge the United States and other global powers with having imperial dimensions, no contemporary state will actually admit to being this sort of state.

Lost in debates over the effectiveness of hard power is the more significant question of whether the great 20th century liberal western empires actually worked the way the new imperial boosters claimed.  Most obviously, these enormous multi-ethnic entities drew the borders of nation states in Africa, South Asia, the West Indies, and the Middle East.  But this story of nation-building, which is often blurred by narratives of “development” and “failed states,” does little to explain the nature of actual imperial rule. Woodrow Wilson famously described administration as government in action, but in Wilson’s America bureaucrats answered to elected politicians. This was in contrast to empires where stereotypes of non-western backwardness justified highly authoritarian and decidedly unresponsive systems of rule.  As Ngugi was well aware, imperial regimes, by their very nature, had no responsibility to answer to the people they governed.

The imperial periphery was a site of experimentation where the authorities tried out new coercive elements of administration, policing, and social control before reintroducing them to the metropole. The new empires were, as theorists like Hannah Arendt suggested, not ill-fitting aberrations from the nation state model, but actually integral parts of it.

Nevertheless, the imperial governance and policing practices that landed the Kenyan novelist in prison were born of Wilson’s western administrative tradition despite their fundamental departure from the ideal of political accountability, popular sovereignty, and responsive community policing.  Empire, by strict definition, was the permanent and authoritarian rule of one group of people over another.  More informally, to paraphrase the noted historians Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, imperial administration meant governing different people differently.  By extension, imperial policing was policing different people differently.  The ideology of the “new” liberal imperialism that produced this policing model rested heavily on cartoonish social Darwinistic caricatures of Africans as inherently primitive, but workers, slaves, ethnic minorities and even women in western society were at times equally strange and thus “different” to western governments. Many of the fundamental assumptions and practices of imperial rule were thus developed to manage seemingly alien and threatening metropolitan communities and social classes.  Although built by archaic chartered companies, which were vestiges of the early modern era, the African empires of the late 19th century were extensions of the liberal western nation state. As such, the imperial periphery was a site of experimentation where the authorities tried out new coercive elements of administration, policing, and social control before reintroducing them to the metropole. The new empires were, as theorists like Hannah Arendt suggested, not ill-fitting aberrations from the nation state model, but actually integral parts of it.

In Britain, fears of increasing crime, mob action, and rapid urbanization inspired the Home Minister Robert Peel to create the first institutionalized professional police force in 1829. The deeply ingrained British distrust of standing armies and Napoleonic centralization, however, meant that this was an unarmed forced that relied upon the consent and cooperation of the general public to prevent crime and maintain public order. In celebrating Britain’s responsible and locally-controlled policing model, the exemplar for police forces in most western nation states, the London Metropolitan Police’s website proudly declares: “One of the key principles of modern policing in Britain is that the police seek to work with the community and as part of the community.” This certainly makes sense as a police force that has popular support in its efforts to prevent crime, catch lawbreakers, and uphold public morale can operate more effectively and cheaply. But this ideal makes no allowance for difference within communities, and critics of the Metropolitan Police have long argued that it privileges and protects the interests of dominant social classes.

African police officers in service of the British Empire, circa 1900.

African police officers in service of the British Empire, circa 1900.

Moreover, 19th-century Britain also produced a substantially more aggressive and less responsive form of policing along with Peel’s seemingly benign unarmed community-supported London “bobby.” While Ireland technically had equal standing within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a significant portion of the Irish population viewed British rule as foreign, despotic, and inherently imperial.  Consequently, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), whose main function was to support the dominant Protestant political order rather than preventing crime, was much closer to the highly centralized European model of a well-armed paramilitary gendarmerie. Based largely on the assumption that the people it policed were inherently different, the RIC did not depend on, or even expect, public support in carrying out its duties.

As popular support for the union with Britain waned in the first decades of the 20th century, the British government of Ireland increasingly had to substitute intimidation and occasionally outright force to compensate for this lack of consent. This was particularly true during the Irish War of Independence at the close of WWI when the RIC became so alienated from the general population that the British authorities raised a special police Auxiliary Division, recruited primarily from British military veterans, in a vain attempt to suppress the Irish Republican movement.  Lacking both training and proper supervision, these stopgap policemen, known as “black and tans” in reference to their uniforms, acquired a grim reputation for human rights violations in their campaign against the Irish nationalists.

The Royal Irish Constabulary, despite its failure in Ireland, had a profound influence on policing in the wider British Empire where, by its very nature, imperial rule was unresponsive to the will of conquered non-western communities.  While metropolitan Britons had rights as “subjects of the crown,” Africans and Asians were “protected persons” with no claims to British citizenship and thus no say in how they were policed.  In India, where opposition to imperial rule grew more defiant and organized in the years leading up to WWI, Indian security forces shared both personnel and tactics with their Irish counterparts.  This was part of a futile attempt by the two oldest territories in the empire to turn aside demands for self-determination with intimidation when concessions and reform proved insufficient.

After the Saorstát Eireann (Irish Free State) became a self-governing dominion in 1921 former members of the RIC and the black and tans spread throughout the empire as experts in imperial policing. A great many of these men ended up in inter-war Palestine when the inability and unwillingness of the local police to deal with Arab resistance to British rule forced the Mandate government to raise substantial paramilitary forces.  Major-General Hugh Tudor, who led the RIC during the Irish War of Independence, organized a special British section of the Palestine Gendarmerie that comprised largely former RIC constables and black and tans. When the inability of this force to cope with the massive 1936 Arab Revolt forced the civil government to fall back on the highly expensive resort of deploying two full army divisions, Sir Charles Tegart, a senior internal security expert with experience in both India and Ireland, organized a counter-insurgency campaign that was noteworthy for both its brutality and effectiveness in crushing Arab resistance.  As was the case with the end of direct British rule in the Irish Free State, when Britain relinquished the Mandate in the late 1940s, the officers and men of the Palestine security forces took similar positions in the remaining African empire.

This is how black and tan methods of policing came to Ngugi’s Kenya.  Sir Joseph Byrne, the Governor from 1931 to 1936, was the former Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Richard Catling, a veteran police officer from Palestine and Malaya, served as the Kenyan Commissioner of Police from 1954 to 1965, two years after Kenyan independence.  Yet despite these continuities and connections imperial policing in Kenya was substantially different from the Irish model. While the RIC was reasonably well funded and could deploy large numbers of European officers and constables, poorly paid Africans compromised the bulk of the police forces in British Africa.  This was even true in places like Kenya where there was a substantial European settler population.

This policy of drawing soldiers and policemen from subject communities was part of the larger British policy of indirect rule whereby fiscal austerity meant that under-funded and under-staffed colonial regimes had to recruit local allies to govern effectively.  The Kenyan provincial administration, which theoretically ruled more than three million people, fluctuated between just 118 and 145 men during the inter-war years.  African “chiefs” and “tribal policemen” made this possible by acting as agents of government authority in the countryside.  British administrators rationalized the practicality of indirect rule by claiming these allies had political legitimacy under “tribal tradition,” but in reality the “tribe” was colonial fantasy that compartmentalized subject peoples with stateless political institutions into governable administrative units, each with its own “native reserve.”

By the early 1930s, these reserves, which were little more than rural slums, crowded 86 percent of the African population onto 22 percent of Kenya’s arable land.  This was in sharp contrast to the 12,000 square miles of prime land in the “white highlands” that the colonial regime reserved for only a few thousands settlers.  While imperial apologists depicted the reserve system as necessary to protect primitive tribesmen from the ravages of “modernity” and free market capitalism, its primary function was to produce cheap labor for the settlers by destroying rural African economies.  Settler apologists tried to legitimize these inequities by claiming that working for them was a “civilizing” experience, but many were actually savagely cruel employers who frequently flogged their laborers, sometimes fatally.

Far from reflecting the needs and wishes of African communities, the primary function of policing was to impose and sustain these racist institutions of settler colonialism. The formal Kenya Police focused almost exclusively on protecting the privileged settler minority and did not operate directly in the native reserves until the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. It was still largely an African force, though, composed of a small group of European inspectors, some South Asian junior officers and the rank-and-file African constables.  Operating under a severe revenue shortfall resulting from its over-reliance on agricultural export tariffs, the Kenyan government used African forest guards and game wardens to police the forest reserves and game parks. Similarly, in the reserves inexpensive tribal policemen recruited by the chiefs and answering to British district officers upheld colonial authority.

The colonial regime only developed more sophisticated policing methods when it became clear that they had under-estimated the capacity of Africans to evade and break colonial laws. Following the metropolitan model, the Kenya Police established both a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and a Special Branch. The former consisted of plainclothes detectives charged with investigating substantial crimes, while the later focused on political subversion, which in the case of the metropolitan police originally meant monitoring Irish nationalists.  In Kenya, the authorities realized the need for a CID when sophisticated African criminal bands in Nairobi and Mombasa became proficient in auto theft, housebreaking, safecracking, and forgery. This of course ran counter to the primitive tribesman stereotype, but R.G.B. Spicer, the Commissioner of Police in 1929, had an answer for that: “[The African’s] increasing familiarity with European customs and living imbues him with extravagant ideas and desires, and he is therefore tempted to acquire dishonestly what he cannot really afford. I submit that this is an unfortunate corollary of native education.” In other words, the western civilization that was supposed to “uplift” Africans was actually responsible for turning them into criminals. Kenya and most other territories with substantial settler populations also had a Finger Print Bureau whose main function was not to identify criminals but to help the police keep track of laborers and apprehend those who broke their contracts with European employers.

The western civilization that was supposed to “uplift” Africans was actually responsible for turning them into criminals. Kenya and most other territories with substantial settler populations also had a Finger Print Bureau whose main function was not to identify criminals but to help the police keep track of laborers and apprehend those who broke their contracts with European employers.

In more serious cases, the Kenyan Special Branch gathered “intelligence” on the activities of African nationalists and other individuals who had the temerity to resist the colonial regime.  This entailed censoring books and magazines, reading letters, helping the metropolitan Special Branch monitor the activities of troublesome people like Jomo Kenyatta on their visits to Britain, and running a network of African informers.  While these surveillance systems were entirely rudimentary, they involved some significant figures in Kenyan history.  The famed anthropologist Louis Leakey ran a network of “voluntary intelligence officers” for the CID during WWII, and even one of Ngugi’s senior male relatives earned his living as a low-level police informer.  In protesting the incompatibility of these authoritarian institutions with the liberal ideal of civilizing colonialism, Jomo Kenyatta observed that “if such police methods were applied to Englishmen in England they would protest against them as imposing a ‘state of slavery.’”

Indeed, these autocratic systems of colonial control were a marked departure from the ideal of community supported policing.  In sharp contrast to the unarmed metropolitan bobby, African policemen usually carried rifles as they enforced the colonial will by collecting taxes, recruiting (and sometimes press-ganging) labor, and reinforcing chiefly authority.  When African communities resisted they faced collective punishment, which was technically illegal under western international law, in the form communal fines, the confiscation of livestock and produce, and forced labor.  In the decades before the First World War, the Kenyan authorities often had to deal with more substantive resistance by deploying the colonial army to augment the police.  In this sense, the threat of violence was an inexpensive pragmatic substitute for public consent on the metropolitan model.

Yet these terroristic policing tactics and the colonial regime’s limited surveillance network did not give the settlers any sense of actual security.  Ever mindful that they lived in privileged “islands of white” (to use Dane Kennedy’s term) amongst a sea of resentful and abused subjects, they worried constantly about their property and personal security.  While burglary and cattle theft were fairly common, actual physical attacks on Europeans were relatively rare in colonial Kenya.  But this did not stop the settlers from viewing African men as potential criminals, or much worse, potential rapists.  Ignoring the reality that Kenya simply could not afford an all-European police force on the RIC model, they disdained the African policemen charged with keeping them safe.  Settlers opposed arming any African and argued that “white prestige” exempted all Europeans from having to answer to an African policeman.  One of the most fundamental tensions between the settlers and the colonial regime arose from the government’s insistence that all residents of the colony, even the settlers, had to respect the authority of African policemen as servants of the Crown.  This, however, did not prevent the most racist settlers from verbally and even physically abusing such policemen.

At first glance, it might appear odd that any African would serve a foreign regime that treated its subjects so badly, but imperial rule by its very nature exploited differences in geography, identity, and class to deploy one segment of the subject population against another.  Policemen were thus a privileged segment of colonial society who enjoyed better pay, superior benefits, exemption from taxation and forced labor, and much higher prestige than the average unskilled African laborer.  Being a policeman also created opportunities to solicit bribes and extort resources from people with lesser means and influence.  It is quite likely that Ngugi could have avoided jail altogether had he offered his tormentors “something small” when they first stopped him.  And this dereliction of duty cut both ways for African policemen at times betrayed their European superiors by renting out their guns to robbers, protecting bootleggers and prostitutes, and tipping off suspects to pending raids.  Not surprisingly these activities meant that the public held them in generally low regard.  In time, this social isolation, combined with the official and unofficial perquisites of serving the colonial regime, gave the police a sense of corporate identity as sons followed their fathers into the service.  This may also help to explain why Mr. Machine Gun and Mr. Rifleman treated Ngugi so badly even though all three of them were Kikuyu.

These realities expose the practical limitations of imperial policing.  While the various police and security forces in Kenya had the capacity to brutalize and intimidate, they were relatively ineffective in upholding actual law and order because they had little support from the general public.  It was impossible to be everywhere at once, and so ordinary people often broke the law with impunity by avoiding their taxes, trespassing in supposedly “white” spaces, and helping themselves to the settlers’ property when no one was looking.  Even European police officers felt the effects of this social isolation.  Recalling his service with the colonial police in Burma, George Orwell noted that power did not bring deference: “No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.  As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so.”

Moreover, the considerable expansion of the colonial state and its various policing instruments after the Second World War did not make Kenya’s European population more secure.  The immediate post-war years brought a wave of strikes and labor unrest throughout the colony, and the respectable residents of Nairobi complained of a sudden “crime wave” in 1949.  One year later, the militant followers of a self-proclaimed prophet named Elijah Masinde wiped out an entire police expeditionary force in western Kenya.  Even worse from the settler perspective, Jomo Kenyatta and the nationalist Kenya African Union grew more popular with the urban unemployed and landless agricultural laborers, many of whom had been working as squatters on farms in the white highlands until the settlers replaced them with tractors.  The colonial regime responded to these threats by modernizing the Kenya Police, expanding the Special Branch and its network of informers, and raising a new Armoured Mobile Unit (later renamed the General Services Unit) under the command of a seasoned former tank officer.

As was the case in the last stages of British rule in Ireland, India, and Palestine, however, police intimidation and surveillance could not induce ordinary people to accept foreign rule, much less bring an alien regime political legitimacy. The Kenyan Special Branch was caught entirely off guard by the spectacular outbreak of anti-colonial violence amongst the Kikuyu community in the early 1950s that the colonial authorities labeled the “Mau Mau Emergency.” While a handful of spectacularly lethal attacks on isolated farm families in the white highlands threw the settlers into a panic, the uprising was largely a Kikuyu civil war between the small segment of privileged chiefs and educated men who used their alliance with the colonial regime to monopolize scarce land in the native reserves and the desperate Kikuyu underclass that was pushed to the brink by the colonial regime’s land and labor policies.  It took a full brigade of regular British Army troops to restore order by 1955, but the expense of suppressing the Emergency played a role in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s decision to surrender what remained of Britain’s African empire at the end of the decade.  Another significant factor was Macmillan’s embarrassment over the reports of torture and atrocities committed by the regular security forces, the settler-dominated auxiliary Kenya Police Reserve, and the staff of the vast system of detention camps that incarcerated tens of thousands of suspected Mau Mau supporters.

In January 1960, Macmillan therefore declared that his government would no longer resist the inexorable nationalist “wind of change” blowing through Africa.  Concluding that it was time to cut Britain’s losses by abandoning the settlers and setting the African colonies on the path to nationhood, the metropolitan government’s goal was to transfer power to friendly African regimes that would respect Britain’s economic and strategic interests.  In practical terms, this meant encouraging Kenyan nationalists to keep the colonial state, including its security systems, largely intact.  The goal was to retain the benefits of informal influence in the new Kenya without incurring the economic, political, and diplomatic costs of direct rule.

Rather surprisingly, given their vehement criticism of the colonial regime, Jomo Kenyatta and the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) did indeed preserve much of its security and policing apparatus.  Realizing that the limitations of Kenya’s export-focused neo-mercantile economy meant that there were insufficient resources to keep populist election promises, the new national elite tried to use imperial policing as a substitute for full political legitimacy when popular dissatisfaction set in almost immediately after KANU came to power in December 1963.  As already noted, Kenyatta kept Richard Catling on his Commissioner of Police for two years after independence, and senior British officers continued to serve in the Kenya Police and Special Branch on a contract basis well into the 1970s.

The KANU regime eventually “Africanized” all these positions, but in the short term the expatriate officers ensured that there was a high degree of continuity in policing practices between the colonial and national eras.  The difference was now that the authoritarian and coercive instruments of imperial policing served more overtly political purposes.  Faced with a significant electoral challenge from more socialistic rival elites who promised a more equitable division of the “fruits of independence,” Kenyatta used the provincial administration, the Kenya Police, and the Special Branch to remain in power by stifling dissent and subverting the political process.  This official embrace of the imperial policing model had the additional unfortunate side effect of keeping rank-and-file policemen relatively alienated from the communities they policed, thereby perpetuating, if not expanding, the corrupt and abusive practices that landed Ngugi in prison in the waning days of the Mau Mau Emergency.  The worst abuses of settler colonialism ended with independence, but the Kenyan judiciary’s report on the supposedly “tribal clashes” surrounding multi-party elections in the 1990s explicitly identified the KANU regime’s corrupt retention of imperial policing and administrative traditions as a central cause of the widespread electoral violence.  Writing in the 1930s, Jomo Kenyatta had observed that the colonial regime only offered subject Africans “the gas bomb [and] the armed police force” rather than the many positive aspects of western culture.  His embrace of imperial policing was sadly ironic.

British colonial police and Kenyan suspects during an all-too common scene of imperial rule.

British colonial police and Kenyan suspects during an all-too common scene of imperial rule.

In many ways, then, “empire” did indeed live on in East Africa, but what of Doris Lessing’s observation that it no longer exists as an institution? This of course is factually correct, but the demise of the formal French and British Empires in the second half of the 20th century obscures the reality that imperial methods and practices still have practical value to those who seek to control different people. During the 1940s, the noted West Indian sociologist St. Clair Drake noted that police forces in port cities with large non-European minorities like Cardiff and Liverpool preferred to recruit former colonial officers to take advantage of their expertise in dealing with the “coloured” subjects of the empire. Similarly, many of the police and security officers who served in the African colonies, some with experience dating back to the RIC and the Palestine Police, returned home to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s to finish their careers.  This was at a time when opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland turned violent and waves of migrants from former British colonies in South Asia, the West Indies, and to a lesser extent sub-Saharan Africa transformed the British metropole into a much more heterogeneous society. Former colonial police officers therefore found their expertise in imperial policing still in considerable demand during the social unrest and riots that followed.

The demise of the formal French and British Empires in the second half of the 20th century obscures the reality that imperial methods and practices still have practical value to those who seek to control different people. During the 1940s, the noted West Indian sociologist St. Clair Drake noted that police forces in port cities with large non-European minorities like Cardiff and Liverpool preferred to recruit former colonial officers to take advantage of their expertise in dealing with the “coloured” subjects of the empire.

But what of the United States which, apart from a few territories like the Philippines, never had a formal empire in the British or French sense?  While the Bush administration explicitly denied that it had imperial intentions when it invaded Iraq in 2003, the resulting occupation was unquestionably imperial in character because it entailed, at least for the first year, the direct authoritarian rule of one people over another. In setting up the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to undertake this project, however, the Americans were woefully ignorant of the realities of imperial policing and governance.  The inability of the CPA to recruit sufficient local allies as policemen and paramilitaries doomed the occupation by forcing a reliance on the military to uphold basic law and order in the face of armed and tenacious resistance by a substantial portion of the populace.

The Bush administration’s naïveté in assuming it could impose its will on a conquered foreign society so easily is, to some degree, understandable given that the United States has relatively little experience with formal imperial rule.  But on an informal level America has a long tradition of governing and policing “different peoples differently.” While all Americans, no matter how marginalized, are citizens rather than imperial subjects, institutionalized racial discrimination and extreme social stratification have produced conditions in many localities that approximate the inequities of formal empire.  In these situations the western ideal of community based policing becomes unworkable, thereby forcing local governments to employing heavy-handed, if not openly brutal, methods to uphold law and order. Popular anger over imperial-style methods of policing was a key factor in sparking the violent police-triggered protests that erupted in many urban communities in 2014 and 2015.  The United States is not an empire, but these commonalities with imperial methods of rule suggest that the long-term solution to the problems in St. Louis, Baltimore, and far too many other places in America is not simple police reform but a greater effort to reduce the underlying socio-economic causes of “difference” that can turn the conventional western police model imperial. Without these structural reforms Mr. Rifleman and Mr. Machine Gun will always be with us in one form or another.

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