The empire's ghost returns.
ON 23 June 2009, A GROUP OF FIVE KENYANS, represented by the UK-based solicitors, Leigh Day & Co, filed a suit against the British government in the British High Court for alleged torture during the colonial period. A day later, the group arrived at the doorstep of 10 Downing Street to deliver a letter in which they detailed their struggle for justice to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. At once stoic and fragile, these elderly men and women are holding up a mirror to the British government and public. Reflected in that mirror is a history that is neither the sole province of Britain nor Kenya, but rather a shared past which is still very much alive today.
Far from parting ways at independence, the two countries have remained very much tied together, in no small part because Britain still has major economic and geopolitical interests in Kenya. If during the colonial period the ties that bind were those of "kith and kin", today the British public's primary connection to Kenya, and Africa more generally, is through a repackaged form of the "white man's burden" that allows a wider swath of the public to partake in the "civilising mission" through any number of charitable organisations or simply by shopping, thanks to schemes such as Product (RED).
The "lend-a-helping-hand-to-Africa-frenzy", however, masks a more troubling phenomenon: the desire on the part of former colonial powers and their respective publics to distance themselves from their barbaric colonial past and the abhorrent human rights abuses that were systematically inflicted on colonised populations. Charitable endeavours, as well-meaning as they might be, do not address the specific histories of abuse that have left individuals and communities scarred for life. Therein lies the importance of the Mau Mau's reparation suit. Its outcome will ultimately determine whether the final reflection in the mirror is one of hypocrisy or justice.
Backed by the Nairobi-based NGO, Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association, the claimants, Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi, and two women, Jane Muthoni Mara and Susan Ngondi, are asking for an official apology and compensation for the inhumane abuses and lifelong injuries they suffered during the "Emergency Period" in Kenya (1952-1960), when the colonial government's brutal repression of the Kenyan independence struggle climaxed. Spearheaded by what came to be known as the Mau Mau, the freedom fighters in the forests referred to themselves as the "Land and Freedom Army", a name that succinctly described their raison d'etre: they wanted to recover lands that had been taken from them during the period of white settlement in the early 20th century and they wanted freedom from colonial rule.
The central role that historians are playing in the making of this case alerts us to what is at stake in writing African history and draws attention to the ever-pressing need for even more historical research on Africa's past. The Oxford historian and director of its African Studies Centre, David Anderson, and Harvard University's Caroline Elkins, have written the most recent and exhaustive studies of the human rights abuses during the Kenyan "Emergency". Indeed, it was Anderson's Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (2005) and Elkins' Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (2005) that revealed the full extent of the period's immense brutality and lawlessness for the first time.
While academic books typically receive little attention and are only read by a handful of specialists, Elkins' book went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2006 and raised international awareness of the "dirty" history she and Anderson have both so painstakingly documented. Their work, in conjunction with the lifting of the colonial ban against the Mau Mau movement in 2003, has made it possible to bring forth the necessary evidence to launch the suit in the British High Court.
According to the KHRC, Elkins has agreed to serve as an expert witness should the case go to trial. In a recent article in the British daily, The Times, Anderson, however, distanced himself from the case by saying that he thinks it is "driven by politics and money". His scholarship, nonetheless, still stands as the most relevant pronouncement that Anderson could make on the case. His speculations about the claimants' motivations are less germane. Ironically, Anderson, who has done so much to advance the cause of justice for the Mau Mau, is now championing a view shared by many Mau Mau detractors who seek to delegitimise the merits of the case by attributing it to greed. One need only look at the comment board that accompanied the online version of the Times article to see the unfortunate popularity of this view.
But let us for a moment assume that this case is about money. What would be so wrong with that? Civil suits exist partly to provide a form of retribution when justice can't be sought, for any number of reasons, through the criminal court system. Indeed their main purpose is to exact material compensation for physical and emotional injuries. The near impossibility of criminally trying individual perpetrators in this case, whether white or black, is widely recognised, not least because many are already dead or nearly so. By way of example, Terence Gavaghan, the colonial officer who was charged with overseeing the "rehabilitation programme" of the British concentration camps in Kenya, is now 86 years old. Equally, as documents in the UK National Archives clearly indicate, the "UK Government" was at the top of the detention camps' chain of command (see picture on p. 27). As such, exacting pecuniary damages from the British government rather than levying criminal charges against individuals who were taking their orders from the state makes absolute sense in this case. In connection with this, it should be underscored that if the suit is successful the KHRC plans to establish a fund with the proceeds to care for Mau Mau veterans. In short, this is not about large cash payments to individual victims, but rather community-wide reparations intended to assist victims and their families with much-needed health care and general maintenance.
As Zarina Patel poignantly notes in her article, "Mau Mau: Raw British Brutality"(see pp. 30-31), many Mau Mau participants sustained injuries that have debilitated them for life. In addition to other severe injuries, two of the claimants, Ndiku Mutua and Paulo Nzili, were castrated with pliers. A third claimant, Wambugu Wa Nyingi, was intermittently starved and tortured, but he was lucky: eleven other men who were beaten alongside him during the infamous Hola Camp incident, died of their injuries. The two female claimants, Jane Muthoni Mara and Susan Ngodi, were both beaten and subjected to forms of sexual violence that are too heinous to repeat here.
What possible objection could there be to allowing these men and women to spend the remainder of their lives being cared for in ways that might gently salve the wounds of their painful histories? Don't they deserve to be compensated for not only the original injuries they sustained, but also the negative impact their injuries have had on their ability to make decent lives for themselves and their families over the last 50 years?
While the colonial regime largely acted as a unified entity in its assault on the Mau Mau, following orders from the Colonial Office in London, Patel also alerts us to the fact that there were Britons who spoke up for justice in the face of these abuses. In addition to people like John Nottingham, a young colonial officer who refused to take part in the torture of the Mau Mau, Britons in the metropole also condemned the draconian "Emergency" legislation that subjected as many as 150,000 Kenyans to detention for years on end without trial in concentration camps, where they became victims of arbitrary killings, severe physical assaults, and extreme acts of inhumane and degrading treatment. In an opinion column dated 26 September 1952 in the Daily Express, one British reader wrote under the title "Remember Hitler": "They [the British people] cannot support--and will not countenance--legislation which will turn these people [suspected Mau Mau] into citizens of a dictatorship as severe as anything set up by the late Mr Hitler."
Just as there were some Britons who came to the defence of the Mau Mau, there were also Africans, known as "loyalists", who served in the Home Guard and meted out unspeakable abuses to detainees. This fact is often bandied about by the suit's naysayers to support their claim that Africans share the blame. Yet, this line of reasoning conveniently evades the question of who was responsible for creating the larger system in which these abuses took place. It also evades the very structure of colonial regimes, which create and depend upon the "native collaborator" to ensure their survival.
No doubt the British colonial government in Kenya developed the Home Guard precisely to do its bidding. As part of its quest for national reconciliation, the KHRC is working to address the rifts created by the British colonial regime's divide and rule policies, which were so clearly evident in the formation and utilisation of the Home Guard, especially during the "Emergency" and which continue to bedevil Kenyan society even today.
In "The Ever-Present Past" (see pp. 24-5), Mukoma Wa Ngugi provides important insights into why it has taken so long for the case to see the light of day. In his meticulous analysis of both colonial and post-independence Kenyan history, we see how conservative elements within both sets of regimes have colluded to silence history. Most importantly, the colonial ban on the Mau Mau, which was maintained by the post-independence governments of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, meant that the Mau Mau could not actively organise on their own behalf until 2003, shortly after the current president, Mwai Kibaki, was elected, and lifted the ban. This fact provides one important answer to the suit's detractors who question why the Mau Mau waited so long to seek justice in a court of law: prior to 2003, Mau Mau veterans risked breaking the law if they engaged in any form of organised activity. That it was the ban rather than a lack of desire that kept them from seeking justice, is indicated by the fact that as soon as the ban was lifted the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association was formed, beginning their arduous journey towards an official apology and compensation.
History lives. It does not die precisely because it is always implicated in the present and bears its impress on the future. Yet, we rarely have the opportunity to encounter history's makers, especially when the history they have made challenges official state narratives. In "A Test Case for Justice" (see pp. 30-31), Nicole K. Parshall picks up on this point as she underscores the contradiction between Britain's publicly articulated stand on torture and its apparent unwillingness to confront its own history of torture. Indeed, Britain's own orthodox national narrative is partly imagined through its anti-slavery activities, including most famously its abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. It is a narrative of redemptive progress--the slave trading nation cum anti-slavery pioneers, a formulation that typically sidesteps colonialism altogether, or positions it as nothing worse than a misguided, but nonetheless well-meaning project.
If colonialism has yet to be accepted as the strategic wholesale underdevelopment of Africa for the express purpose of developing Europe, little chance then that Britain is eager to acknowledge the systematic human rights abuses engendered by colonialism. Thus, as Parshall points out, states such as Britain that "dominate the conversation [on torture], speaking adamantly against the practice, often do little when the issue arrives at their own doorstep".
As Makau Mutua, chairman of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has pointed out, the KHRC has had to take the lead in bringing forth the suit because justice for the Mau Mau is essential for Kenya's transition to democracy. As such, the NGO is footing a very pricey bill, including research and legal fees along with the cost of bringing the Kenyan delegation to England for the filing of the suit. Largely dependent on donor agencies for their funding, the KHRC has found that some of its donors do not want their funds to go towards such a politically contentious endeavour. Nonetheless, it has forged ahead, knowing that in this case justice delayed may very well be justice denied, as many of the men and women they hope to help are quickly nearing the ends of their lives.
There are some promising signs, however, that the Kenyan government is beginning to recognise the significant nature of this case. Among the delegation that came from Kenya to launch the suit in London were Gitobu Imanyara, who is a sitting MP, and Paul Muite, a former MP and a member of the legal team. Prime Minister Raila Odinga has committed himself to raising the matter at the cabinet level, and President Kibaki recently attended the funeral of the grandson of the Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi. The government, moreover, facilitated processing of passports for the veterans to travel to London. Let us hope that as the Kenyan government is faced with healing the recent wounds from the December 2007 disputed general election, it reaches back even further in order to address the root causes of many of Kenya's current problems.
New African readers who would like to make a donation to the KHRC's legal fund can go to www.khrc.or.ke for more information. Those wishing to show their moral support for this just cause can also log on to http://www.thepetitionsite.com/I/www.khrc-or-ke to sign the KHRC's petition. One needs little imagination to figure out that the British government will spare no expense in fighting this case lest others further force the floodgates of its colonial past open. It is all the more impressive then that a modest NGO from Kenya has taken it upon itself to fight the good fight. The KHRC and the Mau Mau veterans deserve the support and solidarity of Africans continent-wide and beyond.