British crimes in Kenya “cannot be forgotten,” says victim

As the world watches the 2012 Olympics in London, kicked off with the opening ceremony’s lavish, quirky celebration of British civilization, three elderly Kenyans must patiently await a judge’s ruling in their case against the British government.

The two men – Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84, and Paolo Muoka Nzili, 85 – and one woman – Jane Muthoni Mara, 73 – are among tens of thousands of Kenyans who were sent to concentration camps during their struggle for independence from British colonial rule half a century ago.

They are suing the British government for compensation for the torture they claim they suffered in those camps, including severe beatings (Nyingi), castration (Nzili), and rape (Mara).

At a British High Court hearing two weeks ago, the lawyer representing the British government did not dispute that the Kenyans suffered abuse, but said the case had no merit as too much time has passed since the alleged incidents.

The three Kenyans argue that they continue to endure physical, mental, and emotional effects of torture carried out by the British in their effort to deny independence to Kenya, offenses that are indisputably and extensively documented.

In the late 1940s, after decades of land alienation, forced labor, segregation, and other crimes suffered under the British colonizers, ordinary Kenyans formed a group called the Land and Freedom Party, more commonly known as Mau Mau, to win back their independence.

The British responded by trying to ruthlessly crush the movement through aerial bombardments of rural areas, resettlement of entire communities in isolated and closed villages, and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps. The British colonial regime declared a state of emergency in 1952 and carried out systematic torture, rape, and summary executions against the liberation fighters. Historians estimate at least 20,000 Kenyans were killed during the insurgency before Kenya regained its independence in 1962.

Though the violence of European colonial rule is usually denied or forgotten in the West, the extent of the crimes committed in Kenya has come to light in recent years thanks to the testimony of those who were tortured by British, like the three Kenyans who argued their case, as well as the hard work of historians searching through colonial archives.

The reality of British rule reached a popular audience with the publication of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, by Harvard scholar Caroline Elkins, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

Last year, scholars and activists discovered thousands of documents, assumed lost, in the Foreign Office’s archives, some of which detail abuses by British colonial officials in the concentration camps.

It has therefore become impossible for the British government to deny its crimes in Kenya, yet it spent two years trying to block the case after papers were served in 2009. At first it argued that responsibility for any crimes was transferred to the Kenyan government at independence in 1963. However, last year a High Court judge ruled the claimants had an arguable case, which should be considered, so the British government has had to resort to legal trickery in order to avoid reparations.

At the hearing in mid-July, Mara testified that she was accused of being a Mau Mau “scout” and taken to a concentration camp when she was 15. She told the court how she was sexually abused, including being raped with a bottle of boiling water. “I want the British government to compensate me for the suffering I have been caused as a result of the abuse I was subjected to at the camps,” she declared through an interpreter. “The abuse affected my whole life and I relive the events I lived through on a regular basis.”

In a witness statement, Nzili explained how a torture session was directed by a white settler named Dunman, but nicknamed “Luvai” meaning “merciless person” in the Kikamba language. “They tied both of my legs with chains and pinned down both my hands,” Nzili recalled. “Then Luvai approached me with a pair of pliers which were more than a foot long and castrated me.”

The lawyer representing the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Guy Mansfield, told the court the government does not deny the three Kenyans suffered “torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration” but argues the case has no merit since too much time has elapsed. At the same time, the defense strategy appears to include a cynical emphasis on the fact that some Kenyans working for the British colonial regime were perpetrators of abuse as well.

The presiding judge, Richard McCombe, said he would issue his ruling in October on whether to dismiss the case totally or recommend it proceed to a full trial.

The possible implications of this case are profound. European nations have resisted demands to apologize for the crimes they committed in Africa during the colonial era, largely to avoid paying reparations. The hypocrisy of the capitalist West is astonishing as it passes judgment on human rights around the world yet refuses to acknowledge its own misdeeds. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has publicly criticized the British for their double standard, encouraging them to face up to their own human rights record by compensating these Kenyans for the abuses they suffered during colonial rule.

Indeed, Mara succinctly made this point in court: “I want the British citizens of today to know what their forefathers did to me and to many others. These crimes cannot go unpunished and forgotten.”

Photo: Kenyans are rounded up by the British in March 1953 during the Mau Mau uprising.   AP


Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.