It's time to acknowledge the victims of colonial-era torture in Kenya

The coalition must practice what it preaches on human rights.

The coalition government claims to have placed human rights at the heart of its foreign policy. Next month, in the High Court, it will be asked to practice what it preaches by three elderly Kenyans.

The Kenyans will travel 4,000 miles to London in what is amounting to a seemingly endless struggle to get the government to acknowledge the tortures they were subjected at the hands of British officials in the run up to independence. They are men and women who are now in their 70s and 80s, who began their fight for redress back in 2009. 

These victims represent the wider community of several hundred elderly Kenyans who were subjected to unspeakable abuses while they were detained during the “Mau Mau rebellion”. They seek above all recognition of the abuses they suffered, but many have died while waiting for this case to wind its way through the courts, including some of the original claimants in the case.  Significantly their claims are being supported by both the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Kenyan government.

The full truth of what occurred during the Kenya Emergency has only recently emerged due to exhaustive research conducted by historians from Oxford and Harvard, which revealed facts which are scandalous by any standard.

The Mau Mau rebellion was itself brutal but the colonial response was no less vicious. Between 1954 and 1955 over a million Kenyans were rounded up into 800 barded-wire villages where they were guarded and their movement controlled. Many thousands who had little or no connection with the Mau Mau were detained without trial for years in a labyrinth of 150 detention camps littered around Kenya known as “the Pipeline”. Among their number was Onyango Obama, Barak Obama’s grandfather.

From the start, the detention camps were places of violence and torture. Detainees were subjected to arbitrary killings, castrations and sexual assaults. Camp guards engaged in daily beatings, often resulting in serious injury or death. The worst forms of abuse and torture were routinely deployed during interrogations.

The systematic nature of the abuse and the extent to which it was known about and ultimately sanctioned at the highest level of government is what has been uncovered by recent historical scholarship, placing responsibility at the heart of Whitehall.

The three leading academic experts on the Kenya Emergency from the universities of Oxford, Harvard and London have all submitted multiple lengthy statements in support of the victims.  By contrast, not one expert has come forward to support the British government’s position.

The case has also lead to the “discovery” of the remarkable Hanslope archive, which contains tens of thousands of previously unseen documents from 37 different colonies which an internal report labelled the FCO’s “guilty secret”. These documents are now slowly being put into the public domain and provide a highly detailed account of the unfolding drama in pre-independence Kenya.

The government initially argued that they cannot be held liable for the sins of the Kenyan colony and if anyone was liable it was the Kenyan government. In July 2011 the High Court judge flatly rejected the government’s argument and stated that there was “substantial” evidence in support of the victims’ case:

The materials evidencing the continuing abuses in the detention camps in subsequent years are substantial, as is the evidence of the knowledge of both governments that they were happening and of the failure to take effective action to stop them. (Paragraph 128)

And yet, in July 2012, the government will seek to rely on a further technicality, this time by arguing that the claims are out of time and should have been brought years ago (even though they were sitting on many of the documents which have enabled experts to piece together the truth of what happened).  

Leading figures from Africa such as Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel and senior British politicians (including two current cabinet ministers, Vince Cable and Ed Davey) have called on the government to deal with these elderly Kenyans with the dignity they deserve. The previous government was on the verge of finding a solution to this issue just before the last election and yet there is no sign that William Hague is willing to do the same and it may be that the he will be dragged kicking and screaming by the judiciary into acknowledging the suffering of these elderly victims of torture.

 

Elizabeth Wamaitha, who was detained in a British-run labor camp for three years with her baby. Photograph: Getty Images
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage