After Kenya, the UK must compensate the other victims of empire

Britain should offer similar redress for its bloody colonial wars in Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and the north of Ireland.

After six decades of stonewalling, the UK government has finally agreed to compensate Kenyans who were tortured and sexually abused by British forces during the 1950s independence struggle.

This change of heart follows the government’s loss of a succession of court cases bought by the victims. The Foreign Office is currently holding confidential talks with the claimant’s London-based solicitors, Leigh Day, with view to settling their long-standing legal case.

The maltreatment of Kenyan nationalists occurred with the full knowledge and connivance of the colonial authorities, according to recently revealed official papers that were secretly archived at Britain’s top security Government Communications Centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire.

During the 1950s, in excess of 70,000 detainees were interned without trial in quasi concentration camps on mere suspicion of support for the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) uprising. Evidence was often flimsy or non-existent. The general approach seemed to be: if in doubt, lock them up. For the colonial authorities, the Mau Mau risked sparking a wider anti-imperial rebellion. They posed an existential threat to the Empire and had to be suppressed at all costs. The colonisers weren’t fussy about the methods, so long as British rule was sustained.

Detainees were routinely subjected to beatings, starvation and forced labour. Medical treatment was frequently withheld; effectively condemning hundreds of prisoners to death. Many were manacled night and day for years. Some victims were burned alive.

A popular interrogation method was stamping on a detainee's throat and forcing mud into his mouth, together with threats to beat him unconscious. Deaths that resulted from these brutal techniques were sometimes blamed on ‘drinking too much water.’

Many male detainees were subjected to obscene sexual abuse; including being stripped naked and then raped, castrated and forcibly sodomised with truncheons and sticks by British colonial police, soldiers and prison warders.

Sexual sadism was used as a weapon of war, to deliberately humiliate, degrade and dehumanise men who supported Kenyan self-rule. These abuses manipulated sexual shame and pandered to homophobic prejudice. They played on the fear of demasculinisation; seeking to undermine the victim’s sense of manhood in order to break them mentally and physically.

Hundreds of Kenyans died from the abuses inflicted upon them.

One of the men abused was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of President Barack Obama. According to his widow, British soldiers forced pins into his buttocks and fingernails and crushed his testicles.

A Nairobi judge, Arthur Cram, in 1954 compared the methods employed to those of the Gestapo. The colony’s attorney general, Eric Griffith-Jones, also privately conceded that the abuses were ‘distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia’. These opinions were conveyed to the Foreign Office, which did nothing - apart from ordering a cover up.

Despite long-standing evidence of grotesque, widespread abuses, successive British governments refused to acknowledge these crimes or compensate the victims. As recently as last December the Foreign Office was contesting a UK high court ruling that gave three elderly Kenyans the right to seek compensation for the abuses they suffered at the hands of the British during the eight-year anti-colonial insurgency, from 1952-60.

This has prompted allegations of double-standards. Critics have upbraided the UK government for condemning torture in Syria and Zimbabwe but opposing redress for Kenyans who suffered similar torture at the hands of the British colonial administration. Utter hypocrisy, they said.

There are also concerns that the UK authorities appear to have cynically dragged out legal proceedings in the hope that most of the Kenyan claimants would die before a settlement is agreed; thereby cutting the eventual compensation bill.

The idea that no one knew what was happening at the time, and that the events in 1950s Kenya have remained hidden and unknown for the last six decades, is not credible.

My 1985 book Democratic Defence was, among other things, a critique of British colonial policy. When researching it I had no difficulty in finding documentary evidence of atrocities in Kenya, as this short example from chapter 4 - An Anti-Democratic Army - illustrates:

On 24 April 1954, in the war against the Kenyan nationalists, the British security forces mounted “Operation Anvil” to screen the entire African population of Nairobi in a dragnet for supporters of the pro-independence Land and Freedom Army. On that one day, over 16,000 suspects were carted off to prison camps; a further 62,000 were detained without trial at various points during the war. Conditions in the camps were appalling – 350 prisoners died from maltreatment in 1954 alone. Hard labour, severe beatings, long spells in solitary confinement and darkness and deprivation of food, water and medical attention were commonplace. Rape and castration were also inflicted on detainees. At the notorious Hola Camp, 11 detainees were beaten to death by prison officers in 1959 after refusing to do forced labour in protest at the barbaric conditions. No one was ever prosecuted for their murder.

It is shocking that for six decades the UK government knew about these brutalities but kept the records hidden until 2011 and refused to compensate the survivors. Even now, the settlement being negotiated is, as far as we know, only about financial recompense - and does not yet involve an agreed admission of UK culpability or an apology.

On a positive note: the likely payments to thousands of Kenyans will hopefully lead to similar redress for the victims of Britain’s other bloody colonial wars in Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and the north of Ireland, where detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial killings also took place. The mistreatment of suspects in a number of ex-colonies has been alleged by Amnesty International, the European Commission of Human Rights and the International Red Cross. Already, the orthodox narrative of a benign empire looks frayed and unsustainable.

A 1953 photograph shows some of the 6,000 Africans rounded up in Kairobangi, Nairobi, by police searching for Mau Mau suspects. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.