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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser