Mau Mau settlement: the Kenyan government’s shame

The British are certainly in the dock today, but so are the Kenyan authorities.

The British government has, finally, been forced to make an apology and a financial settlement to those victims of the atrocities carried out during its colonial rule of Kenya. Some 5,000 former Mau Mau members or supporters will receive around £14m. A tiny sum, but most of the aged men and women will probably settle for the money, as they eke out their last years.

The case has been a huge embarrassment for the British. London feared – rightly – it could unleash a wave of similar cases in Yemen, Israel, Cyprus and beyond. Indeed, some Indians in Malaysia have already registered a case against Britain for failing to protect them from discrimination by Malaysia’s independent government.

But if the British are in the dock today, so are the Kenyan authorities. In July last year, when the case was being heard in London, campaigners for the Mau Mau veterans complained bitterly of the lack of support from their own government.

George Morara of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission told me of his disgust at the Kenyan government’s unwillingness to pay for the former Mau Mau fighters to bring the case. He contrasted this with the Kenyan government’s assistance in paying expenses of the four high-profile Kenyans facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Morara said it was not difficult to explain just why this was the case. While many Kenyans supported the uprising against the colonial authorities between 1952 and 1960, others had been recruited by Britain. The activities of these “loyalists” – as the collaborators were known, had thrown a long shadow over the present.  Some in the current administration and senior members of the civil service were “loyalists”.

Morara said some officials feared that the case moight expose their past. "Most of them were collaborators," he said. "They benefited from suppressing Mau Mau and they don't want the full history to come out now.”

David Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, says as many as 60,000 Kenyans were recruited as “loyalists”.

When President Jomo Kenyatta came to power in December 1963, he was determined that anyone associated with Mau Mau would be kept out of his administration. David Anderson argues that Kenyatta had little time for the former ‘freedom fighters’. “He often spoke of the need to ‘forgive and forget’, and to ‘bury the past’, but never conceded rights, rewards or genuine compensation to Mau Mau. When asked about the future role of Mau Mau in 1963, his answer was unequivocal: ‘We shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya’”. 

Caroline Elkins, who published “Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya,” supports this argument.  She believes the “loyalists” were incorporated into all levels of post-colonial government.

"During the run-up to independence and the years that followed, former loyalists also wielded political clout to consolidate their own interests and power. Under Kenyatta many became influential members of the new government. . . . This system of loyalist patronage percolated all the way down to the local level of government, with former Home Guards dominating bureaucracies that had once been the preserve of the young British colonial officers in the African districts. Of the numerous vacancies created by decolonization—powerful posts like provincial commissioner and district commissioner—the vast majority were filled by one time loyalists." (p. 360-3)

In the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that it was August 2003 that the ban on Mau Mau was finally lifted in Kenya – forty years after independence.

The veterans may now, finally, receive the recognition they deserve, but fresh questions lurk about Kenya’s present. If Britain was right to attempt to come to terms with its past, why is Kenya’s current elite not prepared to do the same? President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, are both charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating the political and ethnic violence that erupted in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed general election in December 2007. The trials are due to begin in September this year.

But instead of co-operating with the Court, Kenya’s rulers have done all they can to resist it. The Kenyan government whipped up a storm of anger at May’s African Union summit against the international court. In its discussions the African Union accused the ICC of “targeting Africans” and “race hunting.”

Meanwhile, in Kenya itself key witnesses against President Kenyatta and William Ruto have been mysteriously disappearing, while others have retracted their evidence. The ICC complains of “unprecedented witness interference.” 

Kenyan elite has learnt that the past is best buried deep, and carefully raked over. There are just too many embarrassing secrets to uncover – some which stretch back to the colonial era. 

An imprisoned Mau Mau soldier in Kenya, 1955. Photograph: Three Lions/Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.