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?

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood