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?

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.