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Mau Mau settlement: the Kenyan government’s shame

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

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

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.