Picture: The Royal Family / X (formerly Twitter) King Charles with Kenyan President William Ruto. The British monarch expressed “deepest regret” for “abhorrent and unjustified acts of violence committed against Kenyans” but stopped short of an official apology. People’s movements have called for reparations and accountability for crimes during the colonial era but also steps to address their impact that continue to this day, the writer says.
By Peoples Dispatch
As King Charles III began his four-day state visit to Kenya this week, calls for accountability and reparations amplified in the country for the horrific abuses committed by the British empire in its former colony.
A statement issued by the UK government leading up to the visit indicated that the monarch would “acknowledge the more painful aspects of the UK and Kenya’s shared history, including the Emergency (1952-1960)”.
This was the period of the armed rebellion of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), otherwise (historically, derisively) known as the Mau Mau, which fought for liberation from Britain rule. The colonial authorities responded with severe brutality, killing, torturing, and maiming over 100,000 people, according to the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).
According to the widely-cited work of Harvard historian Caroline Elkins, between 160,000 and 320,000 Kenyans were interned in concentration camps. They were among the 1.5 million people who were either forced into such camps or were otherwise confined in “protected villages”, on suspicion of being linked to the KLFA’s liberation struggle.
After a decade-long campaign, in 2013, the British government settled a legal case brought on behalf of 5,228 Kenyan people who had suffered torture and abuse during the Emergency. A compensation of approximately US$ 30 million was announced, amounting to only about US$ 5,700 for each person at the time, along with a “statement of regret”.
Despite the magnitude of the empire’s crimes, it was clear that Charles III would not offer a “full and unconditional apology and commit to effective reparations to victims and their families”, the KHRC noted in a statement this week.
In a speech on October 31, the monarch stopped short of issuing an apology, merely stating that “the wrongdoings of the past are a cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret. There were abhorrent and unjustified acts of violence committed against Kenyans … ”.
“None of this can change the past but by addressing our history with honesty and openness we can perhaps demonstrate the strength of our friendship today … .”
In recent years, other former colonial powers have made similar declarations of “regret” while evading legal accountability for their crimes.
On November 1, Kenyan police dispersed members of the Social Justice Centres Working Group who had gathered to hold a demonstration at the monument dedicated to Dedan Kimathi, a revolutionary leader of the KLFA.
“King Charles III embodies a symbol of wanton robbery, echoing the exploitation of the Global South,” the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK) said in a statement.
“Welcomed by a select few among the predator class, the filthy rich, his visit has ignited widespread discontent among the majority of Kenyans … [T]he pockets of demonstrations being stifled by the Kenya police reflect a society at a crossroads, wrestling with the weight of its past and the desire for a more equitable future.”
Speaking at the progressive Ukombozi Library on November 2, cadres of the CPK and the Social Justice Centre announced their demands, including the return of the remains of leaders including Kimathi and the return of stolen artefacts.
After his execution at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in 1957, Kimathi was buried at an unknown site. Sixty-two years later, it was discovered that he had been buried on the prison grounds, however, the exact location is still unknown.
Meanwhile, elders from the Nandi community in Kenya’s Rift Valley region also renewed their demand for the repatriation of the mortal remains of chief Koitalel Arap Samoei. Samoei, who had led a fierce struggle against British colonisers’ plans to run a railway project through Nandi land, was killed by the British during a “truce” meeting held in 1905. His severed head was then sent to London as a “trophy”, where it is believed to be kept in a museum.
“We have not been apologised to for the atrocities and the barbarity that Britain did in our country … we have not forgotten one bit … we are the descendants of those people who have been mistreated, who have been denied their land … ,” members of the CPK and the Social Justice Centre said.
This theft of land by the British was facilitated by colonial-era laws, the KHRC notes, which worked to dispossess native Kenyans of their ancestral lands which were then handed to white settlers and multinational corporations. Meanwhile, Kenyan people were pushed on to unproductive land and overcrowded reserves.
Some of this land expropriation is maintained to this day, with land owned by British investors and corporations including Unilever Tea Kenya and Kakuzi.
“In addition to an official apology, we demand that the British government provides fair and just compensation for the victims and descendants of those who endured the brutality of colonial rule,” the CPK said, adding that it must not be view as an act of charity, but “a moral obligation to correct the historical injustices” of the colonial period.
“A relic of the colonial era”
Importantly, the CPK also called for the immediate closure of the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK), calling it a “relic of the colonial era” which posed a threat to Kenya’s national sovereignty and solidarity.
On October 30, Kenyan police blocked a gathering organised by victims of atrocities committed by BATUK. According to the KHRC, the victims hailed from the counties of Laikipia and Samburu and included the family of Agnes Wanjiru, who was killed near the BATUK barracks in Nanyuki in 2012, and the widow of Linus Murangiri.
Murangiri was a worker at the Lolldaiga conservancy who was crushed to death by a vehicle as he rushed to put out a massive fire that has been linked to British troops. As the fire raged on for days, a British soldier posted on Snapchat, “Caused a fire, killed an elephant and feel terrible about it but hey-ho, when in Rome.”
In an essay published in Declassified UK, Agnes Wanjiru’s niece wrote of a “massive cover-up” that had taken place following her killing, beginning with the dumping of Wanjiru’s body in the septic tank of a hotel, where she was discovered two months after her death. 21-year-old Wanjiru had last been seen with British troops. An autopsy confirmed that she had died from stab wounds to her chest and abdomen.
An inquiry in Kenya in 2019 had concluded that one or two British soldiers were responsible for Wanjiru’s murder.
In 2021, an investigation by UK news publication, The Sunday Times, revealed that a soldier had been named by fellow soldiers after he had allegedly confessed to her killing. It also found that another soldier had reported the killing to senior officers, but nothing was done.
No soldiers have been charged yet for Wanjiru’s murder and the British army has been accused of covering up the killing.
In August this year, the Kenyan government launched an inquiry into alleged human rights violations by soldiers at BATUK, including accusations of murder, sexual abuse, the use of hazardous chemicals, and the presence of unexploded ordinances on publicly-accessible land. The British army has itself admitted that nearly 1,000 Kenyan civilians have been harmed by these explosives.
Meanwhile, in its statement, the CPK also called for fair and just redistribution of land which “by and large remains in the hands of British multinational corporations and their local proxies”. “The legacy of colonial land dispossession continues to perpetuate economic disparities and social injustices within our nations.”
This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch