Why history matters: the case of Kenya

19 October 2015 | Natasha Pearce

Resolution:Possible intern Natasha Pearce recently returned from a research trip in Kenya for her Masters degree and will be sharing some of her observations with us over the next few weeks. This is the second of Natasha’s Kenya blogs.

This railway was built by the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way of securing their domination of the Kenyan territory. Today, the railway continues to snake through the Kenyan landscape; a daily reminder of British colonialism and its legacies.

This railway was built by the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way of securing their domination of the Kenyan territory. Today, the railway continues to snake through the Kenyan landscape; a daily reminder of British colonialism and its legacies. (Photo – Natasha Pearce)

As David Cameron prepares for his first official visit to the Caribbean island of Jamaica, the citizens of Jamaica with the support of their government, announced that they would be requesting reparations for British slavery during the Prime Ministers visit. At the height of the British Empire’s power, Jamaica was its largest slave colony. Over 200 years after Britain abolished the slave trade, there is yet to be any real acknowledgment of the horrors and scars such a system has left on the country and its people.

This is not be first time the decisions and actions of Britain’s colonial past have come to haunt us. In 2009 five Kenyan freedom fighters now in their late 80s and 90s came forward, with representation from British legal firm Leigh Day, to fight a case demanding compensation for the torture they suffered at the hands of colonial officials during Kenya’s fight for independence in the 1950s. This case was won in 2012 with the Cameron government issuing compensation to the nation as a whole, funding a memorial statue in Nairobi and issuing a ‘statement of regret.’ Within two years, the British government was faced with a new case, this time with over 40,000 elderly Kenyan complainants.

The Kenyan independence movement lasted from 1952, when a state of emergency was declared, until 1960. In that time an estimated 25,000 Kenyans died at the hands of both the colonial government and those of the Mau Mau, the Kenyan freedom fighters. As the old saying goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, and the Mau Mau most certainly fulfill this. However, having met a number of these fighters on my recent trip to Kenya, they will continue to be referred to as freedom fighters here.

Not only did the state of emergency result in tens of thousands of deaths, but it is believed that almost the entire Kikuyu population was detained in detention camps and prisons across the country throughout this period, where people were repeatedly tortured, beaten, abused, raped, starved and left to die. I met one woman in her late 80s who told of her experience in one of these camps, explaining how she was beaten and as a result, lost a number of her teeth. Another man I met had been a freedom fighter and was captured by colonial forces. He was tortured relentlessly and still bears the scars across his abdomen from this ordeal.

Yet these survivors have never been offered compensation or an apology. When the 2009 case close in 2012, William Hague (foreign Secretary at the time) issued a statement of regret to parliament, but ultimately stated that Britain today would not be taking responsibility for anything that occurred whilst they were not in power; colonialism included. There was acknowledgement that these five complainants had suffered horrendous ordeals. The other thousands who have similar stories, are yet to receive any kind of direct compensation.

It might almost seem fair that the people of today shouldn’t have to pay the price for decisions our great grandfathers made. I emphasise might. Yet, the reality is that colonialism didn’t stop impacting upon Kenya once its white settlers left in 1963. More importantly, Kenya is by no means a lone case. The Rwandan genocide has roots that can be traced by to colonialism. Colonialism in sub-saharan Africa, and in this particular case Kenya, has left scars that run much deeper than Britain and the rest of Europe truly dared to acknowledge.

There are human rights abuses in abundance in the country that can largely be traced back to colonialism. People live without land to call their own as a result of colonial land grabbing and poor redistribution at independence. Aggressive colonial power implementation relied on violence and has since left Kenya with an underlying culture of impunity. Ethnic tensions have their roots in the colonial practice of divide and rule.

To assume that colonialism was simply Britain dictating the laws of its overseas territories is not only simplistic, but wrong. Colonialism was based on the concept of complete control and this was gained in any way possible, often through violence. Even if we leave the violence to one side, the policies that were used to weaken the traditional nation and allow Britain to dominate have left a huge mark on the country.

To bring this back to where I started; with the issue of British acknowledgment, for me, the Kenyan case is just the beginning. Whilst there may have been no apology for the actions of the colonial administration, the fact that the freedom fighters won their case and received compensation is evidence to me that Britain cannot simply pretend that its past isn’t tainted with inequality and aggression. However, all the money in the world does not compensate for the lack of public recognition that we did wrong. That people suffered as a result of decisions made by our ancestors.

We cannot change the past, but we can ensure that there is a better future. While we ignore our past mistakes, we are not acknowledging them to be what they were; fundamentally wrong. If we are to continue to be advocates of human rights, we need to start acknowledging that we have failed in our protection of human rights just as much as we have excelled in the protection of human rights in other circumstances. Britain can learn from the way it has dealt with its Mau Mau legacy, by firstly issuing the apology that Jamaica is calling for.

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