Three survivors of colonial detention centers in Kenya during the 1950s have been granted the legal right to pursue their case for damages against the British government. Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84; Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85; and Jane Muthoni Mara, 75 have made claims resulting from their arrest, confinement and torture when the imperialists attempted to crush a national rebellion to overthrow white settler rule.
Beginning in 1952, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), popularly known as the Mau Mau, set out to take back the land seized by British colonialists in the late 19th century. The assassination of white settlers and their collaborators brought about widespread repression inside the East African colony.
By the end of the decade, millions of Africans had been detained and relocated. At least 11,000 were killed by agents of the colonial authorities. The system of forced labor and land exploitation became enshrined in the economic system of the country.
Many of those who were victims of the detention camps and the brutal repression of the so-called “Mau Mau Rebellion” are no longer alive. The claimants in this case have waited for six decades to have their day in court.
The British government now takes the position that justice cannot be served since so much time has passed and many of the witnesses are deceased. This attempted cover-up has been going on ever since the rebellion and is due to the sensitive nature of the claims made by Kenyans victimized by the colonial system.
However, Justice McCombe of the British High Court said, “The governments and military commanders seem to have been meticulous record keepers. I have reached the conclusion that a fair trial on this part of the case does remain possible and that the evidence on both sides remains significantly cogent for the Court to complete its task satisfactorily.” ([British] Telegraph, Oct. 5)
All the claimants want an apology from the British government as well as compensation for unjust detention and torture. Martyn Day, an attorney for the three filing suit, said in the same article that the decision to proceed with the case would “reverberate around the world. Following this judgment we can but hope that our Government will at last do the honorable thing and sit down and resolve these claims.”
Day went on to note, “There will undoubtedly be victims of colonial torture from Malaya to the Yemen from Cyprus to Palestine who will be reading this judgment with great care.”
British imperialists seeks to avoid history
Colonialism in Africa was a vicious, highly exploitative, genocidal system. Millions of Africans died during the Atlantic Slave Trade, and eventual political control exercised by European and North American powers took untold wealth from the continent.
After the failure of the colonial authorities to put down the resistance on the part of the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya and in the KLFA, and other groups, a more thorough crackdown was ordered in 1954. Documents published at the time show clearly that the establishment of detention camps and the brutal use of force were official government policy.
According to the BBC on April 24, 1954, “The British authorities ordered the clampdown on the Mau Mau, a guerrilla movement opposed to white settlers in the East African colony, following a breakdown in law and order.”
This purported “breakdown” refers to the targeted assassinations and attacks on European settlers and some African members of the colonial security forces. In addressing the security issues of the colonial authorities, a full-scale war against the African population was launched.
In the same article, the BBC reported, “Those suspects found to be Mau Mau supporters will be sent to detention camps for further questioning. More than 4,000 British and African troops, Nairobi’s entire police force and African loyalists are involved in the operation. They have orders to shoot to kill if there is any armed resistance.”
The repressive measures were dubbed “Operation Anvil” and were implemented throughout Nairobi and surrounding areas. Although they targeted the Kikuyu ethnic group, the BBC pointed out that “any suspects are being handed over for further screening.”
Despite the extreme measures taken by the British colonialists, official reports stated that only 32 white settlers were killed during the period of 1952 to 1960. The number of Africans killed was between 11,000 and 20,000, including KLFA members or sympathizers, and some additional 4,000 people who were agents of the imperialist police and security forces.
One of the most well-known massacres by British colonialists took place at the Hola detention camp on March 3, 1959. Government documents reported that 85 detainees were marched out in a labor crew that morning when several of the Africans refused to work.
In response the guards beat to death 11 detainees; another 23 were seriously injured. The British authorities initially claimed that the deaths were caused by contaminated water.
Nonetheless, the truth eventually emerged and created a worldwide chorus of condemnation. In 1960, the British officially proclaimed the end of the emergency measures; the country was granted independence in 1963.
In the aftermath of official colonial rule, the actual history of the period was concealed. A policy of national reconciliation was advanced, and successive governments have maintained a close alliance with the imperialist states.
Significance for contemporary Africa
British opposition to the continuation of this case is reflected in the government’s response to Judge McCombe’s decision to move forward with a full trial. The government says that it will appeal the decision.
Even some within the British press have posed a challenge to this announcement. The Guardian said, “The government must stop procrastinating and accept responsibility for events that happened before many of its members were born.” ([British] Guardian, Oct. 5)
The article stresses, “It was not only a question of individual failure. Abuse was sanctioned by a particular institutional attitude that has never been adequately challenged.”
The failure of the governments in Britain and independent Kenya to adequately address the abuses, and the overall character of colonial rule, has shaped the nature of the post-independence process. The unequal terms of relations in all spheres are still very much in evidence throughout the continent.
Africans are due reparations and other forms of compensations for the atrocities committed during slavery and colonial rule. Progressive forces in the Western states should support the legitimate claims made against the imperialist countries by the oppressed peoples throughout the world.