Mau Mau Justice: Past its Expiry Date?

The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was a nationalist campaign against the oppressive and unjust hallmarks of a colonial regime. Rebelling against loss of land, discriminatory taxes, lack of political representation and forced cheap labour for the advantage of the European white settlers, the Mau Mau rebellion aimed to regain land seized by British colonial authorities. Marked as many as a trigger to Kenya achieving independence, the uprising was crushed by a violent British counter-insurgency leaving a blood stained history as to Britain’s colonial conduct.

Following the state of emergency declared in October 1952, a violently aggressive counter insurgency was fought till 1960. Within this time official statistics say that 11,000 Mau Mau and other rebels were killed whilst just 32 white settlers during the emergency rule period. However, unofficial sources report a much higher number of deaths. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission says 90,000 Kenyans were executed during the uprising and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions. Despite ambiguity as to the number of deaths during the bloody conflict, one thing remains clear; the UK authority’s gross misconduct towards rebellion detainees. It is reported that the detainees ‘were subjected to arbitrary killings, castrations, sexual abuse, forced labour, starvation and violence from camp guards’. This seems even harder to deny given the discovery of thousands of documents outlining the British army’s repressive tactics during the regime, which are soon be to exposed in a landmark UK case recently brought to court.

The case has been brought by four survivors from the detention camps which were being operated by the colonial British authorities. The claimants, Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, who are in their 70s and 80s have told the court of their being subjected to castration, appalling sexual abuse and gross physical violence and are now seeking to sue the UK government for their colonial human rights abuses.

Legal representation for the claimants, Martyn Day has said that "They were put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted. Two of the men were castrated. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine. A lot of the officers involved were white, they were controlling the violence against these Mau Mau. It wasn't just isolated individual officers. It was systematic. The whole purpose was to break the Mau Mau. The treatment they endured has left them all with devastating and lifelong injuries. There is no doubt that endemic torture took place in Kenya before independence.”

However despite undeniable systematic violations of human rights at the hands of British colonial authorities, the UK assert that the claim is invalid due to the time lapse since the alleged abuses occurred. The UK foreign office also argue that the Kenyan government is responsible for any pre-independence human rights abuses, despite not existing at the time and subsequently being denied access to colonial files on the Mau Mau emergency. In response to this the Kenyan Human Rights Commission argues "It is a little known fact that during the Mau Mau war, in the run up to Kenyan independence, the then British government systematically violated human rights and committed war crimes on a vast scale. The full extent of Britain's knowledge and authorisation of torture only emerged recently after historians from Harvard and Oxford gathered detailed testimonial evidence and conducted extensive research of public and court records. In response, the government claims that the current Kenyan government is legally liable for abuses which took place under the British colonial administration. In our view, this represents an intolerable abdication of responsibility”.

It seems absurd and almost laughable that Britain continues to defend this position; a token liberal democracy, championing ideals of liberty, truth, justice and freedom. Quick to intervene in overhauling ‘undemocratic’ regimes, protecting innocent civilians against tyrant leaders and advocating the importance of an international human rights discourse. Yet in terms of a colonial history which leaves them shamed faced behind closed doors, the UK maintains an arrogant refusal to acknowledge their own history of flagrant disregard of the so called values they now hold so dear. Desmond Tutu reasserts this view; “Britain's insistence that international human rights standards should be respected by governments around the world will sound increasingly hollow if the door is shut in the face of these known victims of British torture".

As the case for Mau Mau justice continues in Court, questions as to immunity for international crimes returns to the forefront of the international criminal law debate. It seems the story of imperialism always tells the same tales of colonial hypocrisy; for how long will oppressors and violators walk free? Both domestic and international criminal justice systems act as the only framework to punish wrong from right. For a truly credible legal system, where genuine justice prevails, can human rights violations characteristic of the Mau Mau atrocities simply be forgotten into the midst of time? Who would have thought that the dispensing of justice had an expiry date?

Images from Newsulous, Metro and Democracy and Class Struggle.


Morshed Mannan

I enjoyed readying your article but I think the point regarding the Mau Mau being nationalist agitators needs to be more nuanced. From the little I've read on the Mau Mau rebellion, the Kikuyu who were classified as 'Mau Mau' by the British represented a radical, militant faction that did not represent the voice of all of the Kikuyu. According to Martin Meredith in his The State of Africa, the old Kikuyu leaders including the founding father of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, the aspiring middle class and the majority of Christians opposed their violence. (The irony is, the British for a long time considered Kenyatta to be a Mau Mau leader) Which is not surprising as, like you pointed out, they only killed 32 European settlers but killed many of their fellow Kikuyu for being British sympathizers/loyalists or not being as militant as them. The massacre of the village of Lari is a case in point.

It's true, that justice must be done to those who were brutally treated by British authorities when they quashed the rebellion but at the same time, we cannot ignore the brutalities committed by the Mau Mau against other Kikiyu either.

Finally, and I'm just throwing this out there, I think Justice does have a time limit. The limit is a) when there isn't anyone left who is sufficiently proximate to bring a case to court and/or b) when there isn't a court which has the authority or temporal jurisdiction to hear a case and/or c) when no one wants to go into the financial expense of pursuing such litigation. Of course, it often happens that some cases can't be brought to court after a certain period simply because of statutory limitations. Beyond the Mau Mau issue, would we be able to bring any UK authority to court for their actions throughout their colonial history? Something older, like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, for example? Probably not.

In any case, I'll follow the progress of this case with interest and I hope these beleaguered survivors not only get compensation but also create a notable pro-human rights precedent for others to follow.

12 April 2011 delete
Zeenat Islam

15 April 2011 delete