Some of the victims
Gabriel Gatehouse of the BBC writes on the Kenya’s Mau Mau’s long road to obtain justice from Britain over the torture and maiming some of its members received from their colonial masters
From the reaction of the Mau Mau veterans in Kenya, you might have been forgiven for thinking they had won their torture case against the UK government. George Morara, of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), took the call on his mobile phone. Around him sat a group of elderly Kenyans, mostly men but some women too.
When the announcement from London came through that they could proceed to a full trial despite the time elapsed, several dozen lined faces, etched from the experience of a long and often hard life, broke into beaming smiles.
Octogenarians jumped up from their seats, linked arms and performed an impromptu dance through the gardens of the KHRC, which has been helping with claimants with their case which dates back to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.
“We are very pleased,” said Wambugu wa Nyingi, one of the three Kenyans who brought the case. He had been subjected to vicious beatings while in detention under colonial rule. I hope that the British government will now pay us compensation.”
But these veterans of Kenya’s liberation struggle have received little support at home.
“It’s pathetic really,” says H S K Mwaniki, a historian and researcher of the Mau Mau period. The Mau Mau, a guerrilla group, began a violent campaign against white settlers in 1952. The uprising was eventually put down by the British colonial government
The Kenya Human Rights Commission says 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed. It says 160,000 people were detained in appalling conditions.
Mr Mwaniki is referring to the way in which many Mau Mau veterans believe their contribution to Kenya’s independence movement has been ignored. The reason, he believes, is to be found in the birth of independent Kenya in 1963.
Many of the country’s new leaders had been strongly associated not with the Mau Mau, but with the Home Guard, a force that fought on behalf of the colonial authorities.
“When independence came, they were the ones in place,” he says.
“Because most of the Kikuyu, the Embu and the Meru [three ethnic communities which supplied the bulk of Mau Mau fighters] who were against the British were either in jails, in detention, or completely suppressed. They could not raise a finger.”
Official indifference towards Mau Mau veterans started with Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, and continued under his successor, Daniel Arap Moi.Thousands of Mau Mau suspects were arrested and detained in prison camps, while the movement was banned as an organisation.
It was not until 2003, with the election of Mwai Kibaki, that the Mau Mau was officially recognised as a legal entity. But even today, government support has been patchy. “Now you see it, now you don’t,” says George Morara of the KHRC. In the current case, the British government initially tried to argue that, at independence, responsibility for whatever atrocities may have been committed passed not to London, as the former colonial master, but to the new Kenyan authorities.
Many politicians from central Kenya have parents who were in some way involved [with the Mau Mau]. They want to try to amend for some of those past things that were swept under the carpet”
Public pledges of support followed, even if that support has come in verbal rather than financial form. Mr Morara said there were a number of reasons for the softening of the government stance towards the Mau Mau. One factor is a new generation of Kenyan politicians which came in after the end of the Moi era. “They wanted to get rid of the old guard, to be seen to be different,” he said.
“Many politicians from central Kenya have parents who were in some way involved [with the Mau Mau]. They want to try to amend for some of those past things that were swept under the carpet.” Another reason is simply the passage of time. After half a century, the darker secrets of the Mau Mau uprising have lost their power to seriously threaten political interests. And yet the case has received little coverage in the Kenyan media.
At the offices of the KHRC recently, foreign journalists outnumbered local ones. The veterans and victims of this bloody chapter in Kenya’s history are still struggling for recognition, both at home and abroad. The ruling last Friday in the High Court was a key moment in what has been a long legal battle against the UK government.
The three Kenyans - two of whom are in their mid-80s - claim to have been tortured by British colonial authorities during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s.
After court proceedings lasting less than five minutes, the judge Mr Justice Richard McCombe ruled that despite the years that have passed a fair trial was possible. Paul Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara can now pursue their case. They are seeking an apology and recompense for the abuse they suffered while in detention during the conflict. Their lawyers have always said the Kenyans want to be able to live out their final years with a degree of dignity, and are determined to obtain justice.
The story began exactly 60 years ago when the Mau Mau, or the Kenya Land and Freedom Army as they called themselves, claimed their first European victim. A woman was stabbed to death near her home in Thika.
On 20 October 1952, Kenya’s Governor Sir Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency amid the growth of the Mau Mau movement.
So began one of the darker periods of British colonial history. The Mau Mau waged a violent campaign against white settlers in Kenya.
A frequent question is why the claims of torture have taken so long to emerge. This can be partly explained by the fact that the Mau Mau movement remained banned in Kenya until 2003, 40 years after independence.
Under Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, and later during the administration of President Daniel arap Moi, the Kenyan government did little to help Mau Mau victims. Kenyatta was a strong nationalist, but he was not a member of the Mau Mau and tried hard to bury the past when he became president.
The Mau Mau was therefore something of a taboo subject in Kenya until President Mwai Kibaki was elected head of state and allowed the veterans to register as a legal society. The Kenya Human Rights Commission said the current administration’s support for the three claimants has been largely verbal, but appreciated nonetheless.
In July, Prime Minister Raila Odinga told a Kenyan radio station “the claimants had a genuine case in seeking compensation and a statement of regret for the treatment they suffered”.
After attacking white settlers in Kenya, the Mau Mau were captured and tortured. Another reason why the case only came to court after so many years is that some of the history of the Kenyan Emergency was revealed by academic research conducted as recently as 2005.
Even now, the Hanslope Archive of some 8,800 secret files, sent back to the UK at the time of independence, has yet to be made public, although the documents were referred to at the High Court in London. Leigh Day and Co, the lawyers who have brought the case against the British government, claim there are also files relating to 36 other colonies that have been discovered.
David Anderson, professor of African studies at Oxford University, says there are two distinct features about the Kenyan torture case. First, there are victims still alive, and second, none was ever convicted of any crime or charged. But Prof Anderson warns that there are other episodes of British colonial history that may give the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cause for concern in the wake of this Kenyan legal saga.
They are Cyprus, Malaya and Aden, although he said that what happened there, was “not on the same scale or intensity as Kenya”. The British government conceded in court in July that torture had taken place in Kenya in the 1950s. The Foreign Office said it is disappointed with the latest judgement and will appeal.
However, a Foreign Office statement recently said: “We do not dispute that each of the claimants in this case suffered torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.” A full trial could still be a year away. lt will need to rely heavily on documentary evidence rather than witness statements because of the years that have elapsed.
In the meantime, lawyers for the Kenyans remain hopeful that the British government might agree to an out-of-court settlement. This would involve a welfare scheme to assist the elderly Kenyan victims with their health needs.
Before starting cross-examination of witnesses, the QC for the British government, Guy Mansfield, said he did not want to dispute that civilians had suffered “torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration”. He spoke directly to each of the witnesses, saying he did “not want to dispute the fact that terrible things happened to you”.
In 2011, a High Court judge had ruled the claimants - Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara - did have an arguable case. The claimants’ lawyers allege that Mr Nzili was castrated, Mr Nyingi was severely beaten and Mrs Mara was subjected to appalling sexual abuse in detention camps during the rebellion. A fourth claimant, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, has died since the High Court ruling that the test case could go ahead.
With the help of interpreters at the High Court, the three - now in their 70s and 80s - were briefly questioned about written evidence they had provided.
In the years before independence, people were beaten, their land was stolen, women were raped, men were castrated and their children were killed” In a 20-page statement, Mr Nzili, 85, gave details of being stripped, chained and castrated, with large pliers normally used on cows, at Embakasi detention camp, near Nairobi. He said: “I felt completely destroyed and without hope. I have never had children of my own and never will have. I am unable to have sexual relations with my wife.”
Mrs Mara, 73, submitted evidence describing how, at the age of 15, she was taken to Gatithi detention camp, where she was beaten by the British and subjected to sexual abuse with a glass bottle containing very hot water.
She said she had felt “completely and utterly violated”, adding that the pain “has been bad ever since the beatings and has worsened as I have aged. I do not understand why I was treated with such brutality for simply having provided food to the Mau Mau. I want the British citizens of today to know what their forefathers did to me and to so many others. These crimes cannot go unpunished and forgotten.”
In his statement, Mr Nyingi, 84 - a father of 16 who still works as a casual labourer - described being arrested on Christmas Eve 1952 and held for nine years. During his detention, in 1959, he said he was beaten unconscious during an incident at Hola camp in which 11 other prisoners were clubbed to death. Mau Mau suspects were rounded up in camps where they were allegedly tortured.
“If I could speak to the Queen I would say that Britain did many good things in Kenya, but that they also did many bad things,” he said. “In the years before independence, people were beaten, their land was stolen, women were raped, men were castrated and their children were killed. I would like the wrongs which were done to me and other Kenyans to be recognised by the British government so that I can die in peace.”
The three Kenyans want an official apology and damages to set up a Mau Mau welfare fund for the hundreds of Kenyans their lawyers say also suffered.
In his ruling in 2011, Mr Justice McCombe emphasised he had not found there was systematic torture in the Kenyan camps nor that, if there was, the British government was liable for what had passed. It will now be decided whether a fair hearing is still possible.