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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > June 2013 > Kenyan Indemnities and Empire History

Kenyan Indemnities and Empire History

Sunday 2 June 2013, by Anne Guay

Last October, three Kenyan elders won the right to claim compensation for their torture in British colonial prison camps after bringing their cases to the London High Court. The scale is of an alleged 10,000 Kenyans who share similar stories of having been raped and tortured by British officials during the 1950’s Mau Mau uprising. The Mau Mau were members of the Kenyan Kikuyu tribe who had resisted the British colonizers, clashing with anti-Mau Mau Kikuyu members as well as British loyalists. While the Kikuyu resisted colonial rule and a bloody conflict broke out, insurgents were crushed and forced into inhumane prison camps. Prisoners were victims of castration by the use of pliers; rape with objects such as broken glass, knives and scorpions; and mutilation by the cutting off of ears, fingers, breasts and the gouging of eyes. Today, the UK government is undergoing talks to possibly compensate thousands of Kenyans who had also fell victim to Her Majesty’s Torturers.

Negotiations are ongoing in the UK following the April 2012 release of secret documents dating from the colonial era, standing as evidence to prove that soldiers were granted official, state-sanctioned permission to torture detainees. The hidden archives’ unearthed secrets are showing that high government officials; the colonial governor, colonial secretary and attorney-general; were well aware of the ongoing atrocities in Kenyan camps. Not only were they aware, but they granted British officers acting out the atrocities with immunity from prosecution, ultimately keeping the torture stories far from the public eye. The Kenyan indemnity case has two historical implications: it changes our current understanding of history and the international justice process.

The London High Court’s Justice McCombe confirmed that thousands of files were discovered in the secret Foreign Office from dozens of past colonies, proving that the state-sanctioned torture was common within the empire as a whole, and was not reserved to Kenya. "Britain’s extended imperial hangover" may cost tens of millions of pounds in indemnities, drastically raising the stakes. Yet, the implications of the case’s win are far greater than monetary. It may mark a breakthrough for holding states accountable for their unlawful activities. Accountability is often avoided based on national security and the breeching of military and state intelligence. But, because "from 1950s Kenya to the War on Terror, the criminal law has failed to hold the state to account," public inquiries and compensation are vital.

The relatively recent surfacing of these documents shows that the UK government has been trying to keep their brutal imperialist history buried deep. Author Panjak Mishra calls it "a counterfeit imperial history" because of its neoconservative repackaging in history books, and not without a humanitarian twist. The repackaged framework pushes ideas that the empire brought free trade (upon devastating local industries), free labour (upon abolishing slavery) and free capital (where it flowed freely towards white settler nations) to its colonies. If these ideas excuse empire actions now, imagine what ideas legitimized the actions then.

George Monbiot explores the thoughts of British imperial theorists throughout the colonial period, in order to explain how such actions come to be accepted by the ruling powers, specifically the elites powerful enough to understand and permit those actions.

Influential theorists upheld such flawed logic as the lighter-skinned races were superior to the darker ones, and on that basis, that the darker-skinned races should be annihilated. These ideas then become a dangerous dominant paradigm, ’othering’ the non-dominant group, removing their human qualities, and laying the persuasive rhetorical foundation that would allow the domineering group to think in such a way as to permit and support the brutal oppression of an entire people.

Monbiot points out that Hitler borrowed the same logic in Mein Kampf: "the eastward expansion of the German empire would mirror the western and southern extension of British interests". That Hitler had borrowed Britain’s imperial paradigm to justify carrying out a genocide on the Jewish people demonstrates the potential destructive extent of domineering paradigms when these are perpetuated.

In fact, they shared like slogans, in like camps. The Kenyan Ngenya prison camp banners read "labour and freedom", echoing the more familiar slogans of Auschwitz’s: "work will set you free", or Lenin’s Solovetsky gulag: "through labour—freedom!" The major difference here is an historical one. Hitler’s and Lenin’s prison camps are no secret but have become common knowledge.

Moreover, Monbiot argues that the country itself is virtually just as much a victim to empire ideology. Kenyan governments following independence have assisted in burying the dark history and refusing the Kikuyu peoples the slightest bit of justice. Its denial of justice for its survivors is an extension of the imperial logic. It mirrors the UK’s denial of justice by denial of the historical fact. Therefore, both nations remain burdened by colonialism inasmuch as the denial is a direct effect of the paradigm’s logic. As Mishra put it, the victims of imperial power "know... how the colonialist habits of ideological deceit trickle down and turn into the mendacities of postcolonial regimes."

The mere fact that the Kenyan indemnity case is in court is a symbolic victory over the colonial legacy that trickles down to the present day. It means revising the repackaged empire history to include the ’other’ perspective. It means that justice in the international arena is not just an abstract concept, but an ideal that can be put to practice. And because, as Mishra claims, "the revelations of atrocities in Kenya are just the tip of an emerging global history of violence," perhaps many more populations suffering in the buried past of colonial brutality can declare their proper victories.