Reconciliation in Kenya: Part 1

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday October 14 2012.


“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.” Eric Griffiths-Jones, Attorney General of the British administration in Kenya.1957.The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya was set up in 2008 to address the violence that followed the 2007 elections. There were 1,500 deaths, 3,000 rapes, and 300,000 people were internally displaced. Before dealing with that I look at Kenya’s colonial past.

Three Kenyans, Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85, Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84, and Jane Muthoni Mara, 73, have established the right to sue the British government for the torture they suffered in the 1950s. A fourth claimant dropped out while a fifth, Susan Ciong’ombe Ngondi, died two years ago, aged 71.Men were castrated with pliers or anally raped, sometimes with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions. Women had similar objects thrust into their vaginas. Guards and white civilians chopped off ears and fingers, gouged eyes, mutilated women’s breasts with pliers, and burnt people alive.

British involvement in Kenya began late in the 19th century when, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, European nations carved up the African continent. East and southern Africa fell under the British sphere of influence. In 1888, the Imperial British East Africa Company was granted a Royal Charter to administer East Africa until in 1895 the British government established a Protectorate.

Kenya suffered a familiar imperial pattern of land theft and divide-and-rule. The occupation of land, particularly in the Kikuyu areas of the cool central highlands by European settlers was a source of bitter resentment. By 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyu were restricted to 2,000 square miles while 30,000 white settlers occupied 12,000 square miles of the best agricultural land. Settlers demanded ever more labor and attempted to turn tenant farmers into laborers. When the natives revolted, the Mau Mau were portrayed as savages by the British. Only 32 British civilians were killed by rebels. The number of Mau Mau fighters killed by the British was about 20,000 and large numbers of Kikuyu not directly involved in the rebellion were persecuted.

Many civilians took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects and settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Katharine Warren-Gash ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There, suspects were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labor, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many women gave birth at Kamiti and buried their babies in bundles of six at a time.

The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan history. On March 3, 1959, 100 detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured.

According to Harvard historian Caroline Elkins, up to 320,000 Kikuyu—nearly a third of the population—may have passed through more than 50 camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages.
In her introduction, Elkins declares: “I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands dead.”

Many have found fault with Elkins. A cache of documents has now come to light, which leaves no doubt about the brutality of the British Empire in Kenya. Hanslope Park, in Buckinghamshire, contains a secret archive which would create a tower 200 metres tall if it were stacked upright. One document is a letter dated June 1957. Eric Griffiths-Jones, the Attorney General of the British administration in Kenya, wrote to the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, advising that prisoners should in future be beaten mainly on their upper body, and that “those who administer violence … should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate,”. That prefigures Obama’s claim: “Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists”. Sustainable torture?

The British government has long resisted the claims of the elderly Kenyans on the grounds that too much time had elapsed, that the current Kenyan government should be responsible for compensation, and that no documents existed. William Hague, the foreign secretary, now concedes that under the obligations of the Public Records Act 1958, the FCO should have assessed the documents and passed any of historical interest to the National Archives at Kew.

Legal experts in other former colonies are now weighing the possibility of suing the British government, as atrocities were committed throughout the Empire.
Neil Ascherson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “The British need to believe that their Empire was run and eventually dismantled with restraint and humanity … In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an anti-partisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

Further examination of this subject can be found at:


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