Kenyan joy: Britain apologizes for colonial abuse

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William Hague, Foreign Secretary of Britain (AP Photo)

William Hague, Foreign Secretary of Britain (AP Photo)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The wrinkled faces of the elderly Kenyans who gathered in a downtown Nairobi hotel registered gratitude, relief and joy as Britain’s high commissioner say what many waited decades to hear: Britain is sorry.

Britain on Thursday said it “sincerely regrets” the acts of torture a British colonial government carried out against Kenyans fighting for liberation from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s.

In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons the government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other ill treatment.

Several thousand now-elderly Kenyans say they were beaten and sexually assaulted by officers acting for the British administration trying to suppress the “Mau Mau” rebellion, during which groups of Kenyans attacked British officials and white farmers who had settled in some of Kenya’s most fertile lands.

Thursday’s settlement will pay about $21.5 million to the 5,200 Kenyans who were found to have been tortured, or about $4,000 per Kenyan victim. Another $9.25 million goes to pay costs to the Kenyans’ legal team.

“This success is total jubilation. We are so happy today because the truth will be told worldwide,” said Francis Mutisi, assistant secretary general of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association. Mutisi said he was detained by Britain’s colonial government for three weeks in 1960 while looking for a job.

Martyn Day, a lawyer for the Kenyans, said he hopes Hague’s statement will be “the final resolution of this legal battle that has been ongoing for so many years.”

“The elderly victims of torture now at last have the recognition and justice they have sought for many years,” Day added. “For them, the significance of this moment cannot be overemphasized.”

The simultaneous announcement in Kenya’s capital took on the air of a tribal celebration — or perhaps a joyful 50-year school reunion. Several dozen elderly Kenyans clapped hands, swayed ever so slightly and sung joyful songs of struggle during a nearly two-hour news conference attended by British High Commissioner Christian Turner.

“This era of history will remain controversial,” Turner told the elderly Kenyans. But “history teaches us you can’t have lasting peace with justice, accounting and reconciliation.”

The Mau Mau victims were led by Gitu wa Kahengeri, a diminutive veteran dressed in an oversized suit jacket. He was asked if he believes the $4,000 per victim was adequate compensation. The answer was no, with a caveat concerning the passage of time.

“There is no amount of compensation that can cover for those who suffered,” he said, noting that he and his father were detained for 10 years.

The Mau Mau were first allowed by Kenya’s government to organize about 10 years ago. “If it’s taken about 10 years now, it will take another 10 years still. Thirty years will not be enough to litigate this case,” Kahengeri said.

“The British government accepted that something bad happened, and this is what the veterans in this group have been seeking. The fact that an apology has been given is sufficient to atone for what happened,” he said.

Caroline Elkins is a Harvard professor who wrote “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” the book that set the Mau Mau case on course for Thursday’s settlement.

“The acknowledgment of the bitterness and the pain that they’ve been suffering for years, and the acknowledgment with a form of an apology, this has been a pre-eminent desire of theirs beyond any monetary claim,” she said. “For years when I did my research and took testimony no one asked me for anything. They just wanted the world to know what happened.”

The payouts, though low in Western terms, can still have an impact in Kenya, where per capita income is about $1,800. Despite the payout, Britain’s government doesn’t accept liability for the actions of previous colonial governments.

And the fight for justice may not yet be over. Atsango Chesoni, the executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, which has long been aiding the Mau Mau veterans, said her group wouldn’t focus on getting the Kenyan government to atone for treatment of the Mau Mau.

“Many of the Mau Mau veterans have long-standing issues around land (rights). Many continue to live in abject poverty and squalor. We therefore hope that in the same way it was possible to have this dialogue with the British government, we will have the same dialogue with the Kenyan government,” she said.

The British settlement follows a ruling by Britain’s High Court in October that three Kenyans could pursue compensation claims. The Mau Mau payouts could set a precedent for other cases of abuse in other countries by Britain’s colonial leaders. But Elkins said she doesn’t think other cases are as strong as the Mau Mau case because of a lack of documented evidence.

The British government position on the payout is that each colonial case is unique.

For Nathan Kamothu, who arrived at the Hilton Hotel in a sharp blue suit and red tie, the settlement meant that: “We’ve succeeded.”

Thinking back to his arrest in 1952, the 75-year-old with a wide but mostly toothless smile said he had been arrested, seriously beaten and his legs tied up in chains.

“There was a lot of trouble and torture brought to us by the colonial masters,” he said.

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