Newsweek magazine – British High Court rules on Mau Mau torture case

Conflict In Context - Field Notes

NAIROBI – Under the searing midday sun octogenarian veterans of the Kenya’s Mau Mau Emergency danced and whooped on hearing news Friday the British High Court that the three elderly Kenyanscould pursue their case against the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) for the systemic torture they say they suffered at the hands of colonial administrators during their detention.

The announcement of the landmark ruling was made at headquarters at the Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi. The judgement cleared what plaintiffs hope will be the last legal hurdle before the British government settles for an amount that helps veterans set up health welfare fund.

The Foreign Office promptly announced it would appeal the ruling.

“The normal time limit for bring a civil action is 3 to 6 years”, the statement said. “In this case,  that period has been extended to 50 years despite the fact that key decision makers are now dead or infirm.”

“Our relationship with Kenya and its people has moved on since the Emergency Period,” the FO states on its website, acknowledging that while the plaintiffs endured torture during detention it was not liable.

The three plaintiffs shrugged off the prospect of delayed justice.  Colonial administrators beat Wambuga Wa Nyingi for most of the ten years as a detainee. But the 84-year old remains undaunted. “Those who are defeated have the freedom to appeal,” he said with a toothless smile.

“These elderly need to live out their twilight years in dignity,” said Paul Muite, the Kenya legal advisor for the plaintiffs.

The ruling could set a precedent for other former colonies of the British Empire. The state and its tax paying citizens fear that a favorable settlement will open flood gates for other former colonies – including Yemen and Palestine  – to follow suit.

Read my Newsweek piece about the Mau Mau law suit, the experiences of the three plaintiffs – Wambuga Wa Nzili, Jane Mara, and Paulo Nzili –  and their torturers out Monday, October, 8th, 2012. I may never drink tea at the Muthaiga Club again, but could be guaranteed a lifetime supply of bangi.

Mukami Kimathi, widow of Mau Mau Freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, who British administrators exectured in 1957. (photograph, margot kiser, 2012)
Mukami Kimathi (photo, margot kiser, 2012)
Mukami Kimathi (photo, margot kiser, 2012)

In the Now with the Mau Mau

Obsessed and undisciplined I allowed an entire month to go by without blogging. During Nairobi‘s chilliest months – July and August – I holed up in Karen, the leafy neighborhood in Nairobi famous for being named after author, Karen Blixen, and researched a nasty chapter of Kenya‘s history.
On July 18th editors at Newsweek emailed me saying they’d heard a story on BBC about a lawsuit that veterans of Kenya‘s Mau Mau Uprising filed against the British government. The four representative plaintiffs, in their 70s and 80s, are seeking compensation for alleged torture that they – and thousands like them – suffered as a result of their violent and non-violent struggles for independence during the 40s and 50s.
You know ALL about this subject, RIGHT?,  Newsweek said to me.

We would like you to write up something about this lawsuit.


I was the dutiful yellow Lab and they may as well have thrown me a bone across the pond — the Atlantic.

Could I deliver a draft in three days….?

Wa Nyingi naming his torturer, Terence Gavaghan, who died recently. (Looks a bit like my realtor.)

John Nottingham, champion of the Mau Mau veterans. Traveled to London with plaintiffs for court case.

Moat filled with sharpened bamboo poles surrounding villages ostensibly to keep Mau Mau from getting inside to murder British Loyalists who were African.

Freedom fighter/rebel leader, Dedan Kimathi’s widow, now a radiant 84 year old.

Took me a week to begin recovering from the horrific photos of the murders and torture, etc.  Panga (machete) wounds are pretty nasty. Severed heads dangling from gates.
This was NOT the East Africa I knew and had lived with for the last two decades. But then no one talks much about the Mau Mau. I can see why.

Mau Mau leader and friend (photographer?)

With all due respect to my Kikuyu friends old and new, at the outset of my research the askari’s panga seemed to glint more brightly than usual.

This week the High Court ruled that the UK government was not responsible for alleged atrocities that occurred in Malaysia under the colonial administration.


While the British government accepts that torture occurred, they have so far refused to apologize for those actions. The British High Court will rule in October as to whether the statute of limitations applies thus exempting the current Government from liability of systemic torture under the colonial administration.

With any luck, my Newsweek article about this subject will also be out in October sometime.

Mau Mau freedom fight leader, Dedan Kimathi, circa 1952.

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