Kenya received a birthday present yesterday – the long awaited settlement between the UK to 5,200 claimants allegedly tortured at the hands of the British colonial administration during Kenya’s eight-year struggle for Independence, aka the Mau Mau Emergency.
Fifty years after Kenya gained its independence, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Her Majesty’s government had reached a full and final settlement with representatives of Mau Mau torture claimants, for a lawsuit originally filed in 2009.
“The agreement includes a payment of a settlement sum in respect of 5,228 claimants… to the total of 19.9 million pounds sterling,” Hague announced from London. (The figure is equivalent to USD 31M). He added that the government promises to pay for the construction in Nairobi of a memorial to victims of torture during the colonial era. It’s not yet clear what the memorial will be. According to a Reuters report, 6M sterling of the sum ($9.3M) goes to legal representatives, leaving the rest to the claimants—roughly $3,900 for each one.
The lawsuit against the UK government was first filed in 2009, but promptly dismissed on grounds that the statute of limitations had passed. In London last October a high court ruled that the three main claimants, Wambui Wa Nyingi, Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85, and Jane Muthoni Mara, 73, could proceed with a suit against the British government, seeking compensation for torture they say they endured as detainees during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising.
Wambui Wa Nyingi, whose ancestral land in the fertile central highlands was taken away twice -first by the colonials and then by the power elite during Jomo Kenyatta‘s reign – says he was tortured though he claims never to have taken the dread Mau Mau oath. Jane Muthoni Mara claims that jailers repeatedly beat her and raped her with a bottle of scalding hot water. Jailers allegedly castrated Paulo Muoka Nzili.
Hague admitted that thousands of Kenyans were tortured and killed, the Mau Mau were themselves responsible for the deaths of over 2,000 people and 200 among the British regiment and police.
“The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence,” he added, in a remark that claimants, legal representatives and academics agree falls short of the mark. An outright apology could imply liability, opening the floodgates for further claims by other former colonies, for which British taxpayers would have to pay. Per the conventionally accepted statute of limitations, claims exceeding 50 years would not likely succeed.
Foreign Secretary Hague was quick to defend British personnel, who were at the time called upon to serve in a civil war. While the government acknowledges “the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved… and… recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial government.”
Outside Kenya at the time of the announcement, I Skype-called Harvard professor Caroline Elkins, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning history, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, who was in Nairobi at the press conference. “I think [the settlement] is an historic triumph,” Prof Elkins told me. “Clearly, we have to see this is the closest we are going to an apology. ‘Sincere regret’ is a humiliating thing for the British government to concede to.”
Attorneys at Leigh Day, the law firm representing the victims were pleased with the outcome. “Many of our clients are very elderly and in poor health, to have held out for more or to have argued semantics would not have been in their best interests,” David Standard, spokesman for the law firm, told me via email.
Hague wound up his speech saying that residual tensions, necessarily a part of the healing process, should not get in the way of bilateral trade between the two countries, which annually totals 1 billion pounds sterling.
For further background on the subject be sure to read my Newsweek feature, “See You In Court,” Oct 2012: