Images in the Kenyan media of starving people in Turkana County have left many rich and middle class urban Kenyans as shocked as they were in 2011 when a declaration of famine prompted individuals and corporates such as Safaricom and the Kenya Commercial Bank to raise a whopping Sh700 million ($7 million) towards the famine relief effort in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid northern territories. Led by media and corporate celebrities, the Kenyans for Kenya campaign was touted as a sterling example of Kenyans’ self-help (harambee) spirit that did not rely on foreign aid to fix internal problems. (How the funds raised were used, and whether they were successful in averting future famines is debateable, and perhaps the subject of further investigation.)
Images in the Kenyan media of starving people in Turkana County have left many rich and middle class urban Kenyans as shocked as they were in 2011 when a declaration of famine prompted individuals and corporates such as Safaricom and the Kenya Commercial Bank to raise a whopping Sh700 million ($7 million) towards the famine relief effort in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid northern territories.
However, unlike in 2011, there has been no outpouring of largesse from ordinary Kenyans towards the relief effort. Moreover, government officials have been reluctant to declare a disaster, with politicians citing various reasons for the deaths reported in Turkana, ranging from sickness to climate change. When deaths were reported in Baringo County, the deputy president said they were “fake news”. Meanwhile, the head of state has not said a word about the looming catastrophe.
The recognition by some government officials that hundreds of thousands of people in the country might not have enough food has laid bare the gross inequalities that have defined the Kenyan state since independence – devolution notwithstanding – and has brought to the fore the fact that Kenya is still a deeply divided country economically and socially, a fact that Jubilee mandarins are reluctant to acknowledge
The current famine in Turkana and in several other Kenyan counties is perplexing at various levels. Firstly, it is happening at a time when the Jubilee government is congratulating itself for taking Kenya into the digital 21st century and for carrying out a very expensive Sh400 billion ($4 billion) Big Four agenda that includes improving food security.
Secondly, the recognition by some government officials that hundreds of thousands of people in the country might not have enough food has laid bare the gross inequalities that have defined the Kenyan state since independence – devolution notwithstanding – and has brought to the fore the fact that Kenya is still a deeply divided country economically and socially, a fact that Jubilee mandarins are reluctant to acknowledge. It is not lost on many people that while granaries in some parts of the country are overflowing with maize, other parts have no food to eat.
The famine has underscored the fact that there are many parts of this country where people are eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in regions where lack of infrastructure and basic services have exiled communities that are difficult to reach during a crisis
Thirdly, the famine has become evidence of yet another embarrassing scorecard of failed national and county government projects, including non-performing irrigation schemes, non-existent dams and gross neglect of the agriculture sector – all the result of theft or mismanagement of project funds.
Fourthly, the famine has underscored the fact that there are many parts of this country where people are eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in regions where lack of infrastructure and basic services have exiled communities that are difficult to reach during a crisis. After all, droughts do not automatically lead to famine; the recent droughts in the west coast of the United States, for example, did not result in people dying due to hunger. Famine usually means that people cannot afford to buy food, that the food they rely on for sustenance is not available or that the food cannot adequately reach the starving.
The government’s ambivalence towards the food insecurity situation is understandable. Declaring a famine is no easy choice for a government. It is deeply embarrassing for any government to announce a famine because it is an acknowledgement that the government has failed to make the country food secure. Essentially it says that the government not only failed to prevent the famine, but also did not prepare for it, suggesting a lack of leadership in disaster preparedness. Secondly, a declaration of famine in a poor country usually unleashes an international famine relief effort – and no self-respecting government would like to admit that foreign donors and NGOs should do what it should be doing, i.e. making sure that all its citizens have enough food to eat.
Misguided policies and poor governance
I do not know much about Turkana, having never visited the area. To me, it has always seemed like a remote part of the country that is difficult to access. Stories of three-day trips on very bad roads and scary rides to Lodwar on very tiny planes put me off visiting a place that has attracted more humanitarian workers and NGOs than government officials, thanks to the Kakuma refugee camp bordering strife-torn southern Sudan and the Lokichoggio Airport (popularly known as “Loki” among the international NGO and foreign correspondent set) that served as a logistics hub for organisations that used to support rebel movements in Sudan.
The fact that Turkana County attracted the second largest share of devolved funds (after Nairobi) in 2015/2016 has not increased its fortunes. The discovery of oil in the region and images of a stunningly beautiful Lake Turkana have also not made the region more attractive to the vast majority of Kenyans. For people like me, Turkana will for a long time remain the Great Unknown – like north-eastern Kenya and other parts of the country that have remained so marginalised that most Kenyans see the pastoralist people and communities living there as aliens. Our outpouring of sympathy during famines in Turkana is akin to the compassion a Londoner might feel for the emaciated African child he sees in TV commercials by organisations such as Save the Children – shock followed by a small donation. It is embarrassing to think that others might be starving while we gorge ourselves on Kentucky Fried Chicken and pizzas. Forget the fact that most famines are man-made and the result of bad politics and poor governance, not food scarcity.
Alex de Waal, author of Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, shows that in every known case of famine across the world, a breakdown of democratic institutions and lack of freedoms – particularly the right to criticise, publish and vote – have been key reasons for large-scale deaths during a famine.
Deliberate government neglect of a region, censorship of the press and misguided policies have also exacerbated food crises. The 1958 famine in China, for instance, was the direct result of Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” that resulted in the collectivisation of agriculture. The large death toll during the 1943 famine in Bengal, India, was the direct result of the British colonial government’s reluctance to take responsibility for famine relief in its most prized colony. The recurrent famines in Somalia can also be attributed to the breakdown of governance structures and the collapse of farming communities, many of which were massacred or forcibly removed by militias during the country’s civil war.
Countries that successfully deal with a potential famine or food security crises often do so to avert a political crisis. The rising cost of food and other commodities has been the reason for protests in many countries (including in Sudan recently) and many governments respond quickly to the mounting crises in case they lead to full-blown rebellion. Keeping the cost of food low to keep citizens happy is also the reason why European countries and the United States heavily subsidise their farmers.
De Waal shows how in 1985, when the Kenyan government was facing a huge national food deficit, President Daniel arap Moi made a decision to import food commercially, reversing a 1983 policy, and thereby averting a food crisis. Although foreign donors were contributing to the relief effort, Moi took no chances; he knew that a food crisis could provoke dissent against his repressive regime, and he was not willing to risk that happening. Food insecurity is often an indicator of poor governance and can often lead to riots and political unrest. Keeping citizens fed is, after all, a primary responsibility of governments; those that fail to do so risk being overthrown, a fact that Moi was acutely aware of.
Moi then turned the crisis into an opportunity by installing a network of political patronage linked to food supply and distribution. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPD) became highly politicised and was used to break the power of farmers’ associations and cooperatives, especially in opposition strongholds.
“Senior government officials benefitted both politically and commercially from the monopolistic position of the NCPD,” says de Waal. Cartels in the NCPD and lack of adequate distribution networks made food distribution and supply more politicised. When people died in a famine, the government attributed it to the “backwardness” of local communities, not to the fact that food distribution had become a goody that depended on the whims of Moi’s lackeys on the board.
Moi also used the food shortage crisis as an excuse to postpone critical reforms in the agriculture sector. In his paper, “Markets, Civil Society and Democracy in Kenya”, published in 1992 by the Nordic Africa Institute, Peter Gibbon explains how Moi’s system of ethnicised politics and political patronage worked (and, sadly, continues to work to this day):
“The grain crises…were used as an excuse for appointing a large number of inefficient cooperatives in Luyha areas as agents for the NCPD to the benefit of certain Luhya populist politicians. It was also used to break the power of the Kenyan Farmers’ Association, the main base of the politicians in the Rift Valley independent of Moi. It was thirdly used to consolidate the bases of Moi’s ‘home area’ allies in Nandi by tripling the number of NCPD employees there and increasing farmgate prices to uneconomic levels. Finally, the cost of this predation was transferred to the coffee and dairy farmers in Kikuyu areas, who were forced to transfer the savings accounts of their cooperatives to the Cooperative Bank, which had run up large losses in covering the NCPD’s grain purchases.”
The Mwai Kibaki government that succeeded Moi’s did try to reverse the damage Moi had inflicted on the agriculture sector, but the sector has still not fully recovered from short-sighted policies that sacrificed productivity at the altar of loyalty to the government in power.
To their credit, all Kenyan governments have tried to avoid going the international food aid route to address food insecurity.
The internationalisation of famine relief
To their credit, all Kenyan governments have tried to avoid going the international food aid route to address food insecurity. Though foreign aid is welcomed, the country has generally been reluctant to be part of massive international campaigns that have accompanied famine in places like Ethiopia and Somalia – perhaps because Kenya likes to view itself as the economic powerhouse of the region, not a basket case dependent on foreign aid.
This is a good policy because when international humanitarian agencies come in to provide food to starving people, bad governments are let off the hook, and are allowed to continue with their bad policies that can lead to more famines in the future. “Internationalising” the responsibility of food security to UN institutions, international NGOs and foreign governments makes practically everyone across the globe a stakeholder in famine relief.
“The process of internationalisation is the key to the appropriation of power by international institutions and the retreat from domestic accountability in famine-vulnerable countries,” says de Waal. He says that reliance on international humanitarian organisations has led to the “internationalisation” of famine relief. Governments of poor countries are thus no longer solely responsible for the food security of their citizens; this task has been appropriated by what he calls the “disaster industry” or “humanitarianism international”.
The appropriation of what should ideally be a government’s key responsibility makes governments of aid-receiving countries less accountable to their own citizens. Moreover, when a famine strikes and large numbers of people die, governments can easily blame the lack of foreign aid for the deaths, not poor governance on their part or their failure to put in place systems and programmes that could have prevented the famine in the first place.
Officials of international and local NGOs and UN agencies, like their government counterparts, are also not immune to corruption. “Somebody always gets rich off a famine,” Michael Maren, a former food aid monitor in Somalia, told Might Magazine in 1997. When he was in charge of monitoring food aid donated by the US government to refugees fleeing the Ogaden war of 1977/78, he found that about two-thirds of the food went missing. Trucks would arrive at the Mogadishu port, collect the food and disappear, never to be found again. Even when food arrived at the refugee camps, much of it would be stolen. (Given the track record of Jubilee government officials, it is likely that some of the food donated by the government to Turkana’s starving will also disappear.)
Food aid thus becomes a profitable source of income for criminal elements. Maren believes that international aid not only sustained Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime but also facilitated the dismantling of Somali society. In his book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, he quotes a former civil servant working for Somalia’s National Refugee Commission who told him that traditionally Somalis never relied on food aid, even during droughts. There was a credit system: the nomads would come to urban areas and take loans that they would pay back when times were good. Nomads and agriculturalists also shared natural resources. Aid essentially destroyed a centuries-old system that built resilience and sustained communities during periods of hardship. The former civil servant blamed foreign aid for the distortions in Somali society, not the Somalis who responded to the distortions.
Moreover, the international response to famine is more often than not technical, rather than political, with a whole range of experts, from nutritionists to statisticians, brought in to assess the scale of the famine and to offer solutions. Yet, recurrent famines often require a long-term political solution, which is much harder to achieve.
As de Waal emphasises, famine is both a technical and political challenge. Effective prevention and relief measures require a long-term vision, sound planning (based on sound data and research) and good management devoid of corruption, all of which are key elements of good economic policies, which are sorely lacking in the current Kenyan government.
Famine in Turkana and other Kenyan counties may not have yet caught the attention of the international media, but domestic dissatisfaction with the famine response may force the government to alter its food security policies. The more likely scenario, however, is that this government will, like most Kenyans, pray for the rains, and hope that the food crisis will go away all on its own.
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Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness.
Earlier this year, the Baraza Media Lab and the Centre on Suicide Research and Intervention published a report that looked at how broadcasting stations report on suicide on social media. Its contents were sobering. Many leading media houses were found to report suicide as a criminal act. Reports also contained harmful elements such as descriptions of suicide methods and imagery of suicide and did not provide helpful information for readers who may be thinking of suicide.
So how have journalists been reporting on suicide since the data was collected? A very cursory survey of news outlets on social media shows reasons for both optimism and worry. Over the course of 2023, media outlets have published more stories about mental health, indicating an increasing awareness of it. This year has also seen an increased number of responsibly written social media posts that take into account the need for sensitivity on suicide.
Now, the negatives. Knowledge on responsible reporting of suicide, while improved, remains inconsistent across news operations. Real progress will require further integrating social media into editorial processes, subjecting its copy to as much rigour as the stories themselves to ensure errors are not introduced once stories are completed. Also, many insensitive references to suicide on social media were accurately reproduced from news stories.
The term “committed suicide” continues to appear on news websites, even in stories where responsible reporting would be expected, such as those that explore the risk factors of suicide. Stories use the insensitive word “suicidal” in phrases like “treating suicidal people as criminals” and “people who are suicidal”. The same insensitivity is also observed in the phrase “mentally ill” – ironically in stories that call for acts of suicide to be decriminalised.
It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary. It was interesting – and revealing – to see a media outlet’s official X account, formerly known as Twitter, include both the terms “died by suicide” and “committed suicide” in the same tweet.
News websites continue to narrate morbid details about the manner of death by suicide. You are still likely to find phrases like “the body was found hanging in his room”, a man “who set himself ablaze” and “doused himself in a flammable substance before setting himself ablaze while carrying the Kenyan flag”. The imagery of suicide, with the noose particularly prominent, continues to be used in stories, inadvertently advertising hanging as a suitable method.
It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary.
Media outlets aired insensitive footage. One camera focused on a woman overcome with emotion, who understood she was being filmed. One story goes as far as to narrate that instead of dissuading the deceased from taking his own life, a bystander handed him a lighted match and taunted him over unsuccessful attempts to light himself on fire, displaying the contempt people have for people thinking of suicide and inviting viewers to agree with those ideas.
The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing. Reports are more likely to use “died by suicide” where the only death reported is by suicide. On the other hand, when person who died by suicide had killed another person, the phrase “committed suicide” is used freely.
The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing.
Yet the same responsibility to reduce the prominence of suicide applies even in the context of crime reporting, and steps that broadcasters take to make footage of murders acceptable, such as using trigger warnings and black and white for bloodstains, may still be unacceptable in the context of suicide prevention. According to a 2021 brief by the University College Cork, Ireland, no graphic footage should be used in reporting murder-suicides, and care should be taken to discourage copycats, or position murder-suicide as a solution to anything.
Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness, resulting in disrespectful coverage that tries to “say it as it is” and neglects to include sources of help for people who may be thinking of suicide.
Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term
The 2024 elections in Rwanda are an opportunity for the country to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions and a governance that is more tolerant of critics.
The constitution of Rwanda was amended in 2015 to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term of seven years. Kagame was re-elected in 2017 and his term ends in 2024. The change in the constitution also allows him to stand for a fourth and a fifth five-year term. In my view, President Kagame should not run for a fourth presidential term in the 2024 elections.
President Paul Kagame was appointed Vice President and Minister for Defence on 19 July 1994, immediately after the end of the war and the Rwanda genocide. When President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000, Kagame was elected by the Transitional National Assembly to replace him. Three years later, in 2003, Kagame was elected president and has been president of Rwanda for over two decades. He has, therefore, risen to higher levels of decision-making over three decades, a sufficient period of time during which to oversee the implementation of policies he thought would advance the betterment of Rwandans. Kagame should, therefore, consider letting another willing and capable Rwandan build upon his achievements and continue to advance Rwanda’s interests. Indeed, under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has made some achievements but there are also shortcomings.
First, from a war-torn country, Rwanda has emerged to become a state with well-defined and functioning structures and institutions supported by fairly clear legislations. In my opinion, this has been achieved thanks to Kagame’s administration’s commitment to bring about change in Rwanda manifested immediately after the end of the war and the genocide against the Tutsi.
Second, Rwanda has also made some economic gains even though these can be challenged in many aspects. In 2000, Kagame made a pledge to transform Rwanda from a low- to a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy by 2020. Since then, the Rwandan economy has grown significantly and its GDP per capita has increased from USD304 in 1995 to USD940 in 2022. The country’s human development index has soared and Rwanda has been recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the countries that are performing well on the goal of achieving universal health coverage. The country’s life expectancy has increased significantly, from 47 years in 2000 to 67 years in 2020. Moreover, according to UNICEF, the government has made some improvements in expanding education for all across Rwanda.
Lastly, through a meticulously executed campaign of communication, compelling narratives have been disseminated across the world that speak well of Rwanda. This along with the country’s commitment to deploy its soldiers to multinational peacekeeping missions across the world (Rwanda ranks fourth on the list of countries that contribute in peacekeeping in the world) has enabled Rwanda to strengthen its foreign relations with other countries and project its image as a development success story.
There are certainly more achievements that President Kagame has made during his 30 years in leadership that his replacement can learn from and retain to move Rwanda forward. However there are shortcomings. Kagame managed to put the country back on the world map but failed to create an environment for the country’s citizens to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Upon taking power following a military victory, his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), pledged a consensual democracy to Rwandans. But over time this democracy has transformed into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism and curtails liberty in Rwanda. Most affected are those who dare or are perceived to challenge his government’s narrative in Rwanda and abroad. In many instances, Kagame’s government has abused its power, colluding with the judicial system to criminalise his critics. As a result, Rwanda has repeatedly been categorised as not a free country by Freedom House.
This has led to independent and inter-governmental human rights organisations and representatives of developed countries that financially support Rwanda to publicly criticise his leadership for lack of political inclusion, human rights violations and the overall democracy deficit in Rwanda. This situation continues to tarnish Rwanda’s reputation that Kagame’s leadership has been working hard to restore.
Furthermore, independent reports on the development of democracy and governance throughout the world – and in Africa in particular – all point out that citizen participation in Rwanda remains limited, as do local NGOs.
Political participation in Rwanda is limited only to those who adhere or are willing to be affiliated to his political party, the RPF. This has prevented the emergence of a genuine opposition that could have provided checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda. The repercussions are that lack of accountability within public institutions is rampant and Kagame has many times publicly criticised officials in his administration for not delivering as they should. In fact, the pledge he made in 2000 to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy has not materialised and Rwanda remains a low-income country to date.
Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population. Hence, the economic gains made by Kagame’s administration can be challenged in many aspects as previously pointed out. For instance, substantial public funds have been invested in the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) sector while less has been allocated to education, agriculture, and rural infrastructure development. Thus, despite remarkable economic growth and a significant improvement in the human development index registered by Rwanda since 1994, these achievements are tarnished by high inequalities in income, health and education. Furthermore, they are characterised by economic injustices such as unfair land expropriation and the uprooting of farmers’ crops. Rwanda’s human capital development remains below the average for African countries due to a lack of quality education and high levels of malnutrition among children below five years. Only 41 per cent of households in Rwanda are considered to be substantially food secure. The private sector’s contribution to growth has remained small and growth is predominantly led by state-owned enterprises and those belonging to the ruling party. Overall, Rwandans have been consecutively ranked among the bottom five least happy populations on the global happiness index.
Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population.
Over the past three decades, curtailed civil liberties and mounting social inequalities have seen Rwandans seek refuge abroad and prevented from returning to their homeland those who had fled Rwanda after the RPF took power in 1994. This situation has exacerbated the issue of Rwandan refugees that has persisted since Rwanda’s independence.
In particular, under President Kagame, the unresolved issue of Rwandan refugees settled in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries has been a source of political tensions between Rwanda and its neighbours. The Rwandan government has maintained that there are negative forces resident in eastern DRC that are out to destabilise Rwanda, a reference to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group formed by Rwandan refugees in DRC who, following their forcible eviction from Rwanda during the genocide, resorted to armed struggle as a means of retaking power in Rwanda. Despite Rwanda’s armed forces launching military operations against the FDLR on numerous occasions on Congolese soil in collaboration with the Congolese army, the Rwandan government continues to insist that the FDLR is a threat to Rwanda’s security.
The United Nations has twice – in 2012 and 2022 – accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, an armed group that is fighting in the eastern DRC. This conflict has displaced populations and led to the death of millions of African civilian lives. In 2016, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the aim of ousting the then Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Western countries have suspended or withheld aid to Rwanda over allegations that it supported the M23 in 2012 and some of Rwanda’s donors have recently publicly called on the Rwandan government to stop supporting the M23 and remove its troops from eastern DRC. The European Union and United States of America have sanctioned Rwandan military officials for backing the M23. The US has placed Rwanda on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List and suspended its military aid to the country due to Rwanda’s support of the M23, which the US says recruits and uses child soldiers. Not only do these allegations of Rwanda’s involvement in the regional conflict further tarnish the country’s image that Kagame’s administration has worked hard to restore, but the tensions with neighbouring states have also prevented Rwanda from maximising the benefits of regional integration and trade for its development.
President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive. To successfully implement such reforms in governance requires a new leadership with fresh perspectives and approaches that will be able to build on Kagame’s achievements in order to address unresolved historical grievances of Rwandans and at the same time enable Rwanda to maximise its potential in the region and experience genuine development.
President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive.
Considering Rwanda’s history of long-serving strongmen who have taken power, retained it and lost it through violence, the 2024 presidential election is an opportunity for Rwandans to experience the transfer of power in a peaceful and transparent manner as has been the case in neighbouring countries including Burundi, DRC and Tanzania. It is an opportunity for Rwanda to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions to take the lead instead. This can be achieved by building on the legislations that have been reviewed and implemented under Kagame’s leadership. Therefore, while recognising with gratitude the achievements that he has made over the past three decades, Kagame’s greatest achievement yet would be to step away from power at the end of his term in 2024. In so doing, Kagame will have paved the way for better leadership in Rwanda and opened the door to future generations of Rwandans aspiring to become leaders in Rwanda.
Why Kenyans Demanded an Apology from King Charles
The traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day, and this is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from King Charles.
Many British people are surprised that King Charles’s visit to Kenya was not welcomed by many Kenyans and human rights organisations. People whose families had suffered at the hands of British colonialists during his mother’s reign demanded an apology for crimes committed. Although the British monarch expressed “deepest regret” for the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya, he fell short of making a public apology.
However, many Brits believe that there is nothing the king needed to apologise for. One presenter on Sky News even wondered why Kenyans were calling for an apology from the king given that Britain had done much “good” in the country. After all, he said, without any hint of irony, the British Empire had brought democracy to Kenya (how he equated imperialism with democracy beats me) and given Kenyans “the gift of the English language”.
It was obvious that the presenter had been taught British imperial history that has whitewashed the atrocities that the British Empire committed in its colonies around the world. British children are to this day taught that British colonialism was a “civilising mission” that brought modern education and infrastructure, in addition to Christianity, to regions that were steeped in ignorance and backwardness. Apologists for the British Empire, such as the historian Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, argue that Britain should be congratulated for conquering the world because British civilisation brought science and technology to people who held superstitious beliefs, and injected a “work ethic” in populations that were lazy and lacking in imagination. This is sort of like saying that slave owners did slaves a favour by shipping them to the Americas and forcing them to work for free because these slaves are now US citizens and enjoy all that America has to offer (even though it took them four centuries to gain rights as equal citizens).
A few months ago, the editor of a German magazine contacted me to ask whether I could submit an article on the atrocities the British had committed in Kenya during colonialism. He told me that while his magazine had documented human rights violations by German and Belgian colonialists in places like Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it had largely ignored the violations committed by Britain in places like Kenya because the majority of Germans believe that British colonialism was not as brutal as that of other European powers, and that its net impact on its colonies in Africa had been positive. It dawned on me that perhaps Europeans are not being told the true story about colonialism and its horrific impact on Africans. So, here’s primer.
Erasure of memory
Kenya officially became a British colony in 1920, but prior to that, from 1895, it was deemed a “protectorate” – a term suggesting that the colonisers who grabbed the land were there to protect the interests of the “natives” who would benefit from being colonised. A widely held belief is that because Britain spearheaded the abolition of slavery, the British were “benevolent” colonisers, unlike the French and the Belgians who plundered and looted their African colonies. (In addition to extracting raw materials and exporting items such as ivory and rubber, the French and the Belgians also stole invaluable artefacts from their colonies in West and Central Africa, which today are displayed in museums across Europe, including in Britain, despite efforts by African governments to have these artefacts returned to where they were stolen from.)
Yet, those who care to join the dots between the anti-slavery movement and the colonisation of Africa are acutely aware of the fact that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (dubbed the “Scramble for Africa”) that carved up Africa among European nations, including Britain, took place just a few years after slavery ended. Because slavery was no longer legal and was costly to maintain, the only other way Europeans could extract cheap labour and highly profitable resources from Africa was by colonising the continent.
In order to justify colonisation in settler colonies like Kenya and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), it was necessary to erase evidence of atrocities committed by the Europeans. Many of these atrocities remained unacknowledged and unreported for decades because archival documents were either destroyed or deliberately concealed. British historian David M. Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya, discovered that thousands of documents belonging to the British colonial administration were flown to London in 1963 on the eve of Kenya’s independence and remained hidden from the public for decades, despite attempts by successive post-independence Kenyan governments to have these “stolen papers” returned to Kenya.
The magnitude of these atrocities was finally revealed in 2005 when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, was published. The book documents the many crimes that British colonial officers committed in Kenya in their relentless pursuit of wealth, land and power for themselves and in the name of the British Empire. Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.
The areas where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained, tortured or killed in the 1950s were in and around the Aberdares mountain range in Central Kenya where Queen Elizabeth, during an official visit to Kenya, ascended to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. Eight months after she became Queen of England and head of the British Empire, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya that allowed the British Colonial Office to detain people without trial. Many freedom fighters languished in camps or jails where they were subjected to torture.
Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.
The Mau Mau rebellion was a reaction to the expropriation of some 7 million acres of the most fertile land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley – dubbed the White Highlands – in the early part of the 20th century after the building of the Uganda Railway, which opened up the interior of East Africa for British colonisation and settlement. The indigenous population was pushed into so-called reserves while others became squatters on land that was once theirs, working for white farmers for very little wages.
Elkins estimates that between 160,000 and 320,000 detainees, mostly from the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu ethnic groups, were tortured or maimed by the British at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, although official figures state that the number of detainees was no more than 80,000. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants were killed. Further, more than a million people, mainly in central Kenya, were detained in camps or confined in villages known as “reserves” (which have been described as “concentration camps”) surrounded by barbed wire. Tens of thousands of people held in these dense and unsanitary guarded camps and villages died from hunger or disease.
To justify these atrocities, British officials painted the Mau Mau as savage “terrorists” because of the violent and brutal methods they used to hunt down and kill white settlers and local informers. Official figures show that Mau Mau fighters killed 32 British settlers and 1,819 indigenous people whom they believed to be spies for the British.
Today what the British Empire did in Kenya might be perceived as a form of ethnic cleansing, but because colonisation was not unfashionable then, the atrocities were not condemned, nor was anyone tried. It was only in 2011, during a landmark court case brought against the British by a group of Mau Mau veterans, that the British government, under legal pressure, admitted that the documents were in a high-security facility that also contained files from 36 other former British colonies. (In 2013, 5,228 Mau Mau veterans were awarded £20 million in compensation by a UK court, which amounts to roughly £3,000 per victim, a paltry sum given the suffering they endured.) One of these documents contained details of eight colonial officers stationed in Kenya “roasting detainees alive”. All of the accused officers were granted amnesty.
Official amnesia and disinformation were not just part of a deliberate campaign by the British Empire to whitewash the crimes it committed in its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, but also a strategy employed by post-colonial governments in Kenya to cloak their own complicity in ensuring that British interests in the country were preserved.
Post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power. According to Kenya’s 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “Rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements like the Mau Mau remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.
After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power.
The Mau Mau remained a proscribed organisation for four decades after independence. It was only in 2003, when Mwai Kibaki became president, that the Mau Mau were recognised for the role they had played in Kenya’s struggle for independence. Kenyatta Day on 20 October was renamed Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day) to commemorate all those who died while fighting for freedom. In 2007, a statue of Dedan Kimathi was erected in Nairobi’s central business district, and in 2015, following the 2013 UK court decision to compensate Mau Mau veterans, the British government put up a Mau Mau memorial sculpture in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park “as a symbol of reconciliation between the British government, the Mau Mau and all those who suffered”.
Despite these symbols of reconciliation and healing, the traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day. This is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from the King – because the wounds have not yet healed. While a public apology might not have been enough to completely heal the wounds and traumas of the past, it would have been an important first step.
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