“Never dress a deep wound superficially.” – Somali proverb
A recent article by The Elephant’s senior writer Dauti Kahura suggests that one of the main reasons why a sizeable number of Kikuyus are going to vote for William Ruto in 2022 is that they are afraid that if they don’t – and especially if he loses or is forced out of the election race – Ruto will unleash terror on Kikuyus living in the Rift Valley, the kind of terror that Kikuyus in the region experienced when hundreds of them were killed and hundreds of thousands of them were displaced after the disputed 2007 election.
“It is the Kikuyu electorate that finds itself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea,” wrote Kahura. “Whatever option it takes, it will not be an easy choice because Ruto has presented the Kikuyus with the greatest dilemma. If they do not support Ruto, is there a risk that the violence of 2007/8 will be repeated?”
One Kikuyu lady told Kahura that she will definitely be voting for Ruto come 2022 because he was part of the deal that Uhuru Kenyatta made when the duo joined forces. In that sense, Kikuyus owe Ruto a political debt. “We entered into a pact with the Kalenjin people, that they would help our son capture power and protect our people in the Rift. In return, we would also lend our support to their son after Uhuru’s terms ended. It would now be disingenuous for the Kikuyu people to renege on that promise . . . it actually would be dangerous. I have relatives in the Rift and I can tell you they are not sitting pretty.”
For those who are neither Kikuyu nor Kalenjin, this rationale sounds like pure and simple blackmail: “If you vote for me, I won’t kill you.” The horror of this thinking cannot be overstated. If this blackmailing tool is what Kalenjins (read Ruto) are going to be using to win the next election, then we are in a very bad place indeed. It not only mocks our democratic right to live wherever we choose but also entrenches a mindset that views Kenya as belonging to only two tribes – the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin – whose agendas we have to accept regardless of whether they are against our own interests. And we must honour every deal they make with each other to stay in power.
If this blackmailing tool is what Kalenjins (read Ruto) are going to be using to win the next election, then we are in a very bad place indeed
It seems like a strange logic, but one that has become normalised in Kenya since 2013. Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, many also believe that the alliance was a pact based on the threat of violence. In addition, by declaring the election as a “referendum against the ICC [International Criminal Court]”, Uhuru and Ruto managed to galvanise two communities whose elites have held onto power since independence.
How did we get here?
It all started when Justice Philip Waki handed over the secret list of names of the suspected perpetrators of the 2007/8 post-election violence to the African Union’s envoy Kofi Annan in 2009. Kenya had the option to form a local tribunal within a year, but failed to do so. At that time, Raila Odinga, who was then the Prime Minister, had campaigned for the formation of such a tribunal, if for no other reason than that it would end speculation about the identity of the perpetrators.
When the ICC went ahead to charge the so-called Ocampo Six, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, with crimes against humanity, Kalonzo Musyoka, who was then the Vice President, travelled to New York to try and convince the United Nations Security Council to defer the cases, ostensibly because “the ICC process has the potential to affect Kenya’s fragile stability”.
The whole episode was filled with intrigues and innuendos. Luis Moreno Ocampo’s threat that he would “make an example of Kenya” sounded childish, vindictive and selective. As I have commented before, why did the ICC not go after Mwai Kibaki, who was in charge of the security forces that unleashed much of the 2007/2008 terror and Raila Odinga, who was the leader of the party to which William Ruto belonged, and who did nothing to stop the violence?
Annan’s decision to hand over the secret list of names of the perpetrators to the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor was probably made in good faith but had the net effect of shrouding the ICC cases in ambiguity and secrecy. This ambiguity was exploited by Uhuru and Ruto, whose 2013 election campaign was pegged on the claim that they had been “fixed” and scapegoated by the likes of Raila and others who were using the ICC to get rid of their political rivals.
In the end, the ICC ended up delivering the presidency to Uhuru and Ruto. If the court had not relentlessly pursued the Kenyan cases (and bungled them), and if, as many believe, the election had not been rigged or manipulated by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, there would be no Jubilee government in place today. The ICC cases, therefore, had the unintended consequence of galvanising a nation against it.
Unfortunately, the social and economic cost of the UhuRuto political union has been unacceptably high. Kalenjin and Kikuyu politicians interpreted the truce between the two communities as a licence for theft and impunity. Members of the Jubilee government have been implicated in a looting spree of public coffers of a magnitude that has not been witnessed since the Moi years. Some would argue that the looting today is unprecedented, and has even surpassed that of the Moi era – a position that is supported by data coming out of the Auditor General’s office.
The lesson we might learn from this saga is that if political reconciliation between two groups results in the political and economic exclusion of other groups, there is no guarantee that electoral or other types of violence will not remain an option for the disenfranchised – with or without the ICC. The article by Kahura also suggests that the pact between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin is built on a fragile foundation that can easily be destabilised by the threat of future violence.
The ICC cases against Uhuru and Ruto collapsed due to lack of sufficient evidence. It is entirely possible that key witnesses were intimidated, killed or silenced in other ways. However, Kenyans also know that the perpetrators of the violence are still walking freely in Nairobi, Naivasha, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu and other places. Men who gang-raped grandmothers and chopped of their neighbours’ hands have not been arrested or charged with any crime, nor have they been ostracised by their communities.
Nor did Kenya establish Rwanda-style “Gacaca” courts to bring about reconciliation among aggrieved parties. The wounds of 2007/2008 have thus not yet healed. If true, the claim by William Ruto during a recent interview on NTV that the ICC case against him is being revived by his opponents to finish him will not heal these wounds either as many communities, not just the Kikuyu, also lost loved ones during that dark period. It would be naïve to believe that the ICC will deliver justice to the post-election violence victims because Ruto is now back in the dock.
The original sin
However, Kenyans’ wounds run deeper than the 2007/2008 trauma. These wounds can only heal if processes are put in place and serious efforts are made to address the structural and systemic causes of violence and greed in our society.
Structural and systemic violence has been part of Kenya’s DNA since before independence, and has often manifested itself in the forced eviction or displacement of people from their land. British colonialism in Kenya was in essence a violent land grab.
The first large-scale post-independence land grab began during the first few years of Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency when a resettlement scheme was implemented to “buy back” one million acres of land from white settlers in order to resettle displaced (mostly Kikuyu) Kenyans. Kenyatta had argued then that since the British colonialists and white settlers had taken land away from indigenous African communities, they were obliged to fund a large-scale settlement programme – using long-term loans with easy repayment conditions – to provide land to the landless.
It would be naïve to believe that the ICC will deliver justice to the post-election violence victims because Ruto is now back in the dock
However, a group led by Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia and Paul Ngei opposed the buying of land for resettlement; they argued that Africans could not buy back land that was originally theirs, a contention that did not go down well with Kenyatta because “there were no free things and that land was not free, but must be purchased”. Kenyatta’s position mirrored that of the outgoing British colonial administration that made it clear that “African settlers could not get free land but were expected to either purchase it directly with their money or borrow the loan that was to be repaid to the British government”.
This first betrayal would be followed by many others. As the scheme operated on a “willing-seller-willing-buyer” basis, hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in the coast and Rift Valley regions, remained landless.
Interestingly, the scheme also offered loans to Africans who were not landless. In this group fell a select group of people who had been loyal to the colonial administration – the so-called homeguards – who gobbled up prime land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley. Among this group were provincial commissioners, ministers, permanent secretaries and others within Kenyatta’s inner circle who would go on to become Kenya’s new ruling elite.
According to the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), “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.”
These alienated “lesser Kikuyus”, particularly those residing in the Rift Valley, have remained vulnerable to violence perpetrated by other ethnic groups as well as by their own ethnic group. (Recall the politically-instigated “ethnic cleansing” in the Rift Valley in the 1990s during the Moi regime and the shoot-to-kill-Mungiki order given by the late John Michuki in 2007.)
When Kenyatta died in 1978, there was a fear that his successor, President Daniel arap Moi, would reverse the Kenyatta-era land-related and other injustices by targeting Kikuyu elites who had benefitted from Kenyatta’s patronage. This fear, however, was unfounded – not only did Moi follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps by grabbing land for himself, he also entrenched a patronage network that mostly benefitted members of his own ethnic group, the Kalenjin.
Structural and systemic violence has been part of Kenya’s DNA since before independence, and has often manifested itself in the forced eviction or displacement of people from their land
Having experienced violence during the Moi regime, and having suffered under Kikuyu leadership (not even Mwai Kibaki could protect the Kikuyus in the Rift during the post-election violence of 2007/8) why would these Kikuyus now trust Moi’s protégé William Ruto and a (former?) Uhuru ally to protect them?
And if indeed, as Kahura notes, the choice is between the “devil and the deep blue sea”, why choose someone whose reputation is tainted with corruption and other misdeeds, including Youth for Kanu 92 shenanigans, not to mention crimes against humanity? Ruto is known to be a scheming and vindictive politician, a man who has the capacity to crush anyone opposed to him. Do we need someone with such a Machiavellian temperament at the helm?
As for Raila, after the famous “handshake” between him and Uhuru, even some of his most ardent supporters are questioning whether he ran an opportunistic and cynical campaign as leader of the opposition and whether his main objective has always been to gain political power, not to fight for the rights of ordinary Kenyans. Many Kenyans are still recovering from his about-turn after being sworn in as the “People’s President” on 30 January 2018 at a rally attended by thousands, and after so many lives had been lost unnecessarily, including that of Baby Pendo.
Listening to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rally in Mombasa on 25 January this year, one got the impression that none of the politicians present at the rally had any political ambitions, that Kenya was now one big happy family where everyone was expected to get along and think about the country first.
Politicians present at the rally, including Raila and his lieutenant James Orengo, urged wananchi not to think too much about the 2022 elections but to focus on nation-building. The rhetoric had an eerie resemblance to the “accept and move on” mantra of the Jubilee government when it took power in 2013. It was a hoodwinking exercise that made people believe that every single politician on the podium that day was not preparing a war chest with which to retain their seats in the next polls.
What was also omitted was the fact that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) remains as inept and as corrupt as it was during the 2013 and 2017 elections, and that what worries Kenyans is whether they can trust this electoral body to conduct a free and fair election in 2022.
The endorsement of BBI by Kipchumba Murkomen, a diehard Ruto supporter, also suggested that the BBI was a national project that had nothing to do with personal ambition. The cooption of Ruto’s allies into the BBI fold could be just a survival tactic (or perhaps a form of deception?) to ensure that they do not miss out on the “eating”. As development consultant Jerotich Seii so aptly put it on Twitter, “The slices of the 2022 Succession Pie just got a little thinner because Tanga Tanga has brought itself firmly into the mix.”
Kilifi governor Amason Kingi emphasised that historical land injustices in the coast region must be addressed by the BBI, but there was no mention of the post-election violence victims, many of whom are still displaced, nor of the fact that the government of Mwai Kibaki spent millions of shillings on the TJRC whose recommendations on historical and other injustices have yet to be implemented.
The BBI is being sold to us as a project that in one fell swoop will wipe out all the evils in our society, including tribalism. But as other commentators have noted, if the Ndung’u Land Commission’s report and the TJRC report could not bring about radical reforms in Kenya, what hope is there that the BBI will? There is simply no political will to bring about reforms, particularly on land, because too many rich and powerful people will be adversely affected.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea, the only option in this case would be to choose neither. For the sake of Kenya, both Raila and Ruto should step aside and let someone who has a clean governance record vie for the top leadership in 2022. This would make the Uhuru succession politics less toxic and less polarised.
This leader’s top priorities would be to steer the country out of the deep economic morass that the Jubilee administration headed by Uhuru Kenytatta has got us into and to slay the twin dragons of corruption and tribalism that have bedevilled this country since independence. Hopefully, he or she will also be committed to implementing the myriad recommendations that have come out of the umpteen reports and commissions that aimed to make Kenya a more just and inclusive country.
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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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