I left Oromia just before turning two years old and I grew up among the first Oromo people to call Melbourne home. I vividly remember the days when we were so few that, in Clayton South, the suburb in which I spent 16 years of my life, there was an Oromo family on almost every block. Being such a small community, we didn’t scatter across the breadth of the city but huddled together in a small enclave for safety, support, and the comfort of familiarity. In those days, weddings, birthday parties, funerals, and other community events were attended by people from all the regions of Oromia who made up our little community.
But as our community grew in number, and as the number of people from every region of Oromia grew, I started to see a divide in how we congregated. By my mid-teens, I was almost completely disconnected from the spaces and networks that included Oromo people from outside the Arsi region, where I come from. Naturally, as I reached adulthood, I attended cultural and community events on my own initiative rather than at the invitation of my family. I started to learn about my community all over again. And in the course of this experience, I was never directly and deliberately taught who the Oromo are, who I was as an Oromo, and how and why other Oromo people were different, or the same, to my family.
Whereas this learning is experiential for one growing up in Oromia, there are gaps when this way of learning is transferred to the diaspora, or even to urban areas in Oromia, and so more recent generations are developing different tools and spaces for learning Oromo identity, culture, and history. What I did learn experientially though, were the nuances that make one a person from Wallaga, another from Haararge, Shewa, Arsi, etc.
Still, l had little knowledge regarding the Borana Oromo. As one who developed Oromomumma (Oromo identity) in the diaspora, and as someone who has spent over a year and a half living in the homes of Borana and Orma Oromo in Kenya, my relationship with this part of my community has developed in an intriguing and adventurous way, and it holds a special place in my heart.
I met Addee Jiloo, a Borana woman, in my early twenties. Each time I had attended Irreechaa (an Oromo thanksgiving festival), it was Addee Jiloo that led the procession to the water. If a woman needed her Gutino (Borana cultural dress) tied at an event, we would frantically search for Addee Jiloo. If we had public events, she would be the one conducting the coffee ceremonies. In many ways, she was collectively identified as a keeper of cultural knowledge, a leader of cultural practice, and an advisor on cultural affairs.
Over the years, I remember repeatedly hearing that “Borannii Hangafaa Oromo”, that the Borana are the oldest of the Oromo. This refers to the position Borana and Bareentu, as the first sons of Oromo, hold as the moieties of the Oromo nation. I had also come to learn that the Borana were among the few Oromo to still practice the Gadaa system, one of the greatest cultural assets of the Oromo nation. To me, the Borana felt almost like a thing of legend, a mystery to be revered and respected. They seemed to know things about being an Oromo that others didn’t. They seemed to have succeeded in preserving practices that the rest of us were no longer connected to. They seemed to be Oromo with the kind of defiance, resilience, and resistance that I wanted to embody. Although, from what I could see, it seemed like the Borana did so without the existential effort I sometimes felt it took to embody Oromummaa.
I stayed with a Borana family for a few months when I first moved to Nairobi, but for the first few weeks of my stay, I had almost no idea what anybody was saying. I was used to most Afaan Oromoo dialects and Addee Jiloo’s dialect never sounded very different from anybody else’s, so my Kenyan experience sent me into a state of severe culture shock. With time, however, I became used to the difference in dialect and was able to improve my communication and now you can probably detect the influence of the Borana dialect in my spoken Afaan Oromoo.
In many ways, she was collectively identified as a keeper of cultural knowledge, a leader of cultural practice, and an advisor on cultural affairs.
Almost simultaneously with this sense of shock came a sense of overwhelming awe and admiration. Afaan Oromoo is a language that you feel. It is poetry in motion. Intimate, alive, revealing. I found this exemplified in the Borana dialect.
When I first heard my host answer the phone and greet the person on the other line with, “Qileensii urgooftuu?” Is the air fragrant? I almost wept. Welcoming a guest, the Orma of Tana River along the northern Kenyan coast, say “Diyaadhaa”, come closer, be close. This is a common saying among the Borana and Orma people, and I experienced it frequently during my stay in Tana River. If language is supposed to connect us, I think that the breadth of the Oromo language does so profoundly, and the dialect spoken amongst the Borana and Orma achieves this objective to grand effect.
Traveling up north
When I travelled to northern Kenya, I was bubbling with expectation. I remember sitting at a small shop trying to recover from the long journey, and striking up a conversation in Afaan Oromoo with the shop owner. He responded in a mix of Swahili and Afaan Oromoo. We continued talking and I told him that I was an Oromo from the other side of the border. This meant, well, not much at all to him.
I had expected a dramatic reunion. What I got was a shopkeeper who was not surprised or touched in any way by my presence. The cultural and linguistic relationship that we shared, despite the borders, was not profound for him. The reason that this surprised me was that, when I visited Tana River, there was a palpable sense of connection with everyone I met, for the very reason that we had a shared identity across borders.
Given that I was closer to the border of Oromia and I was in a place that was, in many ways, more engaged with the Oromo cultural and political identity, I think I expected this sense of connection to be amplified. What I experienced after leaving this shop showed me that it was actually because of the consequence of this proximity to Oromia’s border and the political landscape of the area at large, that meant that Oromos connecting and sharing experiences across borders was no special occurrence.
I sat for lunch in the compound of an ordinary looking house. As we ate, a friend, someone who had grown up in the town we were in, began to tell me stories about where we were. In 2002, the house we were in was the target of a bombing by Ethiopian government forces. Luckily, nobody was home. Chief Ibrahim Abdi Dido and his family lived in the house at the time. In the same year, Chief Buke Liban, Chief Taro Sora, Chief Denge Okotu, Chief Huqa Guled, Boru Jiloo, Sheikh Hassan (Moyale), Qasim Abdi and many others were similarly targeted by Ethiopian government forces and in most cases, these community leaders, and oftentimes, their families, did not survive. Although I knew a little about how the Ethiopian government targeted Oromo people across the border in Kenya, including the kidnapping and assassination of political refugees in urban centres, the arrest and extrajudicial killing of young people, and the displacement of communities, in the months that followed, I learned that the extent and severity of this persecution was far greater than I had first understood.
When I first heard my host answer the phone and greet the person on the other line with, “Qileensii urgooftuu?” Is the air fragrant? I almost wept.
Through listening to the stories of the many people I met on my travels, I also learned that local cultural leaders played and continue to play a role in this persecution by collaborating with the Ethiopian security forces. This was sobering to understand because it resembled the dynamic that’s been at play across Oromia since the onset of Abyssinian colonisation, whereby Oromo people, including local leaders, have opted to participate in the violence perpetrated against their own people.
My experience in northern Kenya brought me back down to earth regarding the way I viewed the Borana Oromo. I was in a place where the people were living with the challenges and consequences of choosing to live their Oromoness every day. Just as it would be incredibly weird for me to go to Wallaga or somewhere in Eastern Haragee or Balee and start wandering around asking people if they thought it was wonderful that we share a language, culture, and political reality (which I have never done), it was weird for me to do so in northern Kenya too.
The Oromo of Ethiopia and the Oromo of Kenya are, in many ways, fighting the same fight. Both make huge sacrifices for the political struggle, and suffer the consequences of this, along with enduring the consequences of simply being an Oromo in relation to the Ethiopian state, political activity or not. The indifference of the shopkeeper I met at the beginning of my travels makes sense. He experienced the same, if not more, breadth and depth of Oromummaa as I did; there was nothing novel I offered him in being an Oromo from the other side of the border.
The Borana-Gabra conflict
When I arrived in northern Kenya, I remember getting off the bus from Nairobi and wondering why on earth it had dropped me so far away from the town I was going to, only to learn that it was an Orma-owned bus company, and they were careful about infringing on the territory of the Borana. The same person who told me the story about the house in which we ate lunch has lost family to protracted conflict between the Borana and Gabra people. When I asked him what the root cause of the conflict was, he said, “It just started a long time ago. We speak the same language, we are the same people, but a feud that started between a few, a long time ago, has continued on.” I didn’t know if the origins of the conflict were as vague as my friend described them to be, or if his description is just how the existence of the conflict feels to someone who has suffered because of it, but I did come to learn that access to resources like water and land between nomadic pastoralists (Borana) and settled subsistence farmers (Gabra) and ongoing political power struggles play a huge role in the enduring and deadly conflict.
Many years ago I spent some time in Lamu and I met two Orma people on the Island. At the time I thought that it was just a bizarre coincidence that they were there but I now know that the Orma have been living in the northern coastal region of Kenya since the late 1800s.
Being from the Ethiopian side of the border, a landlocked country, it is very interesting for me to think that I share a language, history and, even if only in small ways, a culture with a people that have lived along the coast for over a century. The Oromo worldview places great emphasis on our relationship with and duty towards land. As one develops the essence of Oromummaa, I believe that a person intuitively connects with this worldview. From this perspective, learning that we are connected to a people whose relationship to land is connected to the ocean — there is just something about that that stirs something in me.
I was in a place where the people were living with the challenges and consequences of choosing to live their Oromoness every day.
Who we are as a people is infinitely complex. I am talking about the Oromo, of course, but I think I’m also talking about us all. If I have learned anything over the past year and seven months, it is that I will only ever keep living and reliving this one truth: people, their stories, and their lived realities are not linear, rigid, or made to be easily and simply comprehended. Life exists on a continuum of relationships and storytelling. I want to remain willing to relate to who people are, as they are, rather than clinging onto what I have constructed of a people through imagination, hearsay, and the effects of groupthink. I want my analysis of the world to shift and change as I learn and grow, and I want my posture of service to people to also shift and change as I learn anew. Getting to know my people on the other side of the border has taught me that state violence is pervasive, unconfined by borders, and resistances adapt accordingly. I also learned that I can do little to effect real and lasting change if I do not cultivate my ability to meet the complexity in individuals and in communities with a willingness to learn and an openness of heart and mind.
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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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