It is exactly five years since Chris Msando, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s ICT manager, was brutally killed in mysterious circumstances. Msando was murdered after giving media interviews days before the August 2017 election in which he spelt out in detail the various measures he and his ICT team were taking to prevent technical glitches and rigging during the election.
Then there was a lot of hue and cry for justice, but efforts to investigate and prosecute Msando’s murderers have come to naught; they have yet to be found or prosecuted. Chances are they will never be found.
At that time, there were attempts to sully Msando’s reputation and cast doubts about his personal integrity. His body was found alongside that of a girlfriend, whose parents are wondering to this day what warranted the death of their 21-year-old daughter. The killings did, however, send a chilling message.
A history of flawed elections
Kenya has held few elections that have been completely free and fair, and which do not carry the threat of violence. Almost every election in the country has resulted in some form of violence, from the so-called “ethnic clashes” in the Rift Valley in the 1990s to the widespread violence of 2007/2008 that left more than a thousand people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
After Mwai Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in as president on the evening of 30 December 2007, the late chairman of the now defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya, Samuel Kivuitu, went on record saying that he did not know who really won that election. According to Ken Flottman, an American lawyer who had the opportunity to observe the 2007 elections first-hand, two things contributed significantly to the violence that followed that election: the ban on live broadcasting ordered by the then Internal Security Minister John Michuki and the government’s decision to pull down the media’s reporting of the results.
Since the events of 2007/2008, Kenyans have lived with the fear of a stolen or rigged election resulting in large-scale violence. This fear has made us wary of scrutinising election-related irregularities too closely. We assume that any dispute regarding irregularities, legal or otherwise, will now be resolved in the Supreme Court that was formed after the 2010 constitution was promulgated. The constitution and the various commissions and bodies that it established, including the Supreme Court, are seen as a bulwark against flawed electoral processes.
But are they? In March 2013 the Supreme Court legitimised what many instinctively believed was an election that was ethically, constitutionally and technically flawed, not least because IEBC officials had the gall to announce sometime around midnight during vote-counting that that they would be shutting down the tallying centre because they needed to sleep, only to announce the election results in the early hours of the next morning.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of that election was that the presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto had cases to answer at the International Criminal Court. But this did not deter Kenyans from voting for them. On the contrary, a large number of Kenyans decided that the election would be a “referendum against the ICC”. They even remained silent when the IEBC’s BVR kits failed and manual registers appeared at polling stations. A “green register”, which no one had heard of before, also miraculously made an appearance.
The media at that time had been effectively “silenced” for the sake of “peace” and so did not ask hard questions (such as why the commission was shutting down the tallying centre in the middle of vote-counting). Although the Supreme Court ruled that the election was free and fair, scandals that emerged later regarding the procurement of non-functioning BVR kits and the “Chickengate” scandal involving kickbacks given by a British printing firm (whose directors were prosecuted and jailed in the UK) did raise suspicions about whether the IEBC’s former office-bearers were corrupt. Later, the auditing firm KPMG revealed that the voters’ register may have contained the names of as many as one million dead voters.
Most disturbingly, the High Court had earlier ruled that it had no jurisdiction to determine the suitability of candidates vying for the presidency as this was the job of the IEBC. So, Chapter Six of the Constitution on integrity and leadership was essentially swept under the carpet. This allowed all manner of shady characters, including Mike Sonko, who was the Jubilee candidate and who was eventually hounded out of office by his own party, to vie for office.
The auditing firm KPMG revealed that the voters’ register may have contained the names of as many as one million dead voters.
In 2017, the public’s trust in the IEBC’s ability to deliver a free, fair and credible election was tested again. Signs that the 2017 election was not going to be free and fair began emerging even before a single vote was cast. The mysterious murder of Msando a week before the election was an ominous sign that things were not going smoothly and transparently. On election day, many of the critical forms 34A and 34B that were used to tally the vote seemed to be missing or had not been transmitted electronically.
The perception that the IEBC had been compromised or was just plain incompetent was strengthened by the IEBC’s own commissioner Roselyn Akombe, who cited various anomalies in how the commission conducted its business after she fled the country and resigned. Some reports also suggested that local and foreign firms that were contracted to manage the electronic transmission of results had dubious reputations. Then, as now, there were many questions being raised about the IT company hired to provide voting technology and services for the elections, and whether the IEBC was really up to the job.
Pegging hopes on the judiciary
The nullification of the August 2017 presidential election results by a majority on the Supreme Court bench renewed hope that the country could resolve electoral disputes and deliver free and fair elections peacefully through the judiciary. The Supreme Court’s decision stunned Kenyans and the world. The Economist called it “an astonishing decision” while the New York Times noted that “the ruling offered a potent display of judicial independence on a continent where courts come under intense pressure from political leaders”. Western and other nations, whose election observers were quick to declare this election free and fair, were caught with their pants down.
The Supreme Court sent an important message to the country’s citizens – that no one, not even the president, is above the law and the constitution. As the then Chief Justice David Maraga stated, “The greatness of any nation lies in its fidelity to the constitution and to the rule of law.” Countries in Africa and elsewhere that had become accustomed to electoral fraud and violent elections could now look to Kenya for inspiration.
The Supreme Court sent an important message to the country’s citizens – that no one, not even the president, is above the law and the constitution.
But the subsequent 26 October 2017 repeat election could hardly pass the test of being free or fair because only one leading presidential candidate – Uhuru Kenyatta – was running. The opposition leader Raila Odinga had urged his supporters to boycott the election (which they did) because the IEBC had still not resolved many of the issues raised in the Supreme Court ruling. It was essentially a one-horse race that led to the election of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. Many international observers said that postponing the election with a view to making the electoral process more credible would have been a wiser option, which is what Ghana did prior to its 2016 election.
Lessons from Ghana
Ghana managed to avert a looming crisis by significantly improving its electoral processes. In the months preceding the 2016 elections, violence broke out during various electoral processes and politicians began using hate speech in their campaigns. However, Ghana managed to have a peaceful election because its Electoral Commission, political leaders and civil society took steps to ensure that the elections were credible.
First, the Electoral Commission took highly visible steps to improve the credibility of the voters’ register by cleaning it up and publishing the list of names online. Second, it made it easier for people to vote; Ghanaians could change their original polling station to one that was near the place where they lived or worked. Third, the National Collation Centre, where the election results were tallied, was made more accessible to the media, civil society and party supporters. Local observers stationed in each of the country’s 275 constituencies could also record the election results. Because the polling station data had become so accessible and transparent, Ghanaians knew the results of the election long before they were announced by the commission. Has the IEBC ensured these processes? The IEBC has allowed the media to set up parallel tallying centres at polling stations but it is not clear whether this is enough to ensure transparency. On the contrary, conflicting figures from the IEBC and the media might ignite tensions in a country where there is already so much mistrust of the electoral body.
Ghana managed to have a peaceful election because its Electoral Commission, political leaders and civil society took steps to ensure that the elections were credible.
Many Kenyans, including Raila Odinga, who has the support of the outgoing Uhuru government, thanks to the famous 2018 “handshake” between him and the president, have stated that they are not convinced that the IEBC can be trusted to conduct a free and fair election this month. A KPMG audit report has revealed weak protections against hacking of the voter database and other lapses and irregularities, including tbe registration of 246,465 dead voters. The audit shows that up to 2 million voters on the 2022 voters’ register may not qualify to vote either because they have invalid IDs or because their details do not match existing records. Nearly 5,000 voters have registered more than once using either their Kenyan IDs or passports. These are astoundingly large numbers that could be subject to manipulation and vote rigging in an electoral contest where there is no overwhelming support for just one candidate. Even more alarming is the revelation that there are 14 “ghost” IEBC officials who are not returning officers but who have the authority to transfer, delete, truncate or update the voters’ register. One of these mysterious officials has super access to the register and can change it at will.
As various reports emerge of strange goings-on at the commission, including the mysterious arrival in the country of Venezuelans carrying IEBC materials, hopes of a free and fair election are fading fast. The loud and boisterous defence of the IEBC and its commissioners by the leading presidential candidate William Ruto despite such anomalies has led many to suspect that perhaps some commissioners are partisan and might already have been compromised, or that Ruto has information that the rest of us don’t. Moreover, IEBC commissioners whose terms ended or who resigned have not been replaced, and the current chairman, Wafula Chebukati, oversaw a flawed 2017 election inundated with irregularities. Can he be trusted to not repeat the mistakes of 2017? There is also the troubling question of why the IEBC has cleared so many candidates of objectionable or dubious backgrounds. As for the technology, it has failed us twice before. Will it fail again?
The 9 August election will likely be another test for the IEBC, the judiciary and Kenya’s democracy.
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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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