When scholars speak of “civil society”, they usually mean all organized groupings of people that are neither part of government nor part of business. Sometimes media groups are also included. Using this definition, Kenya’s civil society sector is rich and diverse. It ranges from neighbourhood chamas, to churches and mosques, to international NGOs with billion-shilling budgets. Yet it is the highly focused governance and democracy-promoting civil society organizations (CSOs) that usually have the most prominent voices in Kenya. Around the world, the 1990s heralded an “opening” of space for such organizations, but that space eventually began to close. Kenya is no exception to this experience.
There has also grown some confusion in the country about the role that civil society ought to play. In the 1990s, CSOs were perceived by wananchi as primarily interested in fairness, accountability, and human rights—not political power—as they pushed to make Kenya a democracy. But as the new millennium has unfolded, prominent CSO leaders have increasingly been seen as “taking sides” in the political arena, whether in supporting the International Criminal Court indictments and the challenge to the 2022 presidential results, or in themselves running for political office. Although most NGOs and community-based organizations remain apolitical, these changes can make CSOs in general appear to be less united with wananchi as a whole. And this leaves CSOs in a more precarious position.
With the new William Ruto administration, the country now sits at a possible inflection point. Will Ruto follow in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, in threatening to close the space for CSOs, or might he take an approach similar to Mwai Kibaki, under whose leadership vocal Kenyan civil society largely thrived?
As a candidate, Ruto ran as a proponent of accountability. If he wishes to continue in the same vein as president, he will facilitate Kenyan civil society and free media. Doing so will not only help to guarantee his legacy among Kenyans, it will also help to retain Nairobi as a regional leader and an employment hub for the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector. And it could bring more politicians with a CSO background to his side.
Here, we present a brief history of the space allowed for civil society over the past sixty-plus years and under the three previous administrations, followed by a discussion of possible trajectories for Ruto and their potential outcomes.
Kenya’s rich history of civil society since before independence
Kenya has had a reputation for being home to a strong civil society sector—arguably the strongest in East Africa. This reputation stems from the long-standing culture of harambee, which encourages people to work together to better the community. The sector has also grown in part out of the country’s religious communities. But it has also grown from the decolonization movements that included educational institutions, trade unions, and ethnic associations, among others fighting for self-rule.
Kenya’s CSOs are diverse, yet they all share at least one thing in common: the space in which they can operate is determined by government regulation—and sometimes by a government’s whims. During colonial times, space was exceedingly limited. The colonial government restricted education and assembly in order to maintain its illegitimate power. During the Jomo Kenyatta administration, local community based organizations and harambee groups were granted more space, but also something of a responsibility to provide self-help solutions.
Closed space: repression and resilience under Moi
For more than two decades, civil society was tightly controlled by the Daniel arap Moi administration. After the 1982 coup attempt, Moi learned to carefully monitor society for potential sources of alternative power, including from nongovernmental organizations and the media.
Given flat economic growth and increasing calls for economic liberalization and budget downsizing from powerful Western donors, however, Moi also recognized the benefits of some types of civil society actors. He recognized that they could provide social services like healthcare, education, and sanitation services where the state could not.
Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work. At the same time, the creation of the governmental NGO Board in 1989 gave his administration an organizational authority to shut down or intimidate democracy, human rights, and governance organizations that he perceived as threatening him politically, while the NGO Act, passed in 1990, provided the legal justification. Media was similarly repressed while harambee organizations, meant to be an avenue for self-help, became politicized tools for support and mobilization.
Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work.
Yet individual proponents of opening up the civic space, like Wangari Maathai, Oginga Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba, could not be fully deterred. Under Moi, they were largely based in professional organizations like the Law Society of Kenya, religious ones, like the National Council of Churches of Kenya, national movements like Greenbelt, or banned political parties like FORD. From these havens, they pushed for political opening and democracy for Kenyans.
And, importantly, they attracted popular support from wananchi wanting to live without fear of government. Activists and Kenyans together sought basic political and civic rights.
Opening space: CSOs in the Kibaki administration
When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002, he brought with him many allies from civil society. Kibaki’s regime not only hired many CSO leaders like Maina Kiai, Willy Mutunga, Kivutha Kibwana, and John Githongo into government, but also deliberately worked more openly with those who stayed in the third sector. Many thought Kibaki’s technocratic background allowed him to adopt a hands-off approach.
These strong relationships soured somewhat when Githongo was run out of the country in 2005. And tensions grew after the 2008 post-election violence, when some governance, human rights, and media leaders were harassed or restricted, and even murdered.
Yet Kibaki signed the Public Benefit Organization (PBO) Act of 2013 into law before leaving office. The progressive law, which aims to ensure transparency and accountability for organizations in Kenya, has been lauded by civil society advocates, but is yet to be operationalized nearly a decade later.
Further, beyond civil society leaders moving into administrative offices, during Kibaki’s time some civil society leaders began to seek their own political ambitions as well. New research shows that NGO work can act as a pipeline to politics for potential candidates by placing them in politics-adjacent roles and providing them with deep community connections and relevant expertise. Civic activism can align well with opposition politics. This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good. In seeking political advancement—especially in a country where MPs are among the highest paid in the world—former activists-turned-politicians may muddy the waters of civil society, blurring the line between governance and accountability.
Contracting space: Uhuru warns CSOs
The start of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration in March 2013 was in many ways overshadowed by the indictment in the preceding months of both Uhuru and his deputy, Ruto, at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in relation to the violence that followed the 2007 elections. Although service-providing civil society organizations were largely unaffected, and most NGOs stayed out of the conversation, many prominent governance and human rights organization leaders supported the ICC investigations. They petitioned for the courts to bar Uhuru and Ruto’s candidacy on account of the indictments and demanded that the trials move forward even after the two were in office. They focused on the worrying “culture of impunity” in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence.
This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good.
This had caused tension even before the 2013 election. Uhuru’s rhetoric troubled many CSOs as he supported calls for limits on foreign funding of NGOs. Public support for restrictions on NGO funding rose in some quarters as Uhuru supporters suggested that civil society had evolved into an “evil society.”
In the coming years, the space grew more hostile. Uhuru made sharp statements threatening to defund NGOs and restrict foreign worker permits. His administration also stridently refused to implement the PBO Act of 2013, even when ordered to do so by the High Court.
The administration was even willing to use the NGO Board, which the PBO Act abolishes, for political purposes. It sent harassing letters from the Board in an attempt to silence human rights and governance NGOs that had spoken out against Chris Msando’s brutal murder in the lead-up to the 2017 election.
These challenges were compounded by the government’s support of a controversial media bill which would have forced journalists to reveal their sources and, unsurprisingly, drew immediate protests. These efforts to restrict free expression led to reports that Kenya was experiencing significant free speech backsliding,
Yet these setbacks for civil society occurred as Kenyan legal institutions grew stronger. The courts’ empowerment culminated in the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the 2017 election, annulling Uhuru’s win and requiring that the election be rerun. This dramatic democratic showing buoyed the CSO sector, reassuring governance groups that they were not operating alone, but rather had powerful allies on the march toward a stronger democracy. In so doing, however, did these prominent governance organizations increasingly politicize themselves?
New space: greater autonomy and accountability on the horizon?
The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead. We see a unique opportunity for this new administration to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role. In so doing, he may thwart further politicization of the sector.
Will President Ruto follow Candidate Ruto’s roadmap? While campaigning, Ruto worked hard to separate himself from prior administrations. He presented himself as an “outsider” candidate, immune to dynasty politics. His opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative suggested wariness of the strongman politics of years past and signalled an openness to robust government accountability, a point he has made at home and abroad.
Candidate Ruto appeared to extend a hand to civil society groups, in contrast to Uhuru’s contentious engagement with the sector. He promised that they would be free to operate without government interference. He explicitly invited them to hold the Kenya Kwanza government to account, referring to the sector as a key accountability mechanism, essential for good governance.
Yet during the same period, Candidate Ruto’s team was accused of media harassment that threatened progress toward a more robust democratic space for all. Prominent CSOs called for an opening of civic space with an eleven-point list of demands. They noted that Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations, had rated Kenyan civil society as “obstructed” while Ruto was deputy president.
The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead.
It remains unclear what hand Ruto may have had in marginalizing civil society during the Kenyatta administration. And he may still harbour a grudge against CSOs for their support of the ICC trials. Regardless, the relationship between his administration and CSOs is off to a rocky start, as it is well known that prominent civil society groups strongly supported Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, in the August general election. After the election, leading civil society activist (and The Elephant founder) John Githongo, claimed to have evidence that the IEBC could have been hacked easily. Githongo’s affidavit, which the court ruled could amount to perjury, was a prominent part of the larger, unsuccessful, effort to overturn Ruto’s win.
Moreover, compared to past periods, activists such as Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform. Even former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has advocated that civil society actors form a political party, a move which would further muddy the waters. Through these explicitly political dabblings, and by betting on Odinga in the August poll, the civil society sector may have inadvertently undermined its future relationship with the Ruto government.
Nevertheless, as president, Ruto can choose whether to see civil society as a continued opponent or not. At least publicly, he has not moved to restrict the sector in retaliation, and has called for civil society and media to work hand in hand with government to amplify the voices of Africa globally with regard to climate change. Yet after more than two months of the Kenya Kwanza government, it is not clear that the administration is going to heed its own calls.
If the new administration can put aside its election-related differences with prominent civil society actors and submit to accountability meted out by CSOs, Ruto will find an undeniably effective way to prove the anti-dynasty politics for which he campaigned. This may prove fruitful if he plans to seek re-election in 2027. It could also endear him to Western allies, who have historically encouraged democracy.
Activists such as John Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform.
Indeed, abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally. The West is facing challenges with declining democratic credibility both at home and abroad. The US and UK spoke out in support of the ICC cases, yet took a “business as usual” approach to relations with the Uhuru/Ruto administration. Western leaders also praised the 2017 elections before they were annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court. If Ruto shuns the temptation to ignore the warnings of civil society, his administration could be a model on the international stage that would needle at older democracies that may be leaning away from accountability.
On an even more practical note, re-opening space for civil society could help Ruto fulfil his vow to reinvigorate the Kenyan economy. The international humanitarian and development sector comprises a nontrivial part of the economy. There are not only UN agencies based in Nairobi, but also around 12,000 active NGOs countrywide, who employ an estimated quarter of a million people. The sector brought in KSh185 billion in donations in the 2019/2020 financial year.
Abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally.
Research shows that development sector organizations like international NGOs tend to locate in democratic countries more than in authoritarian ones. Thus a welcoming environment for civil society could help to retain Nairobi as a leader and an employment hub of the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector.
Ruto must decide which legacy to leave for the history books. Ultimately, his administration, like those of his predecessors, may find itself unable to resist the temptation to frustrate and marginalize civil society actors who opposed his presidency. If that happens, we expect the sector to grow ever more nimble, adapting to restricted space just as it has in the past.
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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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