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Uganda: What Went Wrong With Human Rights Discourse?

9 min read.

Human rights are not “politics” as such; they are what comes up as an issue once politics fails. To avoid, or even fix a human rights crisis, one must have a clear political program. 



Uganda: What Went Wrong With Human Rights Discourse?
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It may be difficult to recreate a sense of just how central human rights issues were to Ugandan politics, and therefore how instrumental they were in building and feeding the legend of the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Between 1962 and 1986, Uganda was caught in an entrenched and mounting human rights crisis that characterized all her national life. Everything was about disappearances, detentions, bans, exiles and executions. It was our defining feature and something that, due to its very heart-rending nature, was also easily turned into media material.

This fully matured during the reign of General Amin where the combination of wholesale political exclusion, Western racism, and a mounting economic crisis led to a virtual carnival of language and imagery that really entrenched the notion of rights violations as being Uganda’s fundamental problem. The 1980-1985 anti-Obote war was merely the final point of that. Beyond the political differences, human rights violations were the struggle’s lowest common denominator: they were accessible, human, unifying.

This is where the NRM became important, because its unique selling point in Uganda politics was as being the entity that finally “found the medicine” that enabled the country to solve this problem and therefore allowed us to move on to other things. This is of course completely untrue as everyone can now see. However, the point is not that it has become untrue through some backsliding over the years; the point is that it was never true. All that has changed is people’s perception of the same things.

If we are to put it in modern terms, we would say that human rights was NRM’s “brand”; the thing that defined its public identity. So, what went wrong?

One perhaps needed to have been there, alive and aware, at the time of the NRA victory, to fully understand this.

However popular Robert Kyagulanyi is now as an inspiring insurgent figure, his popularity is nothing compared to that which a youthful and inspiring Yoweri Museveni enjoyed between 1985 and maybe 1990. This speaks to just how significant the arrival of the NRM was: Museveni, and the various smaller versions of himself to be found in his various war-hero commanders, were virtual gods.

Nothing wrong could be said about them. One risked insults, ostracism, physical violence and open ridicule for making even the most basic negative remark. And this not from the regime itself, but from ordinary members of the public. I know, because I was at the receiving end of all that throughout the 1980s and beyond (even at the extended family level). It’s what developed my interest in education issues, because it was then that I first fully realized that the Ugandan education system is designed to train people in how to not think, and therefore not reason, and that, in particular, there is nothing as manipulable as an excited [wo]man, especially one that considers themselves “educated”.

As said, the image is completely undeserved of course, despite what even some opposition and wider human rights activists say: that the regime has “started” human rights violations with the abductions and other things we now see. This is very uninformed in many cases. In other cases, it is just very intellectually dishonest.

NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped. A good early example of the actual view of their leadership on the matter was the warning to “lock up [the media] under the [Milton Obote created] 1967 Detention laws, if they continue to malign the good name of the NRA” given by none other than new president Yoweri Museveni himself, on the 18th of February 1987.

NRM human rights violations began immediately after they took power and have never stopped.

The venerable journalist Tony Owana was one of the victims of the attitude back then. Other victims of the true nature of the NRM were Jacob Oulanyah who was among the students shot by the Ugandan police during a peaceful demonstration against Makerere University cost-cutting; and Charles Rwomushana, whose 1995 parliamentary ambitions were summarily crushed during the election campaigns by the violence from the supporters of his NRM big-shot rival.

As said, what has changed, in the main, is the wider public perception of the violations. So the real problem with these abductions is that the logic, framework and arguments for human rights were themselves abducted a very long time ago. And their custodians did not file any complaints at the time. Now these new victims do.

For example, Charles Rwomushana, despite his unfair treatment by the NRM (and incidentally having been, he claims, also among the aforementioned demonstrating students), went on to a long career in our famously partisan state intelligence services, and now spends his days as a media contortionist speaking for the opposition on the behalf of the government (I think. Or something).

The late Mr Oulanyah of course went on to become an NRM voice in his home area, and through them, was elevated to parliamentary speakership.

Mr Owana is a dedicated cadre of the NRM of decades. He once told me that his detention (in a military barracks) had been as a result of a news source misleading him with information. He did not seem to have an opinion on the manner of the detention itself.

Again, the point was not that human rights were not being violated back then. Rather, that the then generation of young activists that saw the violations first-hand decided that they could live with them while in pursuit of other things.

A very pertinent example is a recent tweet by veteran women’s rights activist Winnie Byanyima who began her political career as a dedicated NRM cadre, before famously falling out with it and becoming an opposition stalwart. She was commenting approvingly after an encounter with one Ms Jane Francis Abodo, Uganda’s current Director of Public Prosecutions.

“@EBBairport lucky to bump into Uganda’s Director of Public Prosecutions & introduce myself. One of many brilliant young Ugandan women in senior public roles. I don’t usually agree with the man in the hat, but on giving young women opportunity to lead I [salute emoji] him!”

Those three short sentences carry a universe of meaning in regard to the death of human rights as a constitutional concern.

Of course “the man in the hat” being referred to is President Museveni. And indeed, he was present in the form of an official portrait hanging on the wall behind the two ladies in the photo accompanying the tweet.

This suggested the VIP lounge at the airport. Which would be the logical place for two high-powered personages (Ms Byanyima is currently the head of a United Nations Agency) to be while traveling.

Ms Abodo’s office currently sits at the heart of Uganda’s mounting human rights debacle.

First, the current wave of abductions is an attempt by the regime to sidestep the legal requirement of due process in which somebody is expected to be properly arrested, informed of the charge against them, detained in an official place, have access to both family and legal representatives, be presented in court within forty-eight hours, and have the state respect whatever rulings the court makes in the case.

With abductions, few, if any of these things happen. In the instances where – due to some kind of pressure – the abductees happen to end up presented in court, it is often well beyond the 48-hour deadline, and they are presented bearing visible signs of torture.

Second, some of the accused end up being sent on remand. But this is often because the state requests more time to complete its investigation against them. This has become a cycle in most of the cases.

Under Ugandan human-rights based law, the only destination for a person duly arrested is a court. And the only person that can determine that is the Director of Public Prosecutions.

This is simply not happening. Some abducted people, like the National Unity Platform activist Olivia Lutaaya, have not been seen or heard from by anyone at all in over two years. Others have been discovered dead, their bodies surreptitiously dumped in mortuaries. Others still have been found basically held hostage in secret places, where they remain even after discovery. Yet others lucky enough to have been presented in court, have become locked in the endless remand-court-remand cycle.

Under Ugandan human-rights based law, the only destination for a person duly arrested is a court.

In all these cases, the office of the DPP is in a position to make things better. As sanctioned by the Human Rights Enforcement Act 2019, it could refuse to proceed with any case involving any person who was not properly arrested; shows signs of torture or ill-treatment; has been held incommunicado at any one time, has been held beyond the constitutionally stipulated time; or whose case does not come with enough evidence to immediately proceed to full trial.

In short, Madam Abodo, as Director of Public Prosecutions could simply insist on a strict adherence to the constitutionally laid-down provisions concerning, well, prosecution.

She has not done this.

In the meantime, this wave of terror has had a chilling effect on political activism. Citizens simply know that if they fall into the clutches of the state, nobody can tell what will happen next and for how long.

Madam Byanyima is likely to be more aware than most of the meaning and impacts of such travesties, given that she is married to – and has struggled alongside – Dr Kizza Besigye, perhaps the most abducted, arrested, detained and otherwise officially mistreated opposition figure of modern times, in his 20-year quest to unseat that very same “man in the hat”.

It is not unreasonable therefore to have expected issues more pressing than the pleasure of seeing “young” (in fact, Madam Abodo is nearly 50) ladies being entrusted with “senior roles” to have been uppermost in her mind on catching sight of the official who is basically aiding and abetting these travesties and, moreover, doing so at the behest of a regime headed by the very one who appointed the delinquent official. Instead, she is saluting him, and effectively reducing the long-running opposition suffering at the hands of his regime to “disagreements”.

Citizens simply know that if they fall into the clutches of the state, nobody can tell what will happen next and for how long.

Supposed to be the NRM’s crowning moment, nothing in the new NRM constitutional dispensation was lauded more than the whole array of gender-based policies that were embedded in it. Nothing, not even the brutalities of the then ongoing war in the north could distract donor and intelligentsia attention from this.

One could therefore say that Ugandan feminism’s terminal destination was always that: to be perched in a big but fully impotent job awarded by a dictator, because the human rights “inclusions” of the new constitution simply served to create a bigger tent into which a greater array of middle-class interests could be accommodated in an orderly fashion.

And this is why a state that boasts a constitutionally-provided National Youth Council is seeking to crush a wave of youth-based activism, why it can claim this high level of women’s participation in national affairs while also disappearing a mother of a young daughter, not to mention the accusations of sexual assault by former abductees.

We can now begin to reflect on whether this was indeed, in fact, a betrayal: it was never about the status of human rights; it was always about the right to status.

In this respect, perhaps Uganda is now catching up with Kenya, the lead example of the sacrifice of fundamental rights on the altar of acquired petit-bourgeois respectability that first began with the debasing of the struggle for Independence.

A repeat was when Kenyan public discourse underwent something of a reboot following the 2007 post-election violence. Human rights concerns became more urgent, and a need to accommodate longstanding grievances among the wananchi was recognized.

In a sense, the anger of the ordinary people momentarily breached the then comfortable citadel of elite-owned Kenyan politics. With the successive presidencies of the very two men initially accused of having had a hand in fomenting the opposing sides of the violence, it seems an adjustment has been made in order to return to the old normal.

There is a silence around both the post-election violence and the failure to address the issues that caused it, and the lack of full accountability thereafter. There are, however, a lot more positions to be elected and appointed to, and a lot more opportunities to build careers on one platform or another created by the issues that arose from the violence.

As one Kenyan analyst just put it to me, “The post-election violence accelerated the birth of the donor-organized liberal 2010 constitution. A very distorted document, but consistent with postponing any conversation on federation by gifting elites on the periphery with guaranteed cash from the centre. The effect was to massively expand the political class, turning politics into a full-time career. Notice that the Bill of Rights have for all intents and purposes been trashed [and] there has been worse police brutality, including torture, murder and disappearances…”

There is a silence around both the post-election violence and the failure to address the issues that caused it.

Uganda’s current rising generation of political actors facing the brunt of the abductions and torture can be said to be paying the bill for a similar silence that their parent’s generation consumed in this manner, in two ways.

First, they young are engaged in a handicapped discourse because those in charge do not know the issue, and second because those that do, cannot tell them about it because of their past collusion. The most critical point missed, therefore, is that human rights are not “politics” as such; they are what comes up as an issue once politics fails. But to avoid, or even fix a human rights crisis, one must have a clear political program. It is very hard to develop one if one does not know the difference.

This was how the 1987-2002 war in northern Uganda was treated like an issue taking place in a foreign country among people we did not know. Those who know the politics that gave rise to the war were not telling, and those experiencing the actual violations of the war had no political understanding of it.

The 1995 constitution was where all this bad history was finally neutralized and this fresh thinking was formally institutionalized. It came with the broadest of definitions: youth, women, people with disabilities were all given space and consideration. The donors loved it, calling it the best constitution in the world. Human rights were at the very heart of the new constitutional order.

This was how the 1987-2002 war in northern Uganda was treated like an issue taking place in a foreign country among people we did not know.

That constitution is now the dead horse that Justice Sekaana was trying to get to stand up and walk with his admonishing of the State Attorney during a December 9th High Court mention of yet another case of abduction. “Release them, or charge them. They cannot be kept incommunicado,” he groused.

This, in country that wrote such a principle (again) into its constitution against a background of a whole Chief Justice having once been abducted. Justice Sekaana’s having to state the basics shows just how dead human rights now are.

And that is the thing: NRA in power was always going to be a human rights violator. It never really had a choice, given the expectations of the Western corporations that installed it in power. For them to get rich, the population must be either bought, or silenced. This makes human rights abuses the policy, not an accident.

Nothing went wrong, apart from us being a country of slow learners further burdened by absentee teachers.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.


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.



Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
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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.

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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.



Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term
Photo: Вени Марковски | Veni Markovski, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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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.

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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.



God Tax the King
Photo: Simon Dawson for No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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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 

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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