There is a well-known, often whispered fact in Ugandan politics that when an official in government or a prominent businessperson is arrested or publicly humiliated in the national dailies for any crime (say corruption, land grabbing, or building in a wetland or other), the question the public asks is not whether there is evidence to the crime—for evidence abounds and that is a foregone conclusion—but who among the powers that be have they offended for their crime to be brought to life. The tested and proved assumption is that, with minor exceptions, every one of these individuals (the people in government and their associates), is a criminal awaiting prosecution. But their crimes come to life only when the powers that be deem it necessary to make them an issue. Thus, even for angelic individuals, the powers that be can easily come up with one crime to tie onto them, and with evidence easily generated—concocted or real—they’ll be maligned and prosecuted. In all plain speech, everyone is innocent and everyone is guilty as long as the powers that be decide it to be so.
Thinking about African governments in the so-called postcolonial time, this Ugandan experience is not lost on Africans when talking about governance, especially as regards the ways in which the international community reacts when changes in governments occur—often as electoral are juxtaposed against coups. The basic premise is this: in whichever form these governments exist or come about—authoritarian, democratic, coup-driven, monarchic—they are good or bad, not dependent on their character, but dependent on the interests of Western superpowers. These interests then determine the ways in which transitions are narrativized and discoursed in international media, which in turn, carry a great deal of sway on discourses in local presses, and elite circles (at home and abroad). Stated plainly, there are bad and good democracies just as there are good and bad coups. It all depends on the interests at stake. The African subject—not necessarily the political elite—is thus trapped in an endless, heated, and almost violent loop of meaningless negotiations over terms such as democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, and freedoms that are simply masks of (actually superior) economic and political interests of the Western world.
Europe in Africa: a coup history
Coups have always been good for the Western democratic world. Narrating the story of capitalist expansion across the postcolonial world, in his book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, Jason Hickel captures the ways in which coups became normal in postcolonial Africa dislodging democratically elected governments—as long as the coup-leaders were favourable to western interests. Hickel narrates that between the 1950 and 1970s, “across the global south, newly independent African states were ignoring US advice and pursuing their own development agendas, building their economies with protectionist and redistributionist policies” (21). Hickel continues that through this period, in the postcolonial states, “incomes were growing, poverty rates were falling, and the divide between rich and poor countries was falling for the first time in history,” (ibid). But as would be expected, these protectionist policies starved the Western world of free raw materials and profits. They weren’t pleased at all and had to do something about it.
“The policies of the global south governments undermined the profits of Western corporations, their access to cheap labour and resources, and their geopolitical interests. In response, they intervened covertly and overthrew dozens of democratically elected leaders replacing them with dictators friendly to Western economic interests who were then propped up with aid.(22)”
The excerpt above captures the immediate postcolonial time going through the 1980s sometimes overlapping with proxy wars of the Cold War period. I provided a periodisation here. But while these coups might look like ancient history, coup-making and execution have been a core part of French control of West Africa to this day—and has made us suspicious that some of these new coups are part of the same scheme. The thing called, Françafrique or “French sphere of influence” resulted in 122 military interventions in West Africa and all French-speaking Africa by the French Military between 1960 and 1998. These included among other things, coups and assassinations of activists and high-profile individuals seeking complete liberation from continued French control. Without entering into the fine details of French military interventions in Africa, French coup plotting has enjoyed the support of the Western democratic world from the United States to Western Europe. In sum, it does not matter whether a government is democratically elected or has come in through a coup. All that matters is that it guarantees the continued flow of cheap raw materials from the African continent to the Euro-America.
The good coups of modern history
An election in 2012 in Egypt ended in the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammad Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood coming to victory put the United States in a difficult position especially since Egypt borders Israel, and the American weren’t sure about how the Muslims Brotherhood foreign policy would be towards Israel. Although President Morsi was a product of a democratic process—the much-celebrated adult universal suffrage—this was a bad democratic result in the eyes of the Western world. Not too long, there would be protests in Egypt against the newly elected government. How was that so?
To understand these protests, one has to return to Iran in 1953, when protests against the popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh spread across Tehran. As we learned years later, there was nothing organic about the anti-Mossadegh protest, but the United States and UK plotting from inside the American embassy in Tehran. After one year, President Morsi would be disposed of in a similar Mohammad-Mossadegh manner. On 3 July 2013, through a coup, covertly supported by Israeli and American intelligence, democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown. One would think that the American government, headed by democrats—supposedly willing to die on the altar of democracy—Barack Hussein Obama, refused to call the military removal of President Morsi a coup.
Even when Senator John McCain visited Egypt and actually called the overthrow of President Morsi ‘a coup d’état,’ the Obama government refused to follow the urgings of this eminent American. In response, quoted by CNN, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued: “If the United States formally calls the move a coup, it would have to cut off $1.3 billion in aid… would limit our ability to have the kind of relationship we think we need with the Egyptian armed forces.”
This response openly ignored any claims to the ideals of democracy, but rather focused on the American economic and security interests as is tradition. On the tenth anniversary of the coup, a story published in Foreign Policy magazine on 3 July 2023, confirmed that “Obama gave the Egyptian military what amounted to a green light to overthrow the country’s first-ever democratically elected government.” It did not even matter that the new military government, in the midst of their takeover, openly gunned down 51 people in cold blood in the capital, Cairo for simply chanting support for Muslim Brotherhood. In a normal “democratic” world, this would have caused a major fallout over abuse of human rights. Instead, the US simply urged the new government to quickly return to a “democratic order,” like nothing outstandingly anti-human rights had happened.
Recently, it was confirmed that the United States, working through the Pakistan military pushed for the ouster of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, because he had exhibited friendship with Russia at the beginning of Russian-Ukraine conflict. Imran Khan remains perhaps the most popular—and yes, democratically elected—prime minister in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto. The US-instigated coup against Khan was to balance their political power-play, in which they sought to isolate Russia. It wasn’t about democracy or any human rights claims. In cutting-edge extensive reporting by The Intercept, a document nicknamed “Cypher,” which demonstrated how America directly threatened Pakistan—specifically, Prime Minister Khan—over its radically neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It documents a subtle but clearly effective mode of coup-making: a vote of no confidence, just has happened with Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953 Iran. Please note that to remove a sitting president through a “vote of no confidence” in a parliament, actually signals the presence of a strong “democratic culture” and constitutionalism in any polity. Consider then that the United States is actually exploiting Pakistani’s democratic maturity to undermine Pakistan’s stability.
The Intercept, citing from Cypher, reported a meeting between America’s Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Threats to the ambassador were delivered to Prime Minister Khan and members of the Pakistan military, who understood these threats really well, started working around the clock. Donald Lu threatened: “People here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.” Then the Assistant Secretary went on and suggested that “if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister.” Secretary Lu threatened further, “I think it will be tough going ahead,” going on to say Pakistan risked isolation from Europe if Prime Minister Khan remained in office.
This meeting between Lu and Pakistan Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan took place on 7 March 2022. The following day, March 8, Khan’s opponents moved with a procedural issue towards a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Because he occupied the office of prime minister, Khan received the threat and offered to make them public. While he claimed US involvement in the no-confidence vote, the Pakistan courts—in on the coup—could not allow him to make the documents known to the Pakistan people (again, a bold statement about Pakistan’s matured democracy). Three months down the road, on 2 October 2022, Prime Minister Khan was removed from office through a no-confident vote.
While it is leading opposition figure Shehbaz Sharif who became prime Minister after Khan, the Pakistan Military remains the most powerful entity in the entire pushing and shoving. The Intercept reported that “Shaken by the public display of support for Khan — expressed in a series of mass protests and riots” in the period that followed his ouster, “the military sought to strengthen itself. It “enshrined authoritarian powers for itself that drastically reduce civil liberties, criminalize criticism of the military, expand the institution’s already expansive role in the country’s economy, and give military leaders a permanent veto over political and civil affairs.” You would think these developments would cause the democratic world to issue pronouncements as regards civil liberties and human rights. But alas, neither of this has happened. In a word, the coup against Prime Minister Khan, and the resultant abuses of human rights and freedoms were good for the Western “democratic” world, because, not only did they support it, but all these abuses served to protect their interests, which are above any democratic idealism.
An enduring intellectual-political dilemma
The simple premise that governments are good or bad dependent on the interests of Western superpowers remains difficult to see as it is deftly disguised in plenty of enchanting prose: whenever coups happen—as they have excited the continent in recent times, especially in West Africa—they are derided as bad, should not be celebrated as they are a poisoned chalice; ought to be prevented, and calls are made for an immediate return to a democratic order. I cannot shake off the feeling that these coups have been derided this much because they don’t really represent the interests of the Western world. There are no grey areas but a simple formular: coups are bad, democracies are good—and whatever it takes, we ought to work hard to “perfect” our democracies.
These ahistorical, simplistic, colonial positions are sustained because of four main reasons: (a) Countries and continents have come to be seen as independently contained units and so are the world’s continents. That while local African actors have business and other dealings with the rest of the world, they have incredible levels of agency and need to choose democracy over its problematic opposite: coup leadership. That events in their countries are often entirely products of local ingredients. Consider also that (b) the new technologies and practices of colonialist extraction and control—most of which the coloniser has so deftly depoliticised and extravagantly technocratized appear benign and malevolent. Items such as aid, free trade, banking regimes, WB and IMF recommendations, conservation initiatives, etcetera, all are part of the goodness of the Western world, and need to continue to thrive under a democratic order. The African elite has been conscripted to this depoliticised, disguised colonialism. How do you persuade a corporate individual who earns well from an international conservation body or an NGO worker, or a grant recipient academic that they are involved in a colonial franchise? The other reason (c) is that we are all products of the colonial school, and our education determines the reach of our imagination and dreams, and our vocabulary and eloquence. This has been complemented by (d) the colonizers mastery of popular cultural tools, especially through cinema and the Internet, which crucially control public opinion, and determine what becomes understood as fact or fake news. Even with so many more recent crimes and deceptions of the Western world (not the least Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, and earlier ones as Chomsky and Herman demonstrate with what they called “the propaganda model”, a great deal of African political and academic elite still considers the western world, especially the so-called democratic western Europe and the United States as benevolent, generous and truth-talking entities.
It has therefore become difficult to see the reality that democratic regimes, principally, guarantee endless Western exploitation of the continent, the same way an anarchic, or coup-generated regime has been narrativized. Neither government guarantees absolute goodness for the African subject. However, democracies, inexplicably, retain intellectual and media goodwill. In sum, it has become difficult to appreciate the colonial-laden dilemma Africa is presented with when responding to coups on the one hand, and welcoming extractivist democracies on the other—as we endlessly fail to appreciate the fluidity, and ‘possibility of reset,’ and the radical questions that coups enable us to ask—in these moments of restlessness—in the search for the soul of Africa’s independence, and reclaiming the exploitation and use of our resources for our own benefit.
This article was first published by the The Pan African Review.
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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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