Sunday, April 10, 2011

Britain v. Mau Mau, 55 years on

The war fought between the group of Kenyans history now knows as the Mau Mau on the one hand, and the British and 'loyalist' Kenyans on the other was, as wars tend to be, brutal.  'Loyalist' chiefs, homeguards, and a small number of white settlers were targeted by Mau Mau fighters during the fighting that reached its peak between 1952 and 1956.  Many of these killings were brutal.

The foothills outside of Nyeri, on the edge of the Aberdare range.  It was over this rich land that one of Britain's dirtiest wars was fought.
But that violence was nothing compared with the institutionalised system of concentration camps created by the British to evaluate, categorise and then systematically break virtually all of the Kikuyu in Kenya.  The systematic torture used in those camps and in the villages into which Nairobi's Kikuyu residents were forced, has been well-documented. 
The forest adjoining Mt Kenya National Park, where much of the Mau Mau war was fought.

Four Mau Mau veterans are suing the British government, but part of their battle is getting their hands on the relevant evidence.  On the eve of Uhuru (weiyathi in Gikuyu), the British spirited masses of incriminating documents out of the country.  They have been bludgeoned into releasing them in the context of the trial in London, but are doing so in a calculatedly dishonest manner.  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also resorted to manipulating and misrepresenting the work of the very same historians who brought the brutality of British reaction to Mau Mau back into the public eye less than ten years ago.
A statue of Dedan Kimathi, one of the Mau Mau generals, in Nairobi.  Decades of amnesia meant that the statue to Kimathi was only put up in 2007.

David Anderson, one of those historians, has given evidence which speaks to both of these points.  The British government's behaviour is reprehensible: it has attempted to squash the trial, to foist responsibility off on the Kenyan government, to withhold documents, and to distort their meaning.  They are truly the heirs to the thuggish regime that ran the Pipeline in the 1950s.
One of many caves where Mau Mau fighters lived during the war.  Those living in villages brought fighters food at great risk to themselves.
 The classification of documents on 'national security' grounds is frequently an obstacle to historians and others who attempt to shine light on some of the more sordid moments of the recent past.  The work of David Anderson and Caroline Elkins (of Oxford and Harvard) is to be commended.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has released documents in a piecemeal manner, calculated to make the task of those sorting through them as difficult as possible.

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