There was an interesting piece in Thursday’s Daily Nation, which described how “the Nandi county government [in Kenya] wants Britain to pay the local community for the lives and property lost during resistance against colonial rule”. The claim appears to be based on the precedent set by the recent case brought in the British High Court by veterans of the anti-colonail insurgency in the 1950s.
Those veterans, referred to as “Mau Mau” fighters, were imprisoned and tortured in British concentration camps, erected during the insurgency not only to detain hundreds of thousands of members of the Kikuyu community (from which the rising grew), but to break suspected “rebels” by circulating them through a series of camps. The British and their Kenyan auxiliaries behaved brutally, subjecting many detainees to unspeakable violence and humiliation.
Initially (and absurdly), the British government claimed that responsibility for any atrocities committed during the ‘50s had passed to the Kenyan government at independence, but the court ruled that the case could in fact be heard. The British had demonstrated their own culpability by making off with many of the relevant files and hiding them away, out of view of researchers at the National Archives, where most records are stored. Two historians, Caroline Elkins of Harvard (who conducted extensive interviews with Mau Mau veterans, and whose findings were originally pooh-poohed by some in the historical community), and David Anderson of Oxford, were critical to unearthing the trove of hidden files.
Earlier this year, the British government agreed to pay compensation to veterans. One of the factors behind their resistance to admitting to their crimes was the fear of setting a precedent. After all, conventional claims aside, the process of decolonisation was frequently a very brutal one, characterised by systematic violence. The Mau Mau case not only exposed the inaccuracy of the narrative the British have built about their empire, but opened them up to claims from other colonised peoples.
The article about the Nandi case was sparse when it came to details. But it might very well refer to the eleven year process of “pacification” (as the British quaintly referred to it) by which imperial agents broke the back of the Nandi community, once a political and military powerhouse in western Kenya.
The community’s great misfortune was to sit athwart the route to Uganda, which was critical to British imperial commercial interests, and also to the twisted logic of inexorable imperial expansion. Frustrated by the refusal of the Nandi Orgoiyot to sign treaties which would have stripped the community of its rights to self-rule, dogged by guerrilla resistance in those areas which they subjugated, and frustrated by their agents’ inabilities to put down Nandi divisions in open warfare, the British despatched a series of increasingly-desperate and successively well-equipped punitive expeditions.
The British government drew on imperial levies from across its African empire (as well as crack Indian troops), these imperial armies resorted to a scorched-earth policy, and one of their agents (Richard Meinertzhagen) murdered Koitalel Samoei (the newly-ensconced Orgoiyot who had put fire back into the belly of Nandi resistance).
Britain’s conquest of Nandi society is a good illustration of how the process of colonisation unfolded.
As elsewhere across Africa, the British began with efforts at treaty-making, which not only gave their rapacity a legal veneer, but also played the imperial game by the terms of “effective occupation” laid down at the 1894 Berlin Conference (terms which were designed to limit conflict between Europeans scrambling to tear the continent apart, and introduce “order” to a brutal conquest). If treaties were rejected or proved insufficient, the British government or the chartered companies (as in our own day it is often difficult to tell which was the tail and which the dog) sent out small punitive expeditions designed to demonstrate their authority without indulging in much expenditure. And if those failed, the government would rally its forces and embark on an all-out war.
The Nandi experience is also a reminder of how colonial chickens can come home to roost at inconvenient moments, something from which the United States might learn as it insists upon perpetuating a series of its own imperial wars.
If the case being brought by county governors is indeed referring to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century conquest (it also refers to the parcelling out of land to large commercial estates, a form of colonial exploitation often overlooked in Kenya thanks to the obsession with the lunacy of the “Happy Valley” settler crowd), it will face a different set of barriers from the Mau Mau veterans.
The official conquest ended around 1906, and although it might live on in local memory, there are clearly unlikely to be survivors (in contrast, the Mau Mau war continued in one form or another until the eve of independence in 1963). Colonial records from the early days, when the government often shared out administration with company employees, tend to be sparse and dispersed. I have no idea whether this shared authority might in itself present legal obstacles. And it would be interesting to know whether there has been much in the way of continuity in the commercial interests which have turned western Kenya into the heart of the country’s tea and cut flower industries. The Mau Mau case, moreover, involved violence against living individuals, whereas those who suffered during the colonial conquest are dead.
However, men like Meinertzhagen published unabashedly bloody accounts of their exploits, and professional and amateur historians alike undertook to interview participants in the colonial wars from the 1940s onwards. And by pursuing the issue of dispossession, claimants might be able to argue that the existing community has been adversely impacted by the events of over a century ago. Their claims might also raise the issue as to whether at independence the Kenyan government had the opportunity or the obligation to redress these wrongs and chose to pursue another path. Claims to territory in the Rift Valley are politically fraught, and usually refracted through the lens of post-independence land grabs and sales, which often bring out ethnic tensions.
Evidence of imperial crimes undoubtedly exists. It remains to be seen whether the British and international legal apparatuses which the Nandi county leadership proposes to utilise will support the case.