Britain issues unprecedented apology to colonial-era Kenyans

In surprise reversal, UK says it is sorry and will compensate locals for round-up, torture, and harm in 1952 colonial crackdown.

Ben Curtis/AP
Mau Mau veterans listen at a press conference announcing a settlement in their legal case for compensation against the British Government, in Nairobi, Kenya Thursday. The British government announced today more than $21 million in compensation for more than 5,200 Kenyans abused during the 'Mau Mau' rebellion against colonial rule in the 1950s.

Britain officially said Thursday it “sincerely regretted” the torture and abuse meted out by its colonial officers on thousands of Kenyans during the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau independence revolt six decades ago. 

The unprecedented statement also announced more than $21 million in compensation for 5,228 individuals who proved specific cases of ill treatment, and money to help pay for a memorial to torture victims. 

Until Thursday, Britain had insisted it would go to court to defend itself against a test case brought in London by three elderly Kenyans, arguing that too much time had passed for a fair trial to be possible. 

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Thursday that while his government continued to deny legal liability, it had reached an out-of-court settlement with the claimants’ lawyers. 

What the British called the Mau Mau “Emergency” began in 1952 as a grassroots movement by tribesmen to seize farmlands appropriated by white settlers, but evolved into an eight-year rebellion demanding independence.

The Mau Mau hit-and-run tactics prompted a heavy-handed response from colonial police and allied home guards, who rounded up thousands of people and imprisoned them in camps. 

Mau Mau fighters killed 32 whites, but as many as 25,000 Kenyans died and 150,000 were interned in the response by British colonial authorities. Beatings during interrogation were common. Some women were sexually assaulted and several men were castrated. 

“I would like to make clear now and for the first time…that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved,” Mr. Hague said in a statement to the British parliament. 

“The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. [We] sincerely regret that these abuses took place.” 

Each of the claimants will receive roughly $4,000 in compensation, the equivalent of educating one child for seven years, or of buying a second-hand station wagon. 

“They money is not the point, it was the apology that we have been asking for all this time,” said Paul Kimotho, who was imprisoned at age 17 in 1955 and lost all but five of his teeth during beatings under interrogation by British officers. 

“Now we Mau Mau and the British people can be brothers again and move forward in a spirit of development and friendship,” he told reporters.

More than 200 of the claimants gathered in an upscale hotel in Nairobi to hear Christian Turner, Britain’s envoy to Kenya, read sections of Hague’s speech. 

Women ululated joyously and elderly men clapped and struggled to their feet for short shuffling dances as the settlement was announced. 

“Today’s celebration is a true testimony to the fact that all those who commit serious human rights abuses violations, regardless of their standing…in society, or their might as nations, must be held to account,” said Atsango Chesoni, director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission. 

 Caroline Elkins, a Harvard professor and author specializing on British colonial abuses in Kenya, called the announcement “unprecedented” and “a triumph.” 

“It was a form of apology, which could perhaps have gone further, but let’s not forget that until today Britain planned still to contest these cases,” she said in an interview. 

In theory, the deal paves the way for other victims of abuses under British rule in places including Malaya, Aden and Cyprus to launch compensation claims of their own. 

But Britain has been “very clever in playing its hand,” Prof. Elkins says, because it still denies liability. In agreeing a settlement out of court it avoided setting a legal precedent for others to follow. 

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