Monday, 29 October 2012 10:57

The Ghosts of Mau Mau

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LONDON Calling

By the time this issue of AwaaZ comes out, there will have been a further development in the Mau Mau litigation before the High Court in London about which I wrote in Issue 2 of 2011. It is possible, though unlikely, for the case of Mutua and Others v The Foreign and Commonwealth Office to have been finally disposed of or settled by some sort of agreement between the parties, but in any event its reverberations will continue to resonate for a long time.

Briefly, to recap, the case concerns claims by Ndiku Mutua and his co-plaintiffs that they were seriously mistreated (in other words physically tortured and abused) by the British colonial authorities while in detention as Mau Mau suspects during the Emergency.

The further development in contemplation at the time of writing this is the full- scale hearing of the case scheduled for 16 to 27 July, 2012.  That will provide another opportunity for publicity in the form of media interviews and other coverage that has elevated the whole saga to a high level of public awareness already – starting from when the proceedings were first launched in 2009, then last year in April at the time of a preliminary hearing on certain technical aspects (when the claimants had travelled to Britain and were pictured with placards outside the High Court) and further when the ruling on the April hearing was delivered in July of 2011.  This July there will be a heightened interest in the case because the four surviving claimants are again expected to attend in person.

Of course, the case having been commenced in 2009, over 50 years after the events in question, one of the issues, as yet to be determined, will be whether the claims are barred by time limitation.  Weighed against that will be the significance of the much publicised uncovering of a mass of evidential material buried in the ‘lost’ Colonial Office files dating back to before independence.  As on the previous occasion, so on this, my instinct tells me that the ultimate outcome will be favourable to the claimants – let us see!

Be that as it may, it was against this general background that the Mau Mau Justice Network UK (MMJN) held a public meeting in a prime central London location on 14 June, 2012.   It was a packed gathering of a cross-section of Kenyan diasporans and other British residents who have espoused the cause of justice for victims of colonial oppression in terms of the MMJN`s mission statement.

After introductory remarks by the chairman Dan Thea, the first to address the meeting was the ex-Kenyan activist Shiraz Durrani, who expounded his somewhat contentious overview of Kenya’s history and argued that the Mau Mau was in a long line of resistance to foreign invasions going back to the 15th century when the Portuguese had to build Fort Jesus at Mombasa as a defensive enclave.  More specifically, following on from the General Strike of 1950, the Mau Mau emerged to fight with the British on the burning issues of land and liberty.  From its origins in the Mathare Valley shanty town of Nairobi, Mau Mau was to shift its operations deep into the Aberdare forest, where it was to hold the first Kenyan Parliament in 1954 when the Kenya Defence Council was set up and, according to him, Dedan Kimathi ‘elected’ the first Prime Minister of [as of then an un-independent] Kenya!  Durrani`s parting message was that we needed to understand this hidden history of Kenya for an insight into the real grievances of the people.

The next to speak was Onyekachi Wambu, a renowned British journalist, writer and campaigning public intellectual of Nigerian origin.  He thought the Mau Mau veterans’ case fell within the broader scheme of seeking retrospective justice for the past wrongs of slavery (including the slave trade) and colonialism.  He pointed to the inherent imbalance in the historical narrative handed down by the conquerors and imperialists - the received wisdom of successive generations – in which there were plaudits and monuments for the plantation owners but none for those upon whose sweat and labour the slave economies had been built and flourished. Another example of this, he added was that while western journalists often highlighted the plight of white Zimbabwean farmers, they failed to put it in the historical context of the denial of equal civil rights to the indigenous population.

After that the lawyers from Leigh Day & Co, gave the background to and an update on the case, explaining the legal processes involved.  They readily acknowledged that atrocities had been committed by protagonists on both sides, but of course in this instance the claimants were seeking damages for the mistreatment and abuse that they had suffered at the hands of the authorities.  Even so their ultimate goal is to secure a statement of regret from the British government and the setting up of some sort of a compensation fund for all the victims of torture.  Whether and when that will materialise remains to be seen.

They were followed by Maggie Dowden, General Secretary of Liberation, which in its heyday was called The Movement for Colonial Freedom, founded by Fenner Brockway who, as the radical Labour MP during the 1950s, had fearlessly and fiercely supported the cause of Kenyan independence (see the profile of J M Desai in the last issue of AwaaZ).  Her short contribution was on the need for the British people to learn more about their own imperial history; this was echoed in much more forceful terms by Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran serving Labour MP who has championed a whole range of radical left-wing causes throughout his political career.  He warmly recalled how Dan Thea, a Kenyan diasporan long settled in Britain, had vigorously campaigned for him when he first stood for Parliament in the 1979 General Election.

Then there were some interesting and spirited contributions from the floor.  One participant urged that an out of court settlement was to be avoided at all costs because, in his view, only a full public hearing of the case would expose the real truth of the horrors of colonial suppression of those who were fighting for their just rights.  Another contributor, a Congolese gentleman, too, saw the virtue of making the world aware of the depth of the suffering of subject peoples everywhere, and lamented the treatment of Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, who had called for restitution from France of payments forcibly extracted from Haiti as compensation for confiscation of French property during the Haitian struggle for liberation from colonial exploitation and excesses.  A third speaker, also an accomplished (lady) journalist and broadcaster, drew a thunderous applause for her fiery insistence that there is a universality in the quest for righting historical wrongs and that the Mau Mau scenario well fitted into this concept.

So there it was, without a single note of fundamental dissention or criticism, even if one or two people did express some reservations about the tactics of the litigation and what it is meant to achieve.  But it must not be overlooked that all this discourse is taking place within the wider framework of what has come to be known as the Mau Mau Memorialization (MMM) project, a grand cathartic exercise in forging a renewed sense of Kenyan national identity and unity in the wake of the post-election ethnic violence of 2007/8.

This has involved a vigorous re-examination of Kenyan history and is the subject of an extremely well researched critical study by Lotte Hughes,  lecturer in African Arts and Cultures at The (British) Open University, in ‘African Studies’ (a University of Witwaterstand publication, Vol 70, Issue 2, 2011), with the give-away title ‘Truth be Told: Some Problems with Historical Revisionism in Kenya’.  There is not space here for considering her thesis in detail; suffice it to say that the main thrust of her paper is that the MMM phenomenon must not be taken at its face value as representing a unified national movement, that its aggressive agenda driven programme is tending to overshadow or side-line other perspectives going against the grain of what she calls ‘the prevailing meta-narrative [in which] Mau Mau is popularly depicted as a jolly good thing, which has the power to unite all Kenyans in their post-electoral hour of need’!

In outline, she argues that the fact that Mau Mau had remained banned for four decades after independence had engendered a collective amnesia about it that only began to lift after 2003, which in turn then became the starting point for the emergence of a new orthodoxy that has appropriated the memory of Mau Mau for the laudable but nevertheless questionable objective of establishing it as the singular symbol of the entire liberation struggle. As she puts it, ‘this will not do because it excludes any mention of loyalists and the thousands if not millions of Kenyans who were neither on one side nor the other (or in the Gikuyu case ‘faced both ways’) in what became a civil war, not a  straight fight between the colonial power and nationalist guerrillas’.

She goes on, ‘Mau Mau fighters did not win militarily, though they helped to pave the way for independence’, and adds poignantly: ‘Understandably, many of those who took part in the British-led counter-insurgency campaign do not wish to speak of it. Families were torn apart when close relatives followed different paths, as Ngugi waThiong’o (2010) movingly describes in his recent childhood memoir. Yet many Kenyans, no matter what their ethnic roots and political allegiances, sympathise with ex-fighters’ repeated public claims that they were betrayed by the post-independence political elite, and left to languish in poverty’.

Hughes cites a plethora of academic sources for her findings and conclusions and her article will undoubtedly pass into the ever-expanding body of knowledge and reference for students and experts of Kenyan history even if it may be perceived as treading on sensitive territory!  But it is important that both sides of the equation are looked at dispassionately, and in particular to note what Hughes says about the current Mau Mau case at footnote 49:

‘I support the case in principle.  My critique, however, focuses on the ways in which it is being used to skew historical analysis and public debate’.

And so let me return to where I started: Mau Mau happened in Kenya but half a century later its ghosts came to London and have been inhabiting the corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice since.  This is hardly surprising because of the historical connection between Britain and Kenya.  And London, which used to be the great capital of the imperial era (see Issue 3, 2010), now transformed into a global hub of diverse nationalities and ethnicities, has always been the home of foreign exiles, refugees and settled migrants who maintain close contacts with extensive networks of parliamentarians, lawyers, academics, students, media commentators, writers, church related and charitable institutions and other public-spirited organisations and individuals prepared to spend time, energy and resources on supporting a whole range of causes and campaigns to do with political and human rights in different parts of the world. The 14 June meeting was in this long tradition - not the first nor will it be the last about an important aspect of British/Kenyan relations – an example of what has been famously termed ‘the Empire strikes back’!

© 2012

Ramnik (better known as RKD) Shah practiced as an advocate in Nairobi for 10 years from 1964, and was Vice- Chairman of the Law Society of Kenya for 1973/74. After settling in Britain, he practiced as a solicitor there for 30 years from 1975 and following retirement continues to write in various forums and as a member of the editorial board of the London-based Journal of Immigration Asylum and Nationality Law.


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