The British government yesterday agreed an historic compensation payment to victims of what many claim to be “one of the darkest episodes of this country’s imperial past.” William Hague also expressed his “sincere regret” for the torture inflicted upon thousands of people imprisoned during Kenya’s Mau Mau insurgency. In a statement to MPs, the foreign secretary, announced payments of £2,600 each to more than 5,000 survivors of the vast network of prison camps that the British authorities established across its colony during the 1950s conflict: a total of about £13.9m. Many commentators have highlighted the point that William Hague’s expression of regret fell short of a full apology because to apologise might be interpreted as admitting liability and the government wants to continue to deny liability for the actions of the colonial administration. The case has been fought by the British government every inch of the way despite overwhelming evidence that what went on in the Kenyan camps and villages was brutal, savage torture.
Most sections of the media are in agreement that the British government has at last done the “right thing” by compensating the victims, even if the amount is paltry; as The Independent reports, “in a case involving murder, rape, castration and detention, a figure of £2,600 is modest by any standards. Today this amount can buy just the roofing materials for a three-bedroom house in the rural areas in Kenya.” The most important point won was the acknowledgement of the horrific treatment which had been meted out by the British military personnel. That we know the whole truth about what went on even now is doubtful as thirteen boxes of “top secret” Kenya files are still missing.
Of course there is always another version of events; the historian Max Hastings has been a vocal opponent of the case reaching court at all, stating that it “to my mind, represents an exercise in state masochism to which no other society on Earth would subject itself. It is just the latest venture for the human rights and compassion industry, with almost unlimited scope for profitable expansion.” Whilst he acknowledges the “shortcomings of British behaviour” during the uprising of the Mau Mau, we should not “subject ourselves at vast expense to legal flagellation by foreign claimants.” A British plaintiff with similar grievances would not have a hope of being heard in another country he argues. I don’t think this is really valid. David Blair of The Daily Telegraph has written that some of the Mau Mau insurgents were also brutal, murdering, mostly between 1952 and 1954, some 2,500 of their own people and around 100 whites, terrorising villages and inflicting ghastly atrocities on those who refused to take their blood oath. The problem here for David Blair is one of double standards, or as he puts it, “If you are a Kenyan who was tortured by a man in British uniform, you will now be compensated. If you suffered the same or worse at the hands of a Mau Mau guerrilla, then not many people seem to be interested. What appears to matter is not so much the iniquity of the act, but the identity of the perpetrator. The impression is that there are two classes of victim.”
But it is the hypocrisy of successive British governments which needles me most. Any brief examination of British relations with their colonies, especially those in Africa, will show that we love to preach virtue while practicing vice. Our moral authority has been battered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; for the sake of damage limitation alone it seems to me that we at least did the right thing in compensating the Mau Mau survivors of UK prison camps.