Thursday, 14 April 2011

No excuse for not owning up

Shame on the UK that we cannot even take moral responsibility for the horrific behaviour of those who acted in our name in Kenya in the 1950’s. At a time when we are prepared to exercise our military muscle to ‘protect’ people in Lybia from abuse by their government, we wash our hands of horrific behaviour by our colonial administration not that many decades ago.

I had come to know a little of this British behaviour in Kenya from visits there and conversations with Kenyans with whom I worked. However, to say that the reality revealed by recently released documents has shocked me is the understatement of the year. Not just the scale of beatings and killings but the documented torture and castration through to roasting alive. The detail is too disgusting to describe. No one should pretend that the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule did not produce its own atrocities. That may be the context of the colonial administration’s response but it is not an excuse.

The papers reveal the endemic nature of abuse and that it was condoned and, even, encouraged. The existence of abuse was officially denied and officials who raised concerns were publicly denounced. The paper trail leads out of the colonial administration in Kenya to the government in London.

In the mid-50’s Colonel Arthur Young, an experience police officer and a Christian socialist, was appointed as commissioner of police for Kenya. In a letter to the Governor, forwarded to the Secret Registry of the Ministry for African Affairs, he observed that the Screening Camps (ostensibly for sorting out the active dissidents from innocent bystanders but in fact a dumping ground for anyone who came to official notice) presented a ‘state of affairs so deplorable’ that they should be investigated. Police were diverted from law and order issues to being agents of repression. Africans who suffered from ‘the brutalities that are clearly evident’ had no one to whom they could appeal for justice because the whole colonial structure was complicit. He called for the ‘elementary principles of justice and humanity’ to be observed. In his measured tones it is a damning letter. Young resigned in disgust after eight month’s service. (

Very often people make excuses for not dealing with such things. I’m told that we shouldn’t judge actions in the past by the standards we apply now. This is why Arthur Young is an important witness. His appeal in situ for justice and humanity is the one we would make today. If we fail to name the behaviour of the colonial regime and its agents for what it was, we become complicit. The challenge of Arthur Young and those like him who were prepared to risk opprobrium and loss of job will have fallen on ears equally as deaf as those of the civil servants and politicians in the 1950’s.

I have no idea whether the legal responsibility now lies with the UK government or with the Kenyan government as successor to the colonial administration. I am certain where the moral responsibility lies.

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