Britain’s brutal repression of Mau Mau exposed / FRFI 221 Jun/Jul 2011

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 221 June/July 2011

The test case brought by five Kenyans against the British government for atrocities committed during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s finally came to court in April. Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, now in their 70s and 80s, flew 4,000 miles to testify how they had been tortured and abused during one of the most brutal episodes of British colonial history.

Ndiku Mutua and Paulo Nzili were savagely beaten and castrated with pliers; Wambugu Wa Nyingi was beaten unconscious in an incident in which 11 men were clubbed to death, and Jane Mara was subjected to appalling sexual abuse. The case also represents Susan Ngondi who was beaten and raped, but who has died since the legal process started in 2002.

The rebellion of the Mau Mau – the Kenya Land and Freedom Army – began in 1952, after the entire leadership of the Kenya African Union, the only African political party in the country, was arrested, the party proscribed and a state of emergency imposed. At the time, Kenya was a British colony. Its 5.5 million-strong native African population had, by 1952, been largely reduced to living in overcrowded and steadily deteriorating ‘Native Land Units’, having been forced off their traditional land and forced to work for poverty wages on the white settlers’ land. Increasingly, large numbers of mainly peasant Kenyans began to organise themselves in a movement united by ‘the Mau Mau oath of unity’, whose main demands were land, freedom and education, and fought a guerrilla war from deep within the forests.

The response from the Kenyan colonial administration was brutal. Between 1952 and 1957, the British hanged more than 1,000 suspected Mau Mau, detained at least 150,000 and killed around 20,000. At least 100,000 more died in the dreaded ‘Pipeline’ interrogation camps and an uncounted number in the ‘villagisation’ process, where women and children suspected of supporting the Mau Mau were herded into specially-constructed ‘villages’ – concentration camps in all but name – where beatings and rape were commonplace and typhoid, lice, pellagra and malnourishment rife.

The British instituted a culture of routine beatings, starvation, killings and torture of the most grotesque kinds. In a striking parallel with the torture practised today in Abu Ghraib, Alsatian dogs were used to threaten and maul prisoners; men were forced to sodomise one another, and had sand, pepper and water stuffed in their anuses. One allegedly had his testicles cut off, and was then made to eat them. One police officer boasted of a Mau Mau suspect he murdered:

‘Things got a little out of hand. By the time we cut his balls off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.’

Women were gang-raped, had their breasts mutilated, and rubbish, vermin and bottles filled with hot liquid thrust into their vaginas. Children were butchered and their body parts paraded around on spears.

Documents prove British support for brutality

Few today dispute the atrocities committed in Kenya in the name of preserving white rule. The government’s mealy-mouthed defence has been that the UK cannot be held responsible for the actions of a former colonial administration and it is continuing to fight the court action. However, the recent discovery of 17,000 pages of documents flown out of Nairobi in 1963 and hidden in Foreign Office storerooms until early this year, make it clear that the government in London knew exactly what was going on and indeed, gave the worst excesses the green light.

As solicitors Leigh Day & Co have made clear: ‘Far from being the acts of a few rogue soldiers, the torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of Kenyans during this period was systemic and resulted from policies which were sanctioned at the highest levels of the British government by the then colonial secretary.’

As early as 1953, officials were telling ministers about forced labour in the camps and warning ‘if therefore we are going to sin, we must sin quietly’.

Colonel Arthur Young, sent by London to run Kenya’s police, complained to Evelyn Baring, the governor of Kenya, about the ‘inhumanity’ he had witnessed, and wrote to senior ministers at Whitehall asking for the ‘deplorable’ screening camps to be closed down.

In January 1955, Baring sent a telegram to Alan Lennox-Boyd, the Secretary of State for the Colonies and a cabinet minister, about white officers accused of serious crimes, including roasting suspects alive. They would be given immunity from prosecution. He also asked for the go-ahead to use ‘overpowering’ force. The cabinet minister’s approval came within weeks.

The papers show that a ministerial delegation witnessed prisoners beaten for refusing to wear camp clothes, thrown to the ground and mud forced into their mouths while a boot was placed on their throat.

In 1959, 11 detainees were beaten to death at Hola camp for refusing to work.

Although such brutal methods eventually defeated the Mau Mau, there is no doubt it was their courageous and uncompromising struggle that forced the British government and Kenyan authorities to make concessions to more ‘moderate’ sections of the nationalist movement in the cities, and led to Kenya’s eventual independence in 1963. When the British finally left Kenya, much of the incriminating material about the detention camps was destroyed. It has taken over 50 years for irrefutable evidence of Britain’s crimes in Kenya to come to light.

As Ndiku Mutua said: ‘After 50 years it is time for justice. I was castrated and tortured whilst I was detained by British prison guards. I was robbed of my dignity and of a family and those scars have never healed. This wrong must be recognised. I and many others deserve an apology and justice at long last.’

Cat Alison


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