59 Years Later, Mau Mau Torture Victims Receive Compensation

Photo: Angela Sevin

5,228 Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising in the early 1950s will receive compensation totalling £20 million, or $30.5 million, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced to the British parliament. The compensation amounts to £3,000 per victim and only applies to living survivors.

“The British Government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague told Parliament.

Hague also announced plans to support construction of a permanent memorial to the victims in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

This is the first historical claim for compensation that the British government has accepted, as it has never before admitted to the torture committed by the former British Empire.


The Mau Mau uprising

The roots of colonialism in Kenya go back to the Berlin Conference in 1885, which divided East Africa into territories controlled by European powers. The British government founded the East African Protectorate in 1895. In the early 1900s, British settlers moved into Kenyan highlands. Settlers were allowed a voice in the government, while Africans and Asians were banned from direct political participation until 1944.

In 1952, the Mau Mau, a guerilla group, began a violent uprising against British settlers. The Mau Mau uprising was largely situated in the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru areas of Kenya’s central highlands. From agriculture workers who were denied land ownership to Nairobi city’s unemployed, the uprising received support from Kenyans who objected to Britian’s imperial presence.

With the escalation of Mau Mau activity, the colonial regime declared a State of Emergency in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. According to the World History Project, the emergency was a response to an increase in attacks on British settlers and their property. Kenyan chiefs who were seen as collaborators were also attacked.


In turn, the Mau Mau uprising was put down by the British colonial government. According to a report in the Guardian, the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meri populations stood at 1.4 million during the uprising, and early intelligence assessments cast the vast majority of them as suspects. In response to the uprising, British security forces adopted a counter-insurgency strategy based on collective punishment: those living in the emergency areas were deemed guilty until proven innocent. Furthermore, the report notes that that majority of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meri people were either sent to detention camps or forced into new villages under British surveillance.

“They were put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted…. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine…A lot of the officers involved were white, they were controlling the violence against these Mau Mau. It wasn’t just isolated individual officers. It was systematic. The whole purpose was to break the Mau Mau,” Martyn Day, the British human rights solicitor acting on the behalf of the victims, told the BBC.

The BBC report notes that atrocities were carried out by both sides. In one example, Mau Mau rebels raided a “loyalist” village where the majority of the men were away fighting with the British Guard. The rebels killed roughly 70 women and children. Even so, Day told the BBC, “The proportion of atrocities committed by the Mau Mau was a minute fraction compared with the British.”

The recognition of atrocity

The Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has been working with victims of the Mau Mau uprising since 2003, shortly after the ban on the Mau Mau movement was removed. Before 2003, it was impossible for victims to organize or pursue a claim on behalf of a survivor because involvement in any activity on behalf of the Mau Mau was unlawful.

Once the ban was lifted, those who had suffered during the emergency formed the Mau Mau Veterans Association, the creation of which allowed for the recognition of survivors of the detention camps. Following their recognition, the KHRC contacted Leigh Day & Co. Advocates in London on behalf of the Mau Mau Veterans Association, who sought compensation for torture and abuse, along with an apology for the treatment they were subjected to.

In 2009, Leigh Day & Co. Advocates initiated a proceeding against the British Government on behalf of five claimants who suffered abuse while detained by the British colonial government.

Leigh Day & Co. Advocates state in their website that the British government fought the claims “for redress on legal technicalities.” In 2011, the British government argued that it was not liable for colonial era atrocities as a matter of legal principle. However, the claimants defeated the British government’s technical defenses and received a judgment in their favor.

Is the compensation enough?

In an op-ed for AllAfrica.com, Harun Ndubi, the executive of a legal aid group in Kenya, notes, “For some, the compensation is too little too late and doesn’t cover all the Mau Mau freedom fighters who were victims of colonial torture and terrorism.” Ndubi adds that the Mau Mau and their sympathizers were stripped of their land, which was subsequently given to collaborators whose children benefited from education provided by the British, enabling them to take postcolonial administration positions.

To this end, Ndubi argues, “It should be within the sights of the British government today to provide scholarships and other educational opportunities to the children and grand children of the Mau Mau veterans. It ought to be acknowledged that [the] majority of the Mau Mau freedom veterans and their families are living in despicable abject poverty while the children of the collaborators live in lavish opulence, thanks to the blood and sweat of the Mau Mau.”

In another op-ed for Al Jazeera, Lutz Oette, a University of London professor writes, “The UK “regretted”, but did not fully apologise for what happened.” Oette goes on to note that while the British government stopped short of an apology, “The settlement goes a long way in restoring the dignity of the victims.”

While the compensation and the recognition of the atrocities is an important step towards restoring the dignity of the victims, Kenya and the UK have yet to fully address the atrocities committed by the British Empire, their Kenyan collaborators, and the Mau Mau rebels.

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