Nairobi, Kenya – A five-day visit to Kenya by Britain’s King Charles III is unearthing memories of atrocities committed during the six-decade colonisation of the East African country.
As the monarch landed in Nairobi on Tuesday for his first state visit to Africa since becoming king after Queen Elizabeth II’s death last year, some Kenyans were waiting for him to formally apologise for the “acts of violence” as Charles described them.
But the monarch stopped short of doing so.
“There were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans as they waged … a painful struggle for independence and sovereignty. And for that, there can be no excuse,” he said at a state banquet hosted on Tuesday by Kenyan President William Ruto.
The monarch was accompanied by Queen Camilla to the country which is a member of the 56-member Commonwealth, a group of mostly former British colonies.
After a welcome by Ruto at the State House, Charles headed to Uhuru Gardens National Monument and Museum, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The royal couple also walked through the Tunnel of Martyrs, a visual retelling of the stories of those who died in a number of national events, including the independence struggle.
On Wednesday, the king and queen met Kenyan war veterans who fought for the British in World War II as part of the King’s African Rifles at the Kariokor World War II Commonwealth Cemetery.
Memories of a massacre
Charles’s presence has elicited mixed reactions among Kenyans.
Some see it as a reminder of the dark colonial past, during which thousands of people were tortured and killed as they fought for the country’s independence. Others say the visit should be viewed as a new chapter in the two countries’ relationship.
Mike Kiprono, a 24-year-old resident of Nairobi is in the latter category. “How would a country move forward if we are to remember and dwell in past occurrences that need to have long been buried and forgotten?” he asked.
The monarch’s visit, Kiprono added, could lead to “a difference in terms of the economy and other infrastructural development” in a country rocked this year by deadly protests against the soaring cost of living.
But Susan Murira, a 36-year-old businessperson in Nairobi’s central business district, said the visit is an insult to the people of Kenya and a reopening of old wounds.
“His colonial brothers … wreaked havoc in our country and tried to wipe us out,” she said. “I heard him in the news yesterday that he regrets the acts of the colonialists, but there’s nowhere he says how he plans to compensate all those people. What his country only did a few years ago was [not] only to the Mau Mau, but there were many other Kenyans in other parts of the country who probably even faced worse.”
The lack of a commitment on reparations came despite the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) urging Charles to apologise over the extrajudicial torture and killings of 90,000 Kenyans during the colonial administration.
One particular highlight was the Mau Mau uprising from 1952 to 1960, an armed rebellion by a group of freedom fighters mostly from the Kikuyu, the country’s largest ethnic group. British troops violently suppressed the revolt, killing more than 11,000 people. A tenth of that number was by hanging.
Kenya eventually gained independence in 1963 and became a republic the following year. Jomo Kenyatta, one of the leaders detained by the British for the independence struggle, became the new country’s first president.
Even today, there are constant reminders in Kenya about the colonial-era killings and colonialism in general, Murira said.
“If you look at the thousands of acres of tea plantations that the country boasts of, they are owned by British companies or have been sold to other multinationals. But the land on which the tea sits belonged to Kenyans who were forcefully driven out of their land and taken away from them. It would be great if the king recognized that, apologised, and compensated these people,” she said.
In 2013, the British government apologised to Kenya and finalised an out-of-court settlement with thousands of Kenyans who were tortured in detention camps during the end of the British colony. It also agreed to pay compensation to thousands of the Mau Mau veterans who were fighting for independence.
The veterans got $3,500 each in compensation and later said the money was not enough for the pain, suffering and long-term trauma that the community had endured.
And while the Mau Mau rebellion was largely carried out by the Kikuyu, the armed struggle involved many other groups who said they have been ignored by the monarchy and British government.
Against this backdrop, the KHRC sent a 10-page document on Monday to the UK High Commission in Nairobi with its demands.
“We are raising a number of concerns with respect to the unresolved injustices by the colonial government when they were in the country between 1895 and 1963,” said Davis Malombe, the rights group’s executive director, “and also the other atrocities, which have been committed by the British multinational corporations and other actors from that time to date.”
Malombe called for effective reparations for all the atrocities committed against different groups in the country.
“The British government should consider a reparative development programme which provides special materials support for the people and regions that continue to suffer the long-term and emerging effects of colonial policies and current investments by British corporates and citizens,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether Charles will eventually tender an apology or further reparations during his stay. But as he walked through the relics of Britain’s colonial past in Kenya on Tuesday, a re-evaluation of colonial atrocities was happening simultaneously in neighbouring Tanzania.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Dar es Salaam that his country was willing to cooperate with Tanzania, which it colonised from 1885 to 1918 on “repatriation of cultural property and human remains”.
While there was also no apology for the death of thousands of people during the Maji Maji rebellion (1905 to 1907), Steinmeier said the time had come to review a “dark’ legacy”, “so that we can see how to turn a new page.”