Kenyan Mau Mau: official policy was to cover up brutal mistreatment

The Kenyan rebellion case could be groundbreaking in making the connection between wrongdoing and government action

Situated largely in the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru areas of Kenya's central highlands, the Mau Mau rebellion consisted of a diverse movement rather than a cohesive organisation. Support for the rebellion came from those who objected to Britain's imperial presence, from agricultural workers denied land ownership, and from Nairobi's unemployed. The Kikuyu, Embu and Meru populations stood at about 1.4 million, and early intelligence assessments deemed the vast majority suspect.

Among all the conflicts experienced by Britain during its end of empire, Kenya is now regarded as the most violent. There were two major reasons for this. The conflict was above all a civil war within the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru ethnicities. Most of the violence was inflicted and suffered by people from these groups. Secondly, the security forces adopted a counter-insurgency strategy based on collective punishment. Africans living in the so-called Kenya Emergency areas were deemed guilty until proven innocent. Those who demonstrated loyalty to the colonial regime, perhaps by joining the home guard militia, received preferential treatment. The majority of Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people were either sent to detention camps or, on an even greater scale, forced into new villages under close surveillance.

The claimants in the court case offer a small glimpse into the experiences of thousands of people over 50 years ago. But why have such grave allegations, including sexual assaults, beatings and torture, taken so long to reach a court room? Until recently association with the Mau Mau remained illegal in Kenya, and having been detained put the claimants at risk of prosecution if they came forward. Only when contacted by the Kenya human rights commission did they become aware of the legal remedies open to them. They have presented a strong case that the abuses they suffered – acknowledged by the Foreign Office to be true – stemmed from systemic factors instead of individual criminality.

Atrocities and torture during armed conflicts always raise a vital question: were the abuses caused by "rotten apple" deviants, or by policy? In his two judgments, Justice McCoombe has ruled that a reasonable case can be made for attributing torture in Kenya to government decision-making. The evidence base for such a stance was already strong before the lawyers entered court 73 in April 2011. Historical research by David Anderson, Caroline Elkins and myself concluded the security forces inflicted indiscriminate suffering from 1952 to the Emergency's end in 1960. The 1,500 Kenya files discovered among the secret Hanslope Archive add further grim details to the patterns already identified. Both the colonial authorities in Kenya and the government in Britain knew the interrogation and detention practices carried out by their agents were resulting in widespread abuses. The reaction was to cover up rather than clean up the brutal mistreatment.

After October 2012's ruling that the case could proceed to full trial, the Foreign Office decided to appeal McCoombe's decision. The appeal has been postponed while negotiations take place between the two sides. For the claimants an out-of-court settlement would bring a sense of justice. Their stated objectives are an apology and compensation to pay for medical treatment. For the government, ceasing to deny responsibility for patently dishonourable acts would remove a source of ongoing embarrassment, hardly helped by the new Kenyan president's father having been incarcerated during the Emergency.

When other countries have examined their past through the courts, important changes in the public understanding of the nation's history arise. In addition, a large number of claims may come from other conflicts where Britain applied counter-insurgency measures. The prime minister received praise for apologising for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland in 1972, while hundreds of Iraqis have been compensated for human rights abuses suffered from 2003. Why will the government apologise for some episodes and not others? The Kenya case could be groundbreaking in making the connection between wrongdoing and official policy. Public inquiries, civil litigation and compensation are sometimes condemned for their intrusion on military and intelligence affairs in the last decade. We should remember they are only necessary because, from 1950s Kenya to the War on Terror, the criminal law has failed to hold the state to account.