Britain should say 'sorry' for its colonial misadventure in Africa

King Charles III and President William Ruto at Moi International Airport, Mombasa on November 3, 2023. [PCS]

The visit of Britain’s royal couple has just ended although no one seems able to shed much light on the exact purpose.

Was it a few days away in the sun as the dark days of winter approached in Europe; or was it an effort to bolster the Commonwealth union that appears visionless and penniless in the post Brexit era?

Whatever the real intention, one thing for sure is King Charles was not expecting that his visit would arouse so much anger among community and human rights groups across the republic. From Laikipia, Pokot, Kericho came demands to restore land and return national records and treasures deposited in British archives and museums. But perhaps the loudest demands for reparation, justice and apology came from Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) who for thirty years have vexed the British government and its corporates on issues ranging from the Mau Mau compensation case to more recent human rights violations committed by some tea farms in their business pursuits. They have also done detailed investigations on crimes committed by the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK) and the controversial matter of conservatories.

The British government denied and resisted the rights of 5,000 Mau Mau victims of torture for over a decade but eventually agreed to compensate them in an out of court settlement to the tune of 20 million pounds in 2013. They also agreed to fund the impressive Mau Mau sculpture that adorns Uhuru Park today. But there was no apology.

KHRC made apology its primary demand even before King Charles touched down on Kenyan soil. High Commissioner Neil Wigan told Spice FM there would be no such apology forthcoming. Charles would acknowledge the pain Kenyans suffered during the 1952-60 emergency but that was as far as he was willing to go. Both Wigan and Charles used the word ‘regret’ on several occasions. However, regret is an unfortunate and limp response to the brutal violations Kenyans experienced from 1895 to 1963.

Regret suggests you are sorry that you were caught red-handed rather than sorry for the crimes you committed. Mr Wigan tried to justify their position by stating that, “an apology starts to take you to a difficult legal territory”. In other words, an apology would result in legal demands for compensation and reparation and they were not going down that road.

Quite apart from the monetary aspects of an apology, there would be other add on effects. To apologise for seven decades of repression would in fact be admitting that the advancement of the empire through enslavement and colonisation was a terrible crime against humanity that should never have taken place.

Yet no British leader would ever admit that. They may admit that mistakes were made and they REGRET those, but the conventional thinking is the whole colonial adventure was a well-intended humanitarian project even if it ended up in tatters and banishment.

Those patronising and misguided attitudes still prevail as Brexit was just another example of what many thought would return the Empire to its former golden days. This inability of the masters to listen deeply to the suffering of the enslaved, the imprisoned, the colonised and victims of repression is evident today as history repeats itself.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a visit to Israel after the October 7th Hamas attack told the world that Israel had the absolute right to defend itself, while not acknowledging that Palestine had the same right.

Caroline Elkins has described in Britain’s Gulag how during the Emergency 1.5 million Kenyans were incarcerated in one huge detention camp. In Gaza, 2.3 million Palestinians are held in an open prison with 400 children killed or injured each day according to UNICEF.

Yet, when a UN Resolution for a ceasefire came for voting last weekend, Britain abstained while the US opposed. How one can remain neutral in the face of such humanitarian suffering just beggars belief! 

As long as there is one law for the powerful and none for the oppressed, the poor and the voiceless will remain victims and never receive the compensation or the apology they deserve.