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How things fell apart forcing Britain to give up power in Kenya

By - Amos Kareithi | December 9th 2012
Nairobi residents (right) present their identification cards to police during the
colonial period.

History has been harsh to Britain and its current administration that is now fending off accusations by Mau Mau survivors who are demanding an apology and reparation

By Amos Kareithi

Nairobi, Kenya: The road to Kenya’s self- determination and independence from the oppressive British colonialists was never a walk in the park. At times the crimes committed by the Mau Mau variously called terrorists and freedom fighters, paled in comparison to the evils perpetrated by State security agents.

The Government with its monopoly to legitimate violence sank as low as the rag tag Mau Mau rebels who it was trying to hunt down, reducing the entire country into a lawless jungle where torture, violence and death was used as a weapon to silence the people’s cry for just governance.

Fifty-seven years later, we trace the actions of one man who tried to prevail upon the law enforcers to uphold the rule of the law but was at first tolerated, then ignored and finally forced to terminate his career.

To paraphrase the late playwright Francis Imbuga’s lines in Betrayal in the City, “When the madness of an entire nation falls on the soldiers of a solitary police officer, it was not enough to say the man was insane.” This rings true to a police commissioner who watched in horror as innocent people were bludgeoned to death at the slightest excuse and then convicted posthumously.

The echoes of his protest are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s when Kenya was awash in blood. In February 1954 Colonel Arthur Young was posted to Kenya ostensibly to help the British Government cleanse its brutish police force. Caroline Elkin recollects in her epic book, Britain’s Gulag, how Col Young who had served as the City of London’s Police Commissioner was sent to Kenya to clean up the local security agents and save the Government from further embarrassment.

He was supposed to create an independent police service that would investigate and prosecute all those involved in extra judicial killings and other forms of brutality that had been unleashed during the emergency period.

Prior to his posting, Col Young had been on a tour of duty in Malaya, another British colony whose trigger-happy police had scandalised the Government. Young had however reformed the force and was optimistic that he would achieve the same results in Kenya.

But as he would soon find out, Kenya was a different, lawless jungle. His initial perceptions of Kenya are captured by Elkin saying: ”I felt it my unpleasant duty to pursue with the governor my apprehensions that members of security forces were uncontrolled and were committing crimes of violence and brutality upon their alleged enemies.”

The top cop came face to face with impunity for even after he wrote a detailed report to the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring. His detailed letter was never acknowledged and his many reminders would only elicit a stony silence.  Young’s mission to divorce the police from the provincial administration was rejected by the governor who was also opposed to any of his security men being prosecuted, arguing that this would erode the morale of his men and undermine their successes in fighting the Mau Mau.

Beaten to death

The brutality Young was fighting is epitomised by an episode in Nyeri where Chief Mundia of Mathira and his home guards beat one detainee to death in September 1954. The body was carried in the chief’s car and secretly buried.

It was later exhumed by the police, on the orders of Young who instructed his assistant commissioner in Nyeri, K P Handingham to ensure the murders were brought to book. But as the police were investigating the matter the governor tried to influence the case. During a visit to Nyeri, Baring told Handingham that prosecuting a loyal chief like Mundia would prove counter productive as it would erode the gains made in the war against Mau Mau and send the wrong signals to its sympathisers.

The governor justified Chief Mundia’s crime, arguing that unlike a European law enforcer, he and other Africans were at times overzealous and got away as he discharged his duties at times taking the law in their own hands. When Young learnt this, he was outraged and petitioned the governor for his meddling. The governor and his administrators in Nyeri Ozzie Hughes and Monkey Johnson apologised for trying to bend the law and ultimately allowed the police to prosecute the suspected murders.

However, Young’s triumph in case was pyrrhic for although his men secured a conviction for the chief and his co accused, the suspects were discharged of murder charges charged with assault and of 18 months and sentenced for 18 months only!

Unable to work with a Government that was encouraging brutes in the law enforcement Young ultimately resigned as the police commissioner without having reformed the police as he had planned. His resignation was greeted with outrage when he returned to London in January 1955. While the Government was bent on silencing Young and suppressing his reports and reasons for his resignation the opposition was baying for the Government’s blood.

Young could not publicise his reasons for as Elkin explains, he like other civil servants working with the Government at the time, had been sworn into secrecy prior to his employment. Under the official secrets Act he was bound to confidentiality and silence or risk stiff penalty should he betray his Government.

State of emergency

In a joint press release by Lennox Boyd, the colonial secretary at the time, it was made to appear as if Young had quit because his mission of making police independent was not tenable at the time.  “The present State of emergency made it essential that the administration, the police and the military concentrate all their efforts in tackling terrorism and there must be integration and coordination between the three,” reads the statement in part.

The Police Commissioner’s resignation did not in any way resolve the impasse for the colonialists were later put in a corner after investigations proved that there was widespread violence and brutality among the security forces. The Attorney General, John Whyatt too was hounded out of office over his views on police brutality and replaced by Eric Griffith who was more sympathetic and unwilling to prosecute police officers accused of terrorising civilians. Despite this, complaints of torture still found their way to London and were summarised in an article published in a Church Missionary Society pamphlet that concluded there was no justification for police massacring disarmed prisoners or employing torture to extract confessions.

Finally, when it could no longer defend its actions any more, the Government resorted to a warped sense of justice. It announced a general amnesty in a move aimed at hoodwinking Mau Mau adherents to surrender where those who came out of the forests would be pardoned some of their crimes. However, as some of the “surrenders” later realised they were still to be detained without trial for some of their confessed crimes. On the other hand the Government issued a blanket amnesty to any of the servants especially the police, the chiefs and members of the Kikuyu guard accused of plunder, murder, rape and all manner of bestiality. This category of Kenyans was pardoned all their crimes and absolved of any wrongdoing.

 Dangerous path

Such actions fuelled Labour MPs’ bashing of the Government and rekindled Young’s resignation debacle while infuriating some of the colonialist’s staunchest supporters, the missionaries who joined in the fray, vilifying the Government for its excesses. In one of the fiercest attacks yet by a cleric, the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Reverend David Steel, hit at the administration, disowning its actions saying this was acceptable even in the eyes of God.

In an article published in East Africa and Rhodesia in February 3, 1955, Church Missionary Society’s Concern About Kenya, Reverend Steel said, “ During the emergency, we have taken a very dangerous path towards tyranny. It is time to retrace. This is not only unjust in the eyes of God but also illegal by the acceptable law of man.”  Now that things had fallen apart and the centre could no longer hold, it was just a matter of time before Britain was forced to give up power in Kenya. As we celebrate this year’s Jamhuri Day, the colonial Government’s failure to facilitate the establishment of an autonomous police service is still haunting the country today.

If only Baring had listened to Young, may be history would not have been so harsh to Britain and its current administration would not be fending off accusations by Mau Mau survivors who are demanding an apology and reparation. Although Winston Churchill, who partially contributed to this mess as prime minister and colonial secretary, has been quoted saying that history would be kind to him for he intended to write it, in Kenya, he and his minions and predecessors wrote it in blood and are being tried harshly, posthumously.

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