It was fell just short of an admission of official involvement, but the recent announcement by the Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledges that there is at least strong evidence that British officials, police officers and possibly soldiers were complicit in a system in Kenya in the 1950s in which torture, sexual abuse and murder were pursued as Government policy. Over a million Kikuyu tribesmen were forcibly relocated in “villages” surrounded by barbed wire. They were in fact little more than labour camps where the inmates were brutally mistreated. Some of the allegations suggest that women there were repeatedly raped by British soldiers. There seems good reason to believe that men were castrated with pliers. Others were simply shot out of hand. Over a thousand others were hanged, mostly in public, after trials before special courts of very dubious fairness.
Some of the evidence that persuaded the Government to settle the case came from no less a person than the Attorney-General for Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones whose recently uncovered 1957 memo to the Governor Sir Evelyn Baring included the instructions to police officers: “vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys.” He did not question the practice of beating itself but insisted that officers administering the beatings should “remain collected, balanced and dispassionate.” Such a revolting instruction – with its echo of Himmler’s praise for SS officers for being able to exterminate Jews and yet “remain decent” – implies that he was fully aware that police officers had indeed behaved disgracefully. But it was not so much the cruelty that appeared to bother him as the risk that he might get caught. In his own handwriting he added the observation, all the more repulsive for its understated humour: “if we are going to sin we must sin quietly.”
But even at the time, when the full extent of British brutality had not been laid bare, British sin was not kept entirely quiet. Eleven murders in Hola prison – the inmates were beaten to death by guards – could not be covered up, although who was responsible for their deaths certainly could be, and was. From different sides of the House of Commons in 1959 both Barbara Castle and Enoch Powell delivered coruscating speeches calling for those responsible to be held to account. It was in vain: the Prison Governor was asked to resign without loss of his pension and the Commissioner for Prisons was reprimanded and asked to retire a little early. That was it.
Powell was particularly enraged by John Peel, a fellow Conservative MP, who defended the Colonial Service describing the Mau Mau as “sub-human.”
Of course there was a terrible conflict going on. Most of the Mau Mau’s victims were other Africans; it was the duty of the colonial authority to end the violence; and, broadly speaking, its vile policies eventually succeeded in doing so.
But Enoch Powell was right. The ends could not begin to justify the means. There was no justification for camp guards beating detainees to death for refusing to work.1 There was no justification for rape, let alone for the use of rape as a weapon of political control. There was no justification for castrating prisoners, no matter how heinous their alleged or even proven crimes.
Following Mr Hague’s announcement at least some surviving Mau Mau will receive compensation. But proper justice has not by any means been done. Not a single British soldier or police officer has ever been prosecuted for crimes that, on the face of it, stand comparison with the blackest episodes in colonial history.
There must still be surviving soldiers and police officers with blood on their hands. They will be men of 75 or 85. Some will still be in good health. Witnesses appear to be available. In the normal course of events justice, honour and the nebulous concept of “the public interest” would all dictate that the police should try to obtain evidence and seek to prosecute at least the worst surviving offenders. Yet there seems to be no interest in the police even investigating any of them, let alone in bringing any prosecutions.
Perhaps it would be wrong to prosecute now after so many years have passed. Perhaps, as one of the leading historians on the subject has hinted, to prosecute surviving British personnel, while leaving the many Africans who also committed atrocities to live out their last years in peace would simply reopen wounds that have taken decades to heal.
But such judgements are not for the police to make. If formal complaints are made about atrocities committed by former soldiers and colonial police officers who are still alive, then those complaints must be fully investigated.
The urgency to discover the full truth is greater than ever as both witnesses and suspects approach the end of their lives.
Demanding a proper investigation in 1959 Enoch Powell said: “We cannot say, ‘We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.'”
It is rather depressing that his words still need to be repeated in 2013.