Justice for the Mau Mau: Court Case in the U.K. Sheds Light on Grim Colonial Past

The British High Court ruling on Friday allowing three elderly Kenyans to sue the British government for colonial-era abuses represents a watershed moment in British imperial history, and the possibility for further claims from Britain's former colonial subjects

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Ben Curtis / AP

Mau Mau War Veterans Association representative Lawrence Mathenge celebrates the ruling

Time after time they stood defiant; slight, frail figures before the imposing grandeur of Britain’s Royal Courts of Justice, in the heart of London. The three elderly Kenyans—Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85, Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84, and Jane Muthoni Mara, 73—stood in the same spot many times over the past four years, waiting patiently as they held aloft placards with the words, “Human Rights For All.” They came to the U.K. to ask for justice for horrors allegedly perpetrated against them over five decades ago in Kenya, when the British colonial powers that then ran the country cracked down brutally on the armed pro-independence movement, Mau Mau. On Oct. 5, their wait for their day in court finally came to an end when the British High Court ruled that their legal case, which accuses the British government of carrying out torture half a centuryago, could proceed.

The three elderly claimants—one says he was briefly a member of Mau Mau, the other two say they were mistakenly suspected of being members—had set  out to ask for an apology from the British government and a welfare fund to cover their medical needs as a result of the torture they suffered in the British-run detention camps. Yet throughout, the Foreign Office, the government department responsible for Britain’s foreign affairs, has maintained that the current government should not be held accountable for the actions of an earlier administration.

The case could set a precedent that might allow past victims of British colonial rule to seek compensation for mistreatment. A lawyer for the three Kenyans believes there are an estimated 5,000 further Kenyan survivors of physical and psychological abuse by former British colonial authorities who could possibly bring similar cases for compensation as a result of this ruling.

(MORE: The Bloody Mau Mau Revolt)

In coming to its decision, the High Court rejected a series of arguments from the British government, which initially pushed for the case to be dismissed because responsibility for cases involving colonial-era torture had technically passed to the Kenyan government following independence in 1963.

The second argument, which the court most recently considered, was that under the British statute of limitations, it would be impossible to have a meaningful or fair trial given that so much time had elapsed and many witnesses were no longer alive.

Justice Richard McCombe rejected these arguments. “I have reached the conclusion,” he said in his judgement, “that a fair trial on this part of the case does remain possible and that the evidence on both sides remains significantly cogent for the Court to complete its task satisfactorily. The documentation is voluminous….and the governments and military commanders seem to have been meticulous record keepers.”

The Mau Mau uprising of 1952-1960, in which the grandfather of U.S. President Barack Obama was among the hundreds of Kenyans detained when they fought against the British colonial administration, is one of the mostdisputed and controversial flashpoints in Britain’s imperial history. The Mau Maus were banned by the British authorities in 1950 and the country was plunged into a state ofemergency as the colonial administration attempted to quell the uprising.

The accounts of the three claimants offer harrowing details of the sexual violence that took place in detention camps during the emergency period of 1952-1960, which has been extensively chronicled by historians and archivists. In court, Nzili described how detention camp guards castrated him with pliers that were normally used to castrate cattle.

The case has taken decades to reach this point. “The true historical understanding of what happened only emerged in 2005 after the historians David Anderson and Caroline Elkins published two separate books having gone through the archive material, some of which was quite new,” says Daniel Leader, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The second [reason for the delay] is that up until the new government came in in 2003, the Mau Maus were still an outlawed group in Kenya. It was after 2003 that the victims were able to come together and talk about this issue.”

The Kenyan Human Rights Commission, a national NGO, which approached Leader’s law firm to begin legal proceedings in 2006, hailed it as a “test case” that will open up other colonial administrations to greater public scrutiny.

The discovery in 2011 of 8,800 files from 37 colonies in Hanslope Park, the government communications centre located north-west of London, helped shift the case for a full hearing in the claimants’ favor. Historian Tony Badger, who was put in charge by the Foreign Office of overseeing the review of the documents, told the Guardian at the time that the discovery put the Foreign Office in an “embarrassing, scandalous” position.

“This case has enormous implications, no question in my mind,” says Elkins, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. “The Kenyan case is but one in a series of instances of colonial violence executed by the British after World War II.” Similar crackdowns on insurgencies took place in several of Britain’s colonies following the World War II, including in Palestine, Cyprus and Malaya.

But critics argue that the case will open a door to future compensation claims that will cost the cash-strapped British government potentially huge sums of money.

These fears are unfounded, says Leader, the lawyer, because “Kenya was in a league of its own. I’m quite skeptical any case will have the traction Kenya has in its gravity and scale. There are also not many living survivors of abuses from this era [in countries other than Kenya].”

The importance, Elkins says, lies more in the quest for justice and chance to “have a truly productive conversation about the dark side of empire.”

The British government will appeal the decision. After McCombe’s ruling the Foreign Office issued a statement saying: “Our relationship with Kenya and its people has moved on since the Emergency period.” Elkins says that the government, which “is having a serious case of denial,” will end up “costing the taxpayer a huge amount of money.”

If the British government does decide to pay out the compensation, it would not be the first country to recognize responsibility for the culpability of a previous administration. The United States, Germany and Iraq have all paid reparations to victims for historical injustices. Given the British government’s lack of success in the Mau Mau torture case so far, it may now be just a question of when, and not if, it joins that list of countries.

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torture is a terrible reality in Britain.  My irish grandfather was a POW captured and tortured in a stulag transit camp behind german lines in ww2.  My mother his daughter was tortured by the British Police at the height of Northern Irelands Troubles.  My papa was imprisoned because he blamed the BP. as his wife, my mother has never come home to him or the human population after what happened to her.  My family has been cashed into slavery, and chipped to satellite navigation.  The local council evicted us after we were cashed in as slaves.  And loyds tsb bank teams up to Santander to behind the counter deals with HSBC in its selling of 5 generations of the same families that have been tortured, disbelieved + all to the sounds of bells ringing in our internal ears that pays the wages of the local NHS Doctors who ring them, so that the locals dont have to put up with the sound of my family. being sold and harrassed by the chains of slavery.  Were known as nuisance neigbours by the local police, cos the local police revs up their engines and the chips inside our ears burns us.  This sometimes can after keeping quiet the best we can...it can cause us as a family to get upset.  The silence that we have to keep otherwise we're electrocuted in our bottoms where the other chips are.  Its all pretty horrendous.  But my papa was swedish and he knows who did this to my family.  I hope he told all his swedish and irish friends to keep taking the names of the BPs and the local council names  that are still doing this to my family.  We went to Shelter when as a family we were made homeless,  They told us in Britain it is legal to make people homeless.  And there is no proof as the local authorities never put that kind of thing down on paper.  Do they really know that Britain is the name of a girl slave from the late 13oos and that the name United Kingdom is the name of the horrific torture that was done to her and other slaves.  Blacks know.  and I know......Tell that to this Horrific Co......Un.....T.....R....Y other wise known as.......UK

Afreekan Southwell
Afreekan Southwell

Did justice really prevail for the Mau Mau`s, after how many long years of torture by colonial  countries who didnt care nothing of the  indiginous peoples human rights.For the years of psychological tramas, who will repaire for that,not even the financial compensations can account for the generations who will have to remember those experiances  for what the British did to Africans,although the defiances,rezilliances they have displayed to the world, the pacients, fortitude to out lived 5 decades,long live,The Mau Mau`s of Kenya.There are many transcript published that have showed the conquest of colonialism throughout the planet,Germany,France,Spain,England,Denmark,Itally and now America, these countries pillaged and plunderous acts led many into "SLAVERY",still,those colonial countries remain in denial for their actions of their forefathers and mothers.There is one law that nature has for such actions against Humanity,the pendilum must swing and time is longer than rope to hang the colonialist.


Rather than today's citizens having to pay for injustices done long ago by others, the alleged offenders should be brought to account and pay. It's well known that in the effort to maintain their colonies after WW II, several European nations engaged in conduct reminiscent of the KGB and Gestapo. Nurenberg type trials may be in order, even at this late date. That said, many of the native organizations also practiced atrocities. Shouldn't they too clean their conscience. 


During the latter years of the Bush II administration, I sat at the back of the US Naval War College auditorium to listen to a lecture delivered by an Atlantic Monthly columnist. When this author declared that current policies indicated that the US was entering a dangerous period close to becoming an empire, several younger officers jumped up and cheered; "yes,  American Empire." The speaker was taken aback; he hadn't forwarded reason to become empire, he had stated reason to step back from America becoming an empire. We will do no better than others with such fervor.

Empires always, throughout history, have had a too "dark side," they are borne on wings of national narcissism. Empires, by their very nature, disavow the rights of others to seek their own solutions to elements seen as deleterious to their cause. 

America currently faces horrific radical Islam resentment and zealotry. It also faces Israeli zealotry and fundamentalist (wannabe Jewish) Christian zealotry within our boarders. Sad to say, it is too often the Christian zealots in this country that seek to annihilation of those who differ. Identifying several of the young officers who were for empire, I inquired of their religious beliefs following the lecture. They all semi-smirked and said "Christian, we believe in God." 

I guess we believe in a different God; perhaps Rome is upon us once again. When in 1663 Dr. John Clarke established separation of church and state for the first time in this world, America listened; thus we have the first amendment. Let us all be thankful for those who believe in the true American beliefs and not the demagoguery that prevails amongst those naive to how yesterday can teach us the terrible lessons of empires. 

I can only wait for the fundamentalists to chime in that my post is evil; they know the truth and I do not have it. I have thick skin so don't worry.


It is about time that folks who have been mistreated by the USA in times past also present their case, right? Just ask the Filipinos and they will tell you!


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The photo up there is  historicl injustice too, not linked to the story. What editors do they have at the TIME ?