After decades of untold torture and suffering at the hands of the British colonizers, thousands of Kenyan freedom fighters are now entitled to get compensation from the UK government writes Mohammed Kahiye in Nairobi.
Last Thursday, the British government announced an out-of-court settlement of £19.9 million ($30 million) which will be shared between more than 5,200 victims in Kenya. However, not all the victims of British colonialism in Kenya were entitled to compensation. The mainly Muslim Nubians were not given preferential treatment like the Mau Mau freedom fighters.
The Nubian freedom fighters
As the famous Mau Mau fighters plan how to share the $30 million compensation among them, a few kilometres from the British High Commission in Nairobi’s city centre lies the slum of Kibra, one of Africa’s largest informal settlement areas. Kibra is home to one of Kenya’s indigenous and most marginalized groups, the Nubian community that has over the years been considered by many Kenyans as “outsiders.”
The community (which is majority Muslim) settled in the area around 1900 when the first British explorers were coming to East Africa. They took part in the construction of the Great Rift Valley railway line that passes through Kenya to Uganda.
The community – which was previously referred to as “Sudanese soldiers” – were recruited by the Egyptians and brought to south Sudan. Their main objective was to open trade centres and they remained in Sudan after they were cut off during the Mahdi rebellion. During the mid 1800 in Egypt, those who were stranded and had no jobs were forced to join the “East African Rifles” to earn a living. Some found themselves in Kenya to take part in the construction of the Kenyan Ugandan Railway.
According to Jamaldin Yahya, Nubians were the first Africans to settle in Nairobi. He said: “Apart from the white people, Nubians were the first natives to settle in Nairobi.”
86-year-old Yahya Sebit Salim was recruited by the British King African Rifles and served in different capacities, retiring in 1960 as a warrant officer.
Mr Salim and many Nubian men served the interest of the colonizers in countries like Mauritius, Malawi, and Uganda among other countries in the larger Imperial British East Africa, with the basic salary of nine Kenyan shillings every month. Those who resisted like 90-year-old Mama Ajoba’s husband and brother-in-law were brutally murdered for simply refusing to fight alongside British soldiers against the native African communities of the area.
According to Mr Yahya, a Nubian land rights activist, the community was under threat of losing its ancestral land due to the oppressive policies of the British government.
He said: “What originally used to be more than 4000 acres of land in Kibra and its environs that belonged to the community is now less than 600 acres due to encroachment and land grabbing after the British left.
“We have all the genuine land documents from the British and the Kenyan government, but nobody wanted to acknowledge this.”
Efforts by the community’s elite to reach the British authorities on the matter were unsuccessful. However, in 2004 members of parliament from the British National Assembly came to Kenya to hear the grievances of the community and promised to forward to their government in London, but nothing developed. The community is now demanding compensation for the services they offered to the British and consequently losing their ancestral land.
According to Mr Yahya, they not only demanded financial compensation for their services, but “land for land compensation.” He said: “The Mau Mau fighters got the land they have fought for and financial compensation for sufferings in the hands of the British.
“It is not fair to lose your ancestral land and at the same time live with the sufferings of the colonialists.”
Successful Mau Mau lawsuits
The abuse occurred between 1952 and 1961, when fighters from the Mau Mau movement fought British forces for land and freedom. Colonial forces killed thousands of fighters and detained others, including Kenyans who were not part of the rebel group.
After Kenyan independence in 1963, Mau Mau lawsuits faced resistance from Britain, who said the statute of limitations had “expired”. It asked the judges to throw out the case on the grounds that it transferred all liability to Kenya when the country gained independence. But new details emerged after a huge cache of secret files was declassified relating to British administration in 37 African colonies. Britain kept an immaculate, handwritten accounts that included some of the human rights violations.
In October, the London High Court ruled that three Kenyans were tortured during the colonial rebellion and were legible to sue the UK for financial compensation. The plaintiffs said they endured torture at the hands of British forces, including castration, brutal beatings and detention.
One of the successful plaintiffs, Wambugu Wa Nyingi said: “It’s a great day. I am as happy as the day I was released from the detention camp. We believed that the British would do the right thing, now that they have accepted that it’s the truth.”
Making a landmark apology before Britain’s parliament, Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed regret over “abhorrent violations of human dignity” that took place more than half a century ago.
“The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.”
He added: “Sincere regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence. This is part of a process of reconciliation.”