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Ending colonial impunity

Ending colonial impunity
  • PublishedJune 13, 2013

The news that the British government has agreed in principle to compensate the torture victims of the 1950s Land Wars in Kenya, otherwise known as Mau Mau, is earth-shaking.

It is the first case of the British accepting responsibility for crimes committed during the colonial era and paying restitution to the victims. The victims, a band of elderly men and women, have had to fight a long and courageous battle. Many have died along the way, some of them members of the Land and Freedom Army, others mere civilians who were detained in camps and treated with great brutality. The case will likely open up the possibility of other cases from the colonial era.

The purpose of slavery was money, the purpose of colonialism and empire was about monopoly markets, resources, money and power. Great crimes were committed in search of these. Depending on your sources, between 2 million to 6o million Africans perished during slavery between 1500 and 1900, others were subjected to terrible violence and horrors. The violence continued under colonialism – with millions ethnically cleansed from their lands, used as forced labour, killed or having their limbs cut off, as in the Belgian Congo. No one was punished for any of this. A recent film inadvertently highlighted the glaring inconsistency between the treatment of Africans and Europeans. Called “Mugabe and the White African”, it was a distressing account of a white family’s ordeal at the hands of a ZANU-PF dignitary, driving them off their land. You needed a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for the family.

The film nevertheless did not mention that most African families in Zimbabwe would have gone through similar violence and intimidation when they were driven off their land a hundred years earlier, without compensation. So the film was partial on the African experience. The film then celebrated the human rights judgement the family achieved at the SADC Court, the first time such a judgement had ever been made in Africa. What struck home at this point was the irony of the British film-makers celebrating this unprecedented contemporary human rights victory, against the horrors of the past 400 years of slavery, violence, stolen land – where nothing had happened. Not one colonial bureaucrat convicted. In addition, the colonial authorities have been dragged kicking and screaming even to acknowledge the crimes. Which means the victims’ voices have rarely been heard. Instead, the normal pattern has been to compensate the wrong-doers. Whenever Africans have stopped the abuse, the exploitation, the violence, or the theft of land, those who have behaved abominably have been compensated, while their victims were left with nothing, sent out into the world with no resources, to live marginal lives.

The pattern was set early, with Haiti’s payment of compensation to France after freeing itself from slavery in 1804. In 1825 the French monarch demanded Haiti pay an “independence debt” in order to remove the blockade and sanctions that had been imposed by the West. The “independence debt”, that in 2010 was valued at over $21bn, forced Haitians to pay for their freedom. Haiti was still paying off this debt in 1947. In 2004, a lawsuit launched by Haiti to recover the money was abandoned when France backed the overthrow of the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The Haitian example of compensating the aggressors was followed by the British compensating former slave owners (to the tune of about $25bn in today’s terms) to agree to the abolition of slavery in 1838. David Cameron’s wife’s ancestors were major beneficiaries of this package.

Since then similar compensation packages have been put in place for settler descendents every time the colonial regime retreated, most recently in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. The recent victory of the Land and Freedom Army has begun the fight for justice and against the impunity that occurred during the age of slavery, colonialism and empire. The fight has at least ensured the voices of the victims are heard and the crimes publicised – in contrast to the sanitised version of colonial history written by victors.

Next is Diego Garcia.

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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