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Uncovering evidence of torture and abuse during Kenya’s Mau Mau Emergency

Uncovering evidence of torture and abuse during kenya2019s mau mau emergency

The British government started to lose their fragile hold on Kenya in the early 1950s, and the period until independence in 1960 was marked by bloodshed and terror for many Kenyans, particularly in the Kikuyu tribe. Abuses were committed by both the British colonialists and Kenyans in the anti-British resistance group called Mau Mau. Professor David Anderson, who was at Oxford University between 2002 and 2013, is an expert in African politics and has a particular interest in colonial history. His research helped uncover these abuses and supported successful claims for formal recognition and compensation for Kenyan torture victims.

The struggle for freedom in Kenya was long and hard fought, with resistance movements opposing British occupation and rule since 1895. By the mid-20th century the extent of British land-grabbing had sparked a new resistance movement, largely drawn from the Kikuyu, the ethnic group most affected by the policy. The British were facing resistance in other colonies in the last days of Empire, and their tactics of ‘divide and rule’ were successful in Kenya as well. The crackdown on the Mau Mau was as brutal as the movement’s attacks on colonialists and their collaborators. It is hard to measure the extent of the crimes: estimates put the Kikuyu death toll at just over a thousand, but this does not cover the ‘disappearances’ nor the brutal abuse and torture that was conducted by both sides.

Anderson visited Kenya on a number of occasions to explore the archives in Nairobi. He discovered detailed records of executions and punishments, and evidence of a wider cover-up by British officials. Around 300 files seemed to be missing from the record. By 2010, Anderson had been invited to join the legal team of five elderly Kenyans who had lodged a claim against the British government for the abuse they had suffered, and the High Court ordered the government to search for the missing files. Once found, these contained the evidence needed to take the case to court.

Anderson's work was of critical importance
- Martyn Day, prosecutor on behalf of the group of survivors

The case was successful. The British government agreed to compensate the survivors of colonial torture, and nearly £14 million was paid out to 5,000 people. The case was the first time that the government had formally acknowledged its role in the Mau Mau Emergency and the subsequent cover-up. According to Dan Leader, lead barrister for the Kenyans, without Anderson’s identification of the missing archive material and his ‘meticulous’ research on it, ‘the claims would not have succeeded’.

Professor Anderson now works at Warwick University, and continues to research these issues. In 2014 he received a major public engagement award from Warwick in recognition of this work.

Find out more

David Anderson's current research

Watch The Last Battle (a documentary about the court case)