So the case brought by three elderly survivors of Britain's brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya finally begins. The allegations of beatings, castration and rape to be heard by the High Court are horrific. And they are not unusual. The litany of brutality from the period – the forced labour camps, the torture, the murder – is one of the more shameful episodes of recent British history.
As if the violence itself was not bad enough, the denials, obfuscations and legal sleights of hand from the British government in the decades since have only made matters worse. Thousands of pages of documents were spirited out of Kenya when the country gained independence in 1963, to be hidden away in the Foreign Office for more than 50 years. Some were finally made public in April, many will only see the light of day with the trial.
Even now, Britain is trying to dodge the charges brought by Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara on the grounds that, not only were the events long ago, but any liabilities from the period in question passed, along with sovereignty, to the Kenyan state.
In part, at least, the Government is concerned to avoid a precedent that could open the door to all manner of restitutional claims. No matter. There is a moral obligation that cannot be dodged. Indeed, it is a disgrace that the plaintiffs have been forced to fight so hard and so long for even a chance of redress – so long, indeed, that a fourth has died. As no less a figure than Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out, in a letter to the Prime Minister, it is "high time that the British Government showed some magnanimity and compassion".
But there is also a broader point here. It is also high time that Britain faced up to – and took responsibility for – the less palatable realities of our colonial past.
It is not too late. The three Kenyans are at the High Court to ask for an apology and a Mau Mau welfare fund so they, and their counterparts, can live out their lives in dignity. The Government should do the right thing at last, and settle the claim.Reuse content