Compo culture comes to Kenya
Compensating Kenyans for their treatment during the Mau Mau uprising makes a mockery of anti-colonial struggles.
Last week, UK foreign secretary William Hague ruled that 5,228 Kenyans will receive a compensation package totaling about £20million. The reason for such largesse? A case of post-colonial score settling.
In the midst of the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule in 1950s Kenya, the then colonial administration tortured thousands of Kenyans suspected of involvement. The recent legal ruling in the Kenyans’ favour means the British state is effectively remunerating them for suffering from long ago. It is hard not to be at least slightly pleased that those brutalised by British colonialism have at long last received some sort of justice. Yet the whole idea of pursuing legal action against the British state for its past political actions does raise some real problems.
In essence, what we have here is the globalisation of compensation culture. In recent years, it seems as if everything, from accidents at work to political wrongs, can be resolved with an apology and a bit (or a lot) of remuneration. This compensation culture has now not only made its way over to Kenya but has extended its hand right back to the 1950s. But there’s something troubling about this development: the crimes of British colonialism cannot be resolved and forgotten about merely by handing out cash to those upon whom colonial rulers visited their violence. Colonialism’s impact was much too vast, and the privations inflicted upon Kenyans much too deep, for such an easy solution.
Moreover, the pursuit of a legal case against the British state on behalf of those tortured during the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising strips the whole historical saga of its political and moral content. After all, the Mau Mau uprising was a conflict between two sides – one morally and politically right in its pursuit of self-determination against colonial rule, and the other morally and politically wrong in its attempt to continue colonial rule. Putting such a conflict in the courtroom reduces it to a conflict between two equals, with ‘objective judges’ deciding whether or not atrocities were carried out. It reduces a political struggle to a question of whether the British colonial administration carried out specific cruel acts in its bloody response to the uprising.
This can be seen, for example, in a Telegraph article which asks: ‘What about compensating victims of the Mau Mau?’ The article asserts that because the Mau Mau also carried out bloody acts of violence against those who opposed it, it is just as morally culpable as the British colonial administration. Of course, anyone who even vaguely supports anti-colonial politics would reject such attempts to level out the moral playing field between the anti-colonialists and colonialists. But that’s precisely what taking the British state to court does – it reduces a political struggle to a legal compensation battle over who did what and whether it was legally defensible.
The Mau Mau uprising was an attempt by Kenyans to shake off colonial rule, an attempt on the part of the Kenyan people to assert themselves as political subjects capable of self rule, an attempt by landless peasants, long deprived of property by the colonial administration, to grab a bit of land of their own. It seems that the Mau Mau uprising was clearly morally right, with the British state morally wrong. Without court cases demanding compensation for those tortured, this should have been clear.
But by attempting to pursue such historical struggles through narrow legal channels, the moral distance between colonialists and the colonised collapses. Furthermore, by treating the Kenyans of the 1950s as potential compensation claimants, we start to view them, not as political actors who bravely demanded land and freedom, but as mere victims of the British state.