kenya versus the crown: watch this space


From Owen Bowcott of the Guardian:

Highly embarrassing colonial-era files detailing the British army’s repressive tactics against Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya during the 1950s will be revealed in a landmark compensation case.

The discovery of thousands of documents withheld for decades from the Kenyan government will raise awkward questions about the Foreign Office’s attempt to deny liability for the allegedly systematic mistreatment of thousands of Kikuyu victims prior to independence.

The case, brought by four survivors of the notorious detention camps operated by the colonial authorities could also set a precedent by forcing the release of files relating to other colonies once controlled by the UK.


The impeccable file-keeping of British imperial administrators, for which historians have always been so grateful, may now come back to haunt them, should this case receive a favourable hearing — which it probably deserves to do. Watch, thereafter, as some arbitrary date will be set as a ‘cut-off’ date for potential claims; history then refashioned into a number of portions, some of which ‘behind us’, some ‘with us’.

Just which ‘natives’ might sue the British Empire will become heavily politicised.

This is a theme I develop in a forthcoming paper in arena journal, partly an homage to the insightful scholarship of Berber Bevernage, partly a siren call for a historiographical revolution, partly an observation on the overlap between law and history.

Of course, John and Jean Comaroff forsaw this kind of thing a number of years ago when they identified a new recourse to law (or ‘lawfare’) in the postcolonial world for the reparation of old wrongs. As they put it, the past

is increasingly caught up in the dialectic of law and disorder: hence the mobilization of legalities to fight anti-imperialist battles anew, which has compelled the British government to answer under oath for having committed acts of unspeakable atrocity in its African “possessions”, for having killed local leaders at whim, and for having unlawfully alienated territory from one African people to another. By these means is colonialism, tout court, rendered criminal. Hauled before a judge, history is made to break its silences, to speak in tongues hitherto unheard and untranslated, to submit itself to the scales of justice at the behest of those who suffered it, of its most abject subjects— and to be reduced to a cash equivalent, payable as the official tender of damage, dispossession, loss, trauma. In the process, too, it becomes clear that what imperialism is being indicted for, above all, is its commission of lawfare: its use of its own rules—of its duly enacted penal codes, its administrative law, its states of emergency, its charters and mandates and warrants, its norms of engagement—to impose a sense of order upon its subordinates by means of violence rendered legible, legal, and legitimate by its own sovereign word. And also to commit its own ever-socivilized, patronizing, high-minded forms of kleptocracy.

Never before now, perhaps, has the British Crown found itself so confronted by an African postcolonial polity for its wayward fits of imperial decision-making. That the case is draped in the language of human rights — and not necessarily, as we might expect, conjuring up the familiarily scandalised treatment of crucial commodites, i.e. misdirected land or ill-distributed capital — makes it all the more interesting, and potentially jurisprudentially ground-breaking.

Definitely watch this space.

Hat-tip, Jenny Mac.

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