Many predicted that the Mau Mau case would open the flood gates for other colonial reparation cases. But you have said that it would be hard legally to replicate the Mau Mau ruling, why is that?
What made the Mau Mau case so successful was a combination of factors, which included damning evidence largely derived from my book and discovered in the course of the trial. Added to this was the international pressure of high profile people like Desmond Tutu and the media being in support of this case. I think all these factors were what brought the British government to the bargaining table. Of course, behind the scenes there were also individuals who were instrumental in saying ‘ok it’s time for this to come to a close.’ This included the British high commissioner in Kenya who was actually pretty favorable to the British government stepping up and doing the right thing. So we had what could be called a perfect storm, if you will, to create the historic settlement that was seen with Kenya.
Why do you think coming to terms with colonialism compensation is significant for Africa?
Several years ago, Wole Soyinka published a small book called, “The Burden of Memory and the Use of Forgiveness.” Soyinka, at that stage, was writing about the DRC just at the start of their re-conciliatory process, and he said very clearly he was concerned because he said there was a moral and material link missing in the DRC process. And by the moral link, he meant that the oppressor never admits to wrong and never apologizes. He said that the material link was that obviously there was no compensation ultimately given. Those two things struck me while working on this case.
What strategies should the British government and other former colonial powers use while dealing with issues around reconciliation and compensation?
If you look at these kinds of cases, I think we’re going to see a couple of things. Number one, you want to bear in mind that any case brought against the British government can only be brought by those individuals directly affected by the policy. In other words, a descendant cannot sue. From a British advantage, strategically as they grind this case out, future claimants not just from Kenya but elsewhere, will have passed on. We’re going to see the opportunity for such cases dwindling. The second issue is that it was very clear that the watermark for historical evidence required by the high court in order to get a favorable ruling was very high. We don’t always have the same kinds of detailed history about the violence as I did in Kenya, or for any other British colonies at the end of the empire. Therefore, while cases may very well be filed, it is going to be challenging for future claimants outside of Kenya to lobby their cases because they don’t have the same kind of historical evidence on hand that the Mau Mau claimants had.
What about the moral and public pressure? So even if cases are not proven in a court of law, how much of that kind of pressure do you think is going to play into it?
I think it will play into it, somewhat. You know, I think a lot depends on which way the wind blows in the political scene, and, of course, what happens, in terms of government. There is a conservative government, right now in Britain but these sorts of things can change. What you’re talking about is the court of public opinion and certainly what we’re going to see happening, since the Kenyan case, is going to be an increasing public pressure. Also more significant histories about the end of the British empire that go beyond just Kenya and go to really just connecting the dots of the systematized violence that British perpetrated from Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Siberia and elsewhere. When that starts to happen, there’s going to be a shift, but it’s going to require a real cultural shift. That is a shift in the belief by many that the British got the empire right. It’s a very strong sentiment and the British government has been quite successful in creating a kind of myth of British imperialism.
What is your next project? Will you be delving into any of the other historical claims presently being filed against Britain or other Western powers?
I’ve been involved in a couple ways. I’ve been consulted by attorneys who have been investigating the possibilities of other cases. In part, based upon my work in Kenya, but also in part because my next book is looking at systematized violence at the end of the British Empire, not just in Kenya but elsewhere. So it certainly is possible that I may get involved in other cases.
What can we expect from your next book? Are you able to give us a sense of what it’s likely to reveal?
I have no problem in saying that the research that I’ve done, the connecting of the dots, really does reveal a British government that was executing various forms of systematized violence and going to extreme lengths to cover this up. I think we have these kinds of histories that shift not just academics but the way the public at large begins to think. That’s when we start having re-evaluations of things like the British Empire. That’s also when we start seeing pressure coming up from the grassroots level on governments to apologize for past behavior
We talk about the effect that these compensation rulings have on victims and those who have undergone the atrocities, but what do you think the role of this kind of research is in changing the narrative of Africa’s future?
I think for future generations of Africans, particularly with a case like this Mau Mau one, it will reveal that this was not a situation of horrible bestial atavistic Africans fighting against the civilized white, British Europeans. That’s a different narrative to what is out there. I think what it suggests is that justice can be served after many decades and not only that, but that individuals at a grassroots level can make a real difference. Not only in bringing about a country’s independence, but also in terms of demanding their rights as individuals. These claimants are in their 80s, and they stood up to the British Empire. That takes no little courage and that should be a lesson not just to Africans but to people all over the world that the disempowered can actually find a voice.