King Charles III (left) with Kenyan President William Ruto (center) during the welcoming ceremony at State House in Nairobi, October 31, 2023. BEN STANSALL / AFP
For his first visit to a Commonwealth country, King Charles III chose Kenya, the country where his mother, Queen Elizabeth II learned of her accession to the English throne in 1952, where her son, Prince William, asked for the hand of his wife, Kate Middleton. But it is not family history that the king came to study. After his face-to-face meeting with President William Ruto, the king’s program will consist of meetings with Nairobi entrepreneurs and nature protection associations.
As the former British colony celebrates sixty years of its independence this year, on December 12, 1963, he also promised not to neglect “the most painful aspects” of the history between the two countries. Charles III “will take the time (…) to deepen his understanding of the wrongs suffered during this period by the Kenyan people”, in particular the bloody repression of the Mau Mau revolt (1952-1960), which left more than 10,000 dead. . During this same period, British colonists detained more than a million Kenyans and expropriated hundreds of thousands of individuals.
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Far from the protests targeting France in its former colonies in the Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger), critics of the former British colonial power are struggling to be heard in Kenya. The Kenyan government is keen to prevent memorial issues from disrupting the royal visit and has banned demonstrations hostile to the monarch’s presence. Within civil society, criticism is not expressed collectively, but rather through local struggles, often linked to land conflicts.
Perched on high plateaus, 250 kilometers west of the capital Nairobi, the immense tea plantations of Kericho are at the heart of these grievances. These misty and humid valleys, bottle green, covered in tea as far as the eye can see, have a false air of the English countryside. In the surrounding area, to cheer themselves up, people like to say that the British colonists settled there after recognizing a familiar climate.
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Except that the reason is quite different: Kericho and its surroundings benefit from ideal climatic conditions for growing tea, of which Kenya is the third largest exporter in the world. The British crown confiscated more than 40,000 hectares from Talai and Kipsigi in the area from 1902. Fertile land which is still in the hands of several British multinationals, such as Unilever today.
“Here, it’s still a colony! », indignant Joel Kimeto, a Kipsigi representative, pointing to the 10,000 hectares of plantations belonging to the Scottish company James Finlay. It acquired them in 1925 during the colonial period, following expropriations carried out by the English army. “The multinationals are still gorging themselves with money by cultivating land that they took illegally, while we have nothing,” continues Mr. Kimeto.
“Land still belongs to foreigners”
The Kipsigi and Talai were at the time moved by the hundreds of thousands into indigenous reserves, precursors of the bantustans of South Africa. Tito Arap Mitei lived there with his parents in the 1930s. The man, a hundred years old, his eyes burned by the sun, had the hope that everything would change upon independence in 1963. “Nothing has changed, “It’s like back then, the land still belongs to foreigners,” he emphasizes, not far from the road that separates the British plantations from the former indigenous reserves.
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At the time of independence, the former colonial power and the first Kenyan government of Jomo Kenyatta signed land agreements which ratified the ownership of English companies. “The abusive exploitation of resources taking place in Kenya today is a direct result of colonial crimes that have gone unreported,” protests Peter Herbert, English lawyer and president of the Society of Black Lawyers.
Joel Kimeto, a Kipsigi representative, in front of the tea plantation belonging to the Scottish company James Finlay, in Kericho, October 30, 2023. NOÉ HOCHET-BODIN
The 120,000 Kipsigi and Talai descendants petitioned the United Nations in 2019 and filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in 2022. A UN report, published in 2021, takes action and cause for both communities and recommends the establishment of a reparations process “which must include measures of restitution, compensation and rehabilitation” by the United Kingdom.
But London has been silent since 2013, when it compensated 5,200 veterans for more than 23 million euros and acknowledged its responsibility for the murder, torture and detention of tens of thousands of Kenyans during the repression. of the Mau Mau revolt.
Calls for recognition of colonial crimes
“We have been clear, we have paid a colossal sum to the Mau Mau veterans (…). We have expressed our regrets and we think it is the right thing to do,” said Neil Wigan, the British ambassador to Nairobi, during an interview on Kenyan television last week. A new act of repentance, in the eyes of the monarchy, could lead to a burst of complaints across the fifty-five other member countries of the Commonwealth.
Because Charles III’s visit comes at a time when calls for recognition of colonial crimes are increasingly loud, including within the British Parliament. “This reluctance to recognize colonial crimes is counterproductive,” asserts Labor MP of Ghanaian origin Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy. The UK must understand that it is only a small island in a changing world, where the recognition of these crimes becomes a necessary diplomatic act to establish good relations. »
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Moreover, criticism in Kenya is not limited to past crimes, but also includes the current British presence, notably the British Batuk military base in Nanyuki, which finds itself at the heart of several controversies. The assassination of Agnes Wanjiru, a young woman found lifeless in 2021, brought to light the impunity enjoyed by the soldiers of the former colonial power, who undergo training in Kenya every year.
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A British soldier is suspected in this affair which was quickly buried by the Kenyan military hierarchy. In 2003, Amnesty International claimed to have documented 650 accusations of rape against British soldiers in Kenya between 1965 and 2001, denouncing “decades of impunity”.