The issue of abuses committed by UK troops has been left to civil society and remnants of freedom fighters for decades, while avoiding the focus of the country’s media and elites
By Dr. Westen K. Shilaho, scholar of Political Science and International Relations, Senior Research Fellow in Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg
The British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK) in Nanyuki, some 195 kilometers north of Nairobi, has elicited controversy over the years. Britain has permanently stationed about 200 soldiers in Kenya at any given time since Kenya gained independence in 1963. The Kenyan government regards its military cooperation with Britain as strategic to its national security, and the British troops and their Kenyan counterparts hold joint training from the camp. Crucially, BATUK is central to Kenya’s contribution to the ‘global fight’ against terrorism as a reliable Western ally in the East African and the Horn subregion. Kenya, to critics, is a proxy in this counterterrorism campaign and acts at the behest of Western powers.
Historically, Kenya has prized its relationship with Britain. Kenya is the first commonwealth country that the British monarch, King Charles III, visited after coronation. It is testament to Kenya’s longstanding relations with Britain. It is also a dubious distinction that shows that the colonial hangover still runs deep in the country. Diplomatically, the two countries have hardly had frosty relations except on occasions when British envoys abandoned diplomatic niceties and pointedly criticized the Kenyan government for runaway corruption, and other state excesses. Mau Mau, a liberation movement that led an uprising against the British colonialists, was only unbanned recently in 2003. Kenya’s postcolonial political elite, offshoots of collaborators – home guards – naturally inherited British antipathy against the Mau Mau and maintained colonial era legislation that outlawed them.
The British government has never acknowledged colonial era atrocities in concentration camps in Kenya that included rape, castrations, torture, and murder. The British monarch, during a state visit to Kenya last week, used the words “greatest sorrow and deepest regret” to describe “the heinous and unjustified acts of violence against Kenyans” during the fight for independence. These are vague words that did not include an apology or a pledge for reparations.
Previous Kenyan presidents had shied away from calling for reparations from Britain. So has the Kenyan media, ever unwilling to sharply frame public interest issues. For decades, this issue has been left to civil society and remnants of freedom fighters. However, President William Ruto unprecedently called for reparations during his meeting with the monarch for egregious atrocities committed against the Mau Mau and various other liberation movements and civilians during colonialism.
The Kenyan government often describes its relations with Britain as warm and cordial despite an atrocious colonial legacy and the postcolonial atrocities by the British troops training from Nanyuki. The monarch described these relations as a “modern partnership of equals.” Critics do not see how a colonial power and its former colony can have such a relationship. They fault the military treaty between Kenya and Britain as a symbol of enduring neocolonialism, imperialism, and erosion of Kenya’s sovereignty. In 2021, the treaty was up for renewal and some voices called for it to be scrapped, but expectedly, it was extended for five more years. This, however, did not dampen calls for reparations and an end to the treaty. Kenya’s political elite is anglophile in orientation. This is why for decades the problematic relations with Britain have not received due attention.
To some residents of Nanyuki, BATUK is a boost to the local economy. Besides employment opportunities to some Kenyans from the area and other parts of the country, this military base has injected $40 million into the local economy since 2016. Whenever the British soldiers come, they spend generously, particularly on entertainment. It is a windfall to some businesspeople and workers. Once they leave, however, the town turns forlorn until the next batch of soldiers arrive. This financial gain is what, to critics, made successive Kenyan governments unable to rein in rogue British soldiers or end this treaty altogether. It is not all glamour with BATUK, however.
This camp is a metaphor of gross human rights violations. Uncleared munitions at the training camp have caused untold suffering to children and adults over the years, but the victims have not had justice. Residents lost lives at the hands of the British soldiers, but no one has been held to account. The military treaty does not explicitly accord the British troops immunity against criminal prosecution, but has a caveat that effectively does. Law-breaking British soldiers can only be tried in Kenya with the agreement of the UK government. It explains why the Kenyan authorities have not held errant British soldiers criminally accountable and the UK government liable for the atrocities associated with its troops. Insidiously, the treaty ringfences British military interests and personnel in Kenya against accountability.
Cases of people being maimed by unexploded ordnance are common in Archer’s Post, an area not too far from Nanyuki. The victims have lost limbs, eyes, hearing, and even life owing to uncleared training grounds. Some of the victims have been compensated, but many more have not, or never will be. Some of the victims lost their cases on technicalities. When injured, disputes sometimes arise as to whose unexploded munition it was since Kenyan and British troops train in the same area.
British troops have also been accused of raping Kenyan women with impunity over the decades. The plight of these victims is never taken seriously, owing to the lack of political will to stand up to the British. The balance of power between Britain and Kenya is lopsided, weighted heavily towards Britain. Ordinary Kenyans’ lives are trivialized by the government’s unwillingness to fight for them.
One of the most egregious cases of impunity by the British troops in Nanyuki is the murder of a young Kenyan woman, Agnes Wanjiru, whose body was dumped in a hotel septic tank close to the camp in 2012. She had been seen alive in the company of a British soldier. The suspect showed other soldiers the body and the murder was reported to senior British soldiers, but no action was taken. The suspect was allowed to leave Kenya and while in Britain, allegedly casually confessed to colleagues that he murdered the woman. This story was broken by the British media and half-heartedly amplified by the Kenyan media. The Kenyan authorities showed nominal interest in the case to save face. The government and media’s first priority appeared to be damage control, not concern for justice for Wanjiru – or for others who have been maimed and died over the years courtesy of British troops.
Once the story fell off the front pages of newspapers and prime time headlines, the government went back to default settings. They could not afford to associate BATUK with atrocities and jeopardize their relationship with Britain. The murder of Wanjiru was as much an indictment on the Kenyan government as it was on a military treaty that enables the commission of gross human rights violations in Nanyuki and its surroundings without accountability. It highlights racial undertones in the relations between the two countries. Whiteness shields these British troops from justice and the authorities of Kenya and Britain seem to converge on this recalcitrant legacy of impunity.
Despite lone voices from social media and civil society who question the relevance of BATUK 60 years after independence, the military pact is likely to exist far into the future and its supposed benefits overplayed. The British monarch was obsequiously accorded red-carpet treatment throughout his four-day state visit to Kenya. Consciousness about the disturbing relationship between Kenya and Britain is yet to take hold in the imagination of a critical mass of Kenyans. Until that happens, troops associated with BATUK will continue to hurt Kenyans without any recourse to justice.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.