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cc While Kenya is formally a democracy, it lacks the political culture for this form of governance to thrive, says Makau wa Mutua. Wa Mutua argues that the successful investigation into and accounting for of British atrocities committed against members of the Mau Mau liberation movement currently being led by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) will trigger the process of national healing necessary to the sense of national identity and common purpose Kenya needs in order to succeed as a democratic state.

Since the British founded it in the 19th century, Kenya has largely been a graveyard for progressive or transformative politics. Only gradualist and conservative political projects seem to enjoy any measure of success. Although Kenya is now formally a democracy, it remains illiberal and without the requisite political culture for such a government. But the recovery and restoration of the proper history of the Mau Mau is bound to have far-reaching repercussions for transitional justice and democracy in the country.

No people can truly cohere into an irreversible nation without a psyche forged on the anvil of their history. A people without a proud historical record lacks the anchor and moor to create a great society. That is why dominant states recite and embellish their histories repeatedly and without apology. It matters little whether such history is fact, myth, or fiction. What is important is that it is the tapestry through which the national identity is consolidated and perpetuated.

A nation properly so-called cannot exist without nationalism. This ideology constitutes the sinews by which the body politic, and country’s progeny, are transformed into nationalists and patriots. Successive Kenyan governments, including that of President Mwai Kibaki, have run away from Kenyan history. Otherwise, how can one explain their disdain and amnesia about our national heroes and heroines? Why aren’t Samoei arap Koitalel, Mekatilili wa Menza, Dedan Kimathi, Syokimau, and countless others at the centre of Kenya’s official history?

In Kenya, there is no historical occurrence that is more important to the identity of the Kenyan nation than the Land and Freedom Army, known as the Mau Mau. That movement, to which Kenya owes its independence from the British imperialists, remains the pinnacle of the nation’s history. The rehabilitation of Mau Mau survivors, the reclamation of the valiant legacy of the movement, and the resolution of the pathologies spawned by opposition to it will restore our humanity.

The Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) will lead our nation when it lodges a suit for reparations on behalf of the Mau Mau in a British court. The suit is the culmination of painstaking work by the KHRC and Mau Mau veterans and their relatives to hold the British government accountable for their atrocities. Although we shall be seeking financial damages for the veterans, the KHRC wants to emphasise that the quest for justice for the Mau Mau is priceless. It is not – and cannot be – just about the money.

As the premier human rights organisation in the country, the KHRC is primarily concerned with the creation of a Kenyan state rooted in respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. We appreciate the fact that the society we want to establish in Kenya cannot be realised unless the endemic culture of impunity by public officials – which is the legacy of British colonialism and its atrocities – is tackled at the source. Nor will it be possible to fully incubate democratic reforms and practices if we turn a blind eye to the most abominable injustice in the history of the country.

National recovery and reconstruction is a long and arduous process. Unfortunately, the Kenyan state is like an alcoholic who lives in denial. That is why the Kenyatta, Moi, and Kibaki governments have refused to confront the abuses of the past, particularly those related to the Mau Mau war for liberation. It is not possible, or feasible, to ever carry out a genuine transitional justice exercise in Kenya unless we tackle the pogroms against the Mau Mau and the peoples of Central-Eastern Kenya.

It is now an internationally accepted truism that countries emerging out of periods of bitter trauma and gross atrocities must address them in order to heal the nation and start the process of recovery. Chile, South Africa, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Argentina, and even the United States have at various times addressed their damned pasts. The United States has made amends for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. There is pressure to address the legacy of the enslavement and brutalisation of people of African descent and the extermination of Native Americans.

In 2003, the task force that I led on a truth commission concluded, after a national dialogue with Kenyans from all walks of life, that transitional justice was indispensable to democratisation. That is why after pleas from citizens across the country, we recommended that the Kibaki government establish a truth commission to address the abominations committed between 1964 and 2002. This would have covered the abuses of the independent Kenya governments under Presidents Kenyatta and Moi. The truth commission would have revealed the truth, identified perpetrators, recognised victims, and provided justice. These would have been the foundation stones of our democracy.

Significantly, the truth commission task force realised that it was not enough for the country to only address the atrocities by post-colonial Kenya governments. We were keenly aware that many of the problems in the post-colonial state – impunity for public officials, despotism by government, atrocities by the police and security officials, the culture of corruption, landlessness, and steep gender inequities – were either a legacy of colonialism, or had been exacerbated by it. These problems were not confined to any one region or community.

That is why the task force recommended that the Kibaki government establish a committee to address the abuses in the colonial period from 1894 to 1963. Among other important issues, such the land problems at the Coast and Rift Valley provinces, this committee would have focused attention on the plight of the Mau Mau and its repercussions in Central-Eastern Kenya. It was my conviction then – and remains so today – that a successful investigation and accounting of the Mau Mau question would start the process of national healing and help consolidate and deepen our quest for a democratic state.

It is disappointing to the KHRC that a private organisation has had to spearhead this most important of national ventures without the assistance of the government, which is the guardian of the people. But we are equal to the task. We continue to raise money for the suit to pay lawyers, transport survivors and witnesses, including Mrs Mukami Kimathi, to London for the filing of the suit, and other related expenses. We urge all Kenyans, and appeal to the Kibaki government, to support the KHRC materially and morally as it seeks justice for the Mau Mau. The identity of Kenya and the future of our democracy depend on what we do with this opportunity.

* Makau Mutua is a professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC). He was chair of the task force on a truth commission in 2003.
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