‘It’s a time bomb’: Growing anger among Kenyans as Britain refuses to redeem colonial land grabs

When Paul Chepkwony was sworn in as governor of Kenya’s Kericho district in 2013, he knew he had a grand mission to embark on.

The Kipsigis and Talai peoples saw his election as an opportunity to finally right the wrongs of a brutal colonial past in which their clans were ruthlessly ousted by the British Army between 1895 and 1963 to make way for profitable settler-owned tea plantations.

The plantations still exist today, covering some 200,000 acres owned by well-known multinationals – Unilever, Williamson Tea and Finlays – which produce tea consumed by millions.

Meanwhile, hundreds of forcibly displaced victims, now elderly, and tens of thousands of their descendants live on the fringes of their ancestral lands, many of them in poverty.

They are not allowed to enter their old family homes and cannot even bury their loved ones in the countryside.

Multinational companies now own vast tea plantations in the Kericho region of Kenya

(AFP via Getty Images)

Many of the victims suffered rape, torture, beatings and humiliation at the hands of the colonial administration, as well as arbitrary displacement and violations of their right to family life and property.

Mr Chepkwony, himself a descendant of victims, took office nine years ago determined to wage a peaceful fight for reparations from the British Government for this historic wrong.

“It was my responsibility to take charge of the matter and seek attorneys to investigate. We provide resources for this. We registered victims and then the process began,” he says The Independent.

“My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather were victims. That is the motivation that led me to appeal this matter alongside my role as governor.”

But the fight wasn’t easy – and the fight has been going on for almost a decade.

Speak with The IndependentDickson Sitienei, a victim in his 70s who is being represented in the case, described the immense struggle that has underpinned her quest for justice.

“It’s been very difficult to feel ignored by the UK Government for so long because of the terrible things they’ve done to us,” he said.

“We’ve fought for many years to make our voices heard and if they think we’ll forget what they did, they’re wrong.

“We will continue to fight for them to speak to us and we thank our lawyers for continuing this fight. We can’t really feel free until they acknowledge what they’ve done; that is the only way forward.”

Kenyans who had been forced off their land photographed them while being held at Kericho Detention Center and were made to pose alongside British colonial officers with whom they were made to pose

(Nikita Bernhardi)

In 2018, Mr Chepkwony and his legal team submitted the evidence they had collected to the Kenya National Land Commission.

The Commission ruled in March 2019 that the Kipsigis and Talai had been victims of historic land injustices during and after colonial times in Kenya.

It ruled that the British government should pay reparations and apologize to the direct victims of historic injustice.

It also concluded that the UK and the multinational tea companies should build facilities such as schools and hospitals in the county and provide services such as water and electricity to alleviate their suffering.

However, when the legal team attempted to mediate with Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), ministers refused to participate in any discussions.

Mr Chepkwony describes this response as “a joke” and adds: “You see a lot of belligerence. It’s like they’re not interested at all.”

The next step was to appeal to the UN, which led to six of its special rapporteurs writing to the UK government in May last year, urging it to provide answers and settle the matter with the victims, many of whom are still alive .

But the UK responded two months later, making it clear that it was not open to discussion or an apology.

It cited an agreement reached with Kenyan citizens who had survived the period of emergency and the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-1963, under which the British government had agreed to build a memorial in Nairobi to honor victims of torture and ill-treatment .

“We must never forget history and must always try to learn from it. But we should also look to the future: our modern partnership with Kenya is broad, deep and immensely valued,” the response said.

Mr Chepkwony was not happy with that. “The Mau Mau are a completely different tribe and come from a completely different geography. The facts are completely different. In our case, they stole the whole country,” he says.

This week the governor came to London with the legal team in hopes of meeting with the UK government. They contacted the FCDO weeks before their visit and asked for it.

When the response came in late April, it said: “For reasons set out in previous letters, we decline your invitation to arrange a meeting between the FCDO and the attorneys and representatives of Kericho and Bomet counties.

“The UK Government remains firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and to upholding our international commitments and commitments.”

Mr Chepkwony had hoped to arrange a meeting. “All I wanted was the opportunity to meet them and sit with them. How can they fear a little man like me? We are very sober and very realistic. This should be a dialogue, a pure dialogue about what is possible and what is not,” he says.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a Labor MP and leader of Britain’s all-party parliamentary group on African reparations, which the governor and legal team met with last week, said the government’s refusal to engage in dialogue was “symbolic of its failure to Acknowledging the harm of colonialism and the enduring effects it is having to this day”.

She added, “If our country doesn’t respect Black people abroad, we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t respect Black people at home.”

After the government refused to get involved, the governor and his legal team petitioned the British royal family on Wednesday, on behalf of more than 100,000 Kenyans, asking for an apology and redress.

Rodney Dixon QC, a British lawyer who is part of the legal team representing more than 115,000 Kenyan citizens pushing for reparations, compared the UK government’s response to a “bust pileup”.

“It’s the same as if a person is in a car accident and they handle their case, but they won’t handle the case of the person in the car right behind. They say no, we’re just doing car number one,” he said.

“They decide that people in the first car get paid and nobody else.”

Kericho County Governor Paul Chepkwony (right) and attorney Joel Kimutai Bosek (left) were denied a meeting with the FCDO in London this week


Joel Kimutai Bosek, a Kenyan lawyer who is also part of the team, said the reparations from the Kipsigis and the Talai were relatively modest.

“If we were asking for financial compensation, we would be asking for a lot of money, but we didn’t go that route,” he said.

“We have given the UK Government a very soft way of apologizing and giving us a form or redress. It’s not something that’s ridiculous or outrageous.”

Mr Bosek, who is also a descendant of victims, pointed out that Germany recently agreed to pay Namibia compensation for a genocide in the early 20th century and was “not even forced” to do so.

“Land in Kenya is a means to almost everything. Successive generations have been unable to live their lives to the fullest because of poverty. There is a lot of hopelessness,” he added.

“The anger is still there. It’s like a time bomb. Sometimes we are asked, “Why don’t you allow us to invade the country?”. We say no – but how long will that last? People feel they are hitting a wall in any attempt to seek justice.

“If you look at history, you see examples of people who have tried A, B, C, D — and when nothing works, the option is always to take matters into your own hands.”

An FCDO spokesman said: “In 2013 the British government acknowledged that Kenyans were being mistreated by the colonial administration. We regret that these historic abuses have taken place and that they have hampered Kenya’s progress towards independence.

“The promotion and protection of human rights around the world remains a cornerstone of our foreign policy.”

A spokesman for Finlays said that all of its land holdings in Kericho are held under valid leasehold agreements granted by the Kenyan government and are compatible with the laws of the country and that the company is working with local communities to ensure that it work “in a responsible and sustainable way”.

The company added it has set up an independent charity that is working to distribute funds to the local community to provide education opportunities, clean water and other infrastructure improvements.

Unilever and Williamson Tea were asked to comment. ‘It’s a time bomb’: Growing anger among Kenyans as Britain refuses to redeem colonial land grabs

Bobby Allyn

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