James N. Kariuki*
On June 6, 2013 the British Government pledged to make amends to Mau Mau survivors who had been brutally victimized by the British colonial authorities during Kenya’s war of independence.
The offered financial compensations were by no means staggering but the wording of regrets for the wrongdoing was refreshing for its sincerity. The forthrightness of the exercise is a relief to the victims and adds significantly to the acts’ historical implications.
Firstly, the moment that the British Foreign Secretary William Hague stood before Parliament and regretted that horrid and excessive abuses had taken place in colonial Kenya, the Mau Mau freedom fighters ceased to be ‘terrorists’ and became nationalists. History books need to be edited.
More broadly, Hague’s words vindicated the claim that historically, the wheels of justice move slowly but they tend to move towards greater justice.
It has taken Britain half a century to accept culpability for the Mau Mau excesses. Concurrently, another anti-colonial war raged in Algeria. The brutality in the Algerian War was so horrendous that, to this day, Algerians find it practically impossible to forgive their former colonizer.
A hint of regrets would probably ease the intense anger but the French too still bulk at the suggestion of an apology, much less of compensation. After all, the Algerian War nearly tore apart metropolitan France itself. Hard feelings persist.
Algerian War notwithstanding, however, in situations where a definable group has absorbed ‘collective injury’ from another, historical tradition has been to amend the wrongs by paying restitution. This has been said before in this blog, but it is probably worth repeating.
The most famous case is, of course, that of the Jews and the holocaust experience. Post-World War II Germany has faithfully made amends to the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
A less publicized tragedy is that of wrongful US internment of people of Japanese extraction by the Roosevelt administration during World War II. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans feared another assault was forthcoming and pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to take pre-emptive action against Japanese descendents in the US.
In February 1942, Roosevelt signed an Executive Order authorizing 120, 000 people of Japanese descent on the US West Coast to be placed in War Relocation Camps. Presumably, Japanese descendants were more likely to spy for Japan. To the dismay of historians, no Japanese descendant was ever convicted in the US for spying for Japan.
Forty three years after World War II, the US Government resolved to pay restitutions in the amount of $1.2 billion to the affected Japanese-American families. The 1988 decision was accompanied by a moving pledge: “The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
Two decades after the American historic decision, the Australian Government issued an unreserved apology to its Aborigine citizens for historical wrongful treatment, for “the “laws and policies that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.”
The Australian Government fell short of mentioning reparations for the Aborigines, but amends for that purpose have been slowly coming.
History shows that Africans and their descendants have endured greater ‘collective injury’ than all the other groups combined. Yet, until the mau mau case in June, no reparations have ever been paid to them. Legal scholars insist that this is indeed ‘justice-delayed’ due to the enormity of the Africans’ case; it is too overwhelming.
The matter of apartheid victims is exceptional; it is indeed smaller and more manageable. As a legal precedent, it could easily reverberate to the entire Global Africa. But restitutions have not been forthcoming, partly because the post-apartheid government of President Thabo Mbeki once resisted the idea of compensation decided upon outside South Africa. Allegedly, such extra-territorial decisions would infringe upon South Africa’s sovereignty. Bishop Desmond Tutu disagreed with that logic.
To-date, only a single apartheid case has had limited success. Last year, General Motors, the American automobile company, agreed to an out of court settlement in which it would pay apartheid claimants. The payments were nominal but they were a back-door admission of liability for past racial-determined wrongdoing.
The USA bears a huge stigma regarding slavery and historical mistreatment of its black citizens. Politically, Barack Obama is not obliged to come to the rescue Africa; Americans voted him into office and he is answerable to them.
However, slavery was ultimately entrenched largely as an American domestic sin and political Obama has a moral responsibility to apologize to his fellow African-Americans for that wrongdoing. That alone is an ideal opportunity to place the first US black president in his rightful place in history for one act of kindness. After all, his presidency is itself an affirmation of history moving towards greater justice
Slavery was also a global sin of the Western world against Africans and their descendants. As the leader of the ‘Free World,’ Obama should take a hint from the British action regarding Kenya’s mau mau and apologize to the entire Global Africa in the name of the USA. That would be a mark of statesmanship.
** *James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (emeritus) and an independent writer. He is based in South Africa. The views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.