Visiting monarch expresses remorse over past British atrocities in Kenya but falls short of an apology that many believe is due for a full historical reckoning, at a time when most African states are asserting themselves not as a footnote in British history.
By Seth Onyango
King Charles III voiced deep regret over the UK’s colonial actions in Kenya, yet a definitive apology remains elusive amid pressing demands for historical redress.
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Amid the pomp of his state visit, Charles drew attention to the egregious acts committed by Britain during Kenya’s independence struggle.
He acknowledged the “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans” in their struggle for statehood adding, “there can be no excuse”.
Still, he walked a tightrope, balancing between remorse and a full apology as he addressed the UK’s colonial actions in Kenya.
During an emotionally charged banquet, the monarch voiced his “greatest sorrow” and “deepest regret” over colonial-era wrongs—a significant gesture, albeit not the full mea culpa the Kenya rights groups had urged for.
Charles’ visit to Kenya, his first to a Commonwealth country since he was crowned in May 2023, comes as the country prepares to celebrate 60 years of independence from Britain in December.
While his words carried weight, many Kenyans and human rights organizations believe that a full-fledged apology is overdue not just in Kenya but in Africa as well.
President William Ruto commended the monarchs for acknowledging these truths. He, however, rightfully termed the colonial reaction to the African struggles as being “monstrous in its cruelty.” Ruto’s words emphasize the monumental impact and enduring pain of colonial brutalities.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) had previously beseeched King Charles to offer an “unequivocal public apology.” Their appeal highlights the difference between statements of regret and official apologies, with the latter holding the potential for healing and true reconciliation.
While Kenya’s president, William Ruto, praised the king’s “exemplary courage” in shedding light on “uncomfortable truths”, he described the colonial reaction to African struggles as “monstrous in its cruelty”. He added that “much remains to be done in order to achieve full reparations”.
Earlier, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) urged King Charles to offer an “unequivocal public apology”.
“We call upon the king, on behalf of the British government, to issue an unconditional and unequivocal public apology (as opposed to the very cautious, self-preserving and protective statements of regrets) for the brutal and inhuman treatment inflicted on Kenyan citizens,” the commission demanded.
But the British monarchy, embodying centuries of tradition, finds itself at a crossroads between historical accountability and contemporary legal and diplomatic considerations.
According to human rights lawyer Joe Maina, King Charles’s choice of language — a nuanced expression of regret rather than a direct apology — underscores a strategic approach that acknowledges past atrocities while navigating the potential legal ramifications that a formal apology could precipitate.
“An outright apology might be construed as an admission of guilt under international law, potentially obligating the UK to substantial reparations,” he posits.
“In sum, the reluctance to apologise formally often stems from a combination of legal, political, and psychological factors, reflecting a cautious approach to dealing with historical issues that still have contemporary implications.
Nonetheless, Maina asserts that despite the complex legalities, expressing regret is indeed a significant gesture, indicating a shift in the British establishment’s engagement with its colonial history.
In 2013, Britain announced an out-of-court settlement of about US$30.5 million, split between 5,200 victims, leaving about US$4,100 per claimant.
Before Britain’s parliament, then-Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed regret over “abhorrent violations of human dignity” that took place more than half a century ago.
“The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” he said, adding it “sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence.”
While an official apology remains elusive, King Charles’ expression of royal regret stands as one of the most prominent acknowledgements of his country’s colonial-era transgressions.
Colonial misdeeds under the British administration were severe. An estimated 100,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured, or gravely injured. As King Charles rightfully noted, nothing can change the past. However, by genuinely addressing history, nations can foster trust, unity, and shared visions for the future.
Between 1952 and 1960, during Kenya’s quest for freedom, approximately 1.5 million Kenyans, suspected of affiliations with the Mau Mau uprising, were herded into concentration camps. The appalling conditions, along with tales of torture, rape and degrading treatment, serve as grim reminders of a painful chapter in Kenya’s history.
While King Charles’s visit and subsequent recognition stand as significant steps, they also accentuate the broader call for nations to genuinely recognize and apologise for historical wrongs.
As many countries grapple with their colonial legacies, genuine recognition and reparations are increasingly viewed as pivotal for fostering international goodwill and understanding.
As the royal couple toured Kenya’s monuments and the soon-to-be-opened Mashujaa Museum, they were faced with stories of heroism, struggle, and resilience. Such experiences underscore the need for acknowledgement of past misdeeds and the urgency for genuine conciliatory actions.