Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Britain Faces Colonialism Lawsuits From East Africa by Paul Redfern
The British government is facing a veritable avalanche of law suits relating to the colonial period in Kenya and Uganda over the coming year.
Since the controversial success of the Samburu and Maasai pastoralists, who won £4.5 million in damages from the UKís Ministry of Defence for army ordinance left behind on military ranges in Kenya, a number of high profile cases have been initiated with the aim of making the British government pay up for past misdemeanours, some of which date back more than one hundred years.
Some of these have already been well publicised including the allegations of rape against British army soldiers in Kenya and the claims by former Mau Mau veterans.
But one of the most interesting and complicated cases being fought is that of the Maasai community who are challenging a British court decision made 101 years ago to force them out of their lands around Laikipia and into a new area surrounding the Tanzanian border.
The case is likely to be highly contentious not only for London but also for Nairobi which is said to be far from keen to have the issue of who lives where as well as historical grievances over land re-opened again.
But the Maasai say they want compensation for the prime agricultural land which they lost between 1910 and 1913 which was then worth £1 million but is said to be worth nearer £1 billion today.
Britainís Foreign Officer has refused to comment on the matter but are likely to argue, if forced to, that as the 1913 High Court ruling on the matter went in their favour, albeit on a technicality, then that is the end of the matter.
Moreover, London will say that they have no legal say over a prime part of the Maasai case - the return of lands which they say have been stolen from them - and that UN protocols on the matter are far from clear.
Nevertheless, both the Australian and New Zealand governments have recognised historical grievances by the Aboriginal and Maori people, as has the United States governments with regard to the native American Indians.
But a court ruling on land no longer under the jurisdiction of the British government would be difficult to enforce as it would have to involve the Kenyan government as co-respondent.
Both Nairobi and London are likely to view efforts to drag up historical land grievances as dangerous and damaging although that doesnít seem to have hindered the efforts of some Maasai activists.
Their case is being backed in the UK by the Minority Rights Group who point out that all around the world, indigenous people are taking issue with past injustices.
Some 10,000 Masai people were said to have been forced to move south into lands affected by tsetse fly and malaria one hundred years ago. Many died making the journey.
The Maasai claim the British broke written promises in doing so and organisations such as the Simba Maasai Outreach Organisation say they are prepared to go to court to prove it.
But the Maasai claim is just one of many facing the British government in the new millennium. The Nandi people are said to be preparing to sue Britain for killing their prophet Koitalel arap Samoei in 1905 during a military campaign to suppress Nandi resistance, while the king of the Bunyoro in Uganda is reported to being prepared to take Britain to court for war crimes committed in the 1890s.
And it is not only the British government which is facing legal action. In Namibia, the Herero people have filed a $4 billion suit in the US against Germany for alleged colonial atrocities committed 100 years ago.
Note: This article first ran in The East African
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Tuesday, January 27, 2004