Kibebe Mucharia had been convicted but would not confess to further crimes. Just ten days after Njuma’s death, he was beaten to death with rubber strips torn from shredded tyres by two interrogators who were sentenced to three years in prison for manslaughter.
Another Mau Mau convict at Mariiri detention camp was sent to break stones in a quarry but, after a fight with prison wardens, collapsed and died. The inquest resulted in a verdict of death by misadventure even though a medical officer confirmed he had been struck on the head. It was recorded that his skull had an abnormally thin lining.
In 1956, The Observer received a letter from detainees at Mariiri complaining about severe beatings and two deaths. The editor at the time, David Astor, raised the case with the colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, who was dismissive of the allegations, saying the first death had been from natural causes and no inquest was necessary.
In 2017, lawyers at the Royal Courts of Justice in London unpicked the violence and suffering that happened during the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. The trial examined claims of almost 40,00 Kenyans who sought compensation for rape, torture, forced labour and wrongful detention.
Although the government paid out £19.9m to settle earlier claims, survivors have been represented by Tandem Law in a lawsuit against the Foreign Office. However, ministers refused to settle the larger claim, saying too much time has passed to treat the issues fairly as those alleged to have inflicted violence are dead or untraceable.
St Pauls Involvement
Simon Myserson QC, representing the Kenyan claimants, accused the Conservative government of the 1950s of attempting to “kill” negative news stories such as that of The Observer. He argued that Lennox Boyd’s letter to Astor “begs a vast number of questions … This was a few months after a detainee had died in a bucket drill, where he had been made to run in circles, in temperatures of 100F, carrying a bucket on his head.
“That too, was said to be death from natural causes. It would always have been open to Lennox-Boyd to say we want to know precisely what happened.”
Simon Myerson QC addressed the high court, calling the minister’s response to Astor typical of the government’s efforts to discredit accuser. “The overarching point,” the barrister said, “is that the administration’s response is to circle the wagons and kill the story.
“In allegation after allegation, that never changes. It’s never … ‘We need to know what’s going on here’. There are constant warnings from the army that one should never have an independent inquiry because as [the military commander, Lt Gen Sir George] Erskine himself said, you don’t really want to know what you would discover.
“It’s pretty clear that the atrocities that do occur may not be army policy. They are the actions of people who lose control or who should never have been put in charge of handling a gun.
“[Government] policy in London was not to ask the questions. It was to undermine the people who made these reports [alleging abuses]. It was easier to [deal with] the detainees by undermining them and saying they had a vested interest in telling lies.
“The effort was made in killing the story not in investigation. And that represents an attitude that is not interested in finding out what was really happening.”
Citing extracts from the contemporary memoir of a local magistrate, Myerson quotes Willoughby Thompson, who was in the office of Kenya’s governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, when the latter was on a telephone call with Lennox-Boyd.
He told the court: “Baring said these people were beaten to death [at another camp] and Lennox-Boyd says: ‘I don’t want to say that because I have already told the House [of Commons] something else.’”
Myerson continued: “That is an extraordinary position. It is about protecting the administration. I’m not suggesting he’s protecting himself. It’s about this is what we have done and we have to follow it through. [But] if you always look to excuse what happened rather than inquiring into what happened, then you are not doing your job.”