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Celebrating 10 Years of Justice for the Mau Mau

CW: Discusses torture, sexual and gender based violence.

October 5th, 2012 marked a key legal victory for the Kenyan people known as the Mau Mau, providing long-awaited justice for the people who were tortured for almost a decade under British colonial rule.

In the resolution, Mutua et al. v. UK, five claimants named Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara, Susan Ngondi sued the British government, alleging they were victims of torture by British colonial officials, sanctioned by the British government. The claimants faced a major challenge in suing for crimes committed a half century ago— many of the perpetrators and victims had died by 2009, and Ngondi herself passed in the midst of the trial. [1] Despite the challenges, after 3 years of legal battles the High Court of London still ruled in favor of the Mau Mau, and the British government ended up paying reparations to Mau Mau survivors. [2]

We’re recognizing this case on its 10 year anniversary as it is an example of transitional justice at work, strengthening the ability for victims of historical atrocities to receive some form of justice, and for the Mau Mau provides the dignity of acknowledging a crime the British government denied for decades.

So what happened in Kenya that led to a trial 50 years later, and why does this case of transitional justice leave an important legacy for postcolonial justice?

The Mau Mau was a group of primarily Kikuyu Kenyans— but also included the Meru and Embu people— who fought for land and independence from the British colonizers of Kenya. The freedom fighters felt deep injustice and disenfranchisement in their colonized state, especially as many had fought for the British army in World War 2, only to return home to see white settlers receive benefits from service at their expense. [3] The rebellion started as fights between the Mau Mau and loyal black Kenyans, escalating to the destruction of land and livestock owned by British settlers. Despite the Mau Mau rebellion for independence being guerrilla and regional in nature, Great Britain still declared a state of emergency in Kenya in 1952 out of racist beliefs in the savage nature of Kenyans, and fear of the Mau Mau reaching a national scale. [4]

During the state of emergency, which lasted until Kenyan independence was granted in 1960, the British colonizers’ official aim was the “rehabilitation of internees by hard work and discipline, by propaganda, by religious education and other means,” but what really occurred were years of forced labor and torture. [5] At least 80,000 men were killed in these internment camps or amidst their laboring— although official British records kept this number at around 10,000 deaths.[6] Within internment camps, British colonial administrators would oversee “screenings,” where they would utilize torture techniques such as starvation, beatings, castrations, and stranglings to force confessions from Kenyans and renounce their Mau Mau allegiances. [8]

Additionally, detained men were the labor source for the colonial “modernization” projects in Kenya, such as the building of the country’s main airport.[7] While an airport could support the movements of Kenyans, settlers, or tourists, its construction was primarily a way to integrate Kenya into the Western economy. An infrastructure unavailable to native Kenyans during the state of emergency, constructed at the cost of thousands of Mau Mau deaths, and an infrastructure constructed with the goal of deepening Kenya’s economic dependency on Great Britain.

Simultaneously, the Colonial government was destroying Kikuyu communities by relocating women and children into enclosed villages and leveling their original homes. These colonial villages were designed to cut off contact between the women, children, and the Mau Mau, but the lived experience was more devastating than just isolation; disease and starvation ran rampant in these villages, as Mau Mau would ambush them at night for food, and the British overseers of camps would treat the villagers with violence. [9]

The variety of crimes that the British government committed, leading to distinct trauma between the sexes, was a leading reason for the makeup of the Mau Mau case’s six claimants, as Leigh Day hoped to choose claimants who could represent the variety of victims.

If you’re interested in the details of the British war crimes, the BBC documentary Kenya: White Terror has harrowing accounts from Mau Mau survivors and British colonial officials on the details of this period.

Until the late 1990s, Great Britain completely denied their reaction to the Mau Mau rebellion; it wasn’t until historian Caroline Elkins discovered hidden files of the colonial government from this period, and later published Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya that the British government changed its position. [8] While Imperial Reckoning shook the historical field, it’s important to remember that from the 1960s onwards, grassroots organizations of Mau Mau veterans and their descendants persisted in their calls and protests for British acknowledgment and reparations. [8] And simultaneously with Elkins’ historical (re)discovery, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission had approached the UK law firm Leigh Day to take on a legal case for the Mau Mau veterans, leading to Mutua et al. v. UK being filed in 2009.

The case asked for actions for damages of alleged assault, battery, and negligence, with the claimants alleging that the British colonial government, under orders and approval from the British government in the United Kingdom, was responsible for these atrocities. [10] The British government never denied the Mau Mau’s claims, but instead argued that due to the passage of time from the alleged instances to the case’s filing, a fair trial would not be possible. [11] In 2012, The High Court of London ruled that the defendant’s reasoning was not sound, and approved for a full trial. But, out of fear for the legal precedent a full trial would set, the British government and claimants agreed to reach a settlement outside of court. A year later, the British government paid £19.9 million in reparations to over 5,000 surviving Kenyan victims and their descendants. Even without a full trial, the reparations payments are a major victory for the Mau Mau as it sets a precedent that atrocities, no matter when they occurred, should be acknowledged, and that the legacy of such suffering leads to ostracization, injury, and trauma that reparations can help to repair. [12]

The Mau Mau Torture Case is a standout example of transitional justice, an interdisciplinary mechanism aimed at responding to mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Transitional justice has its roots in the Nuremberg Trial following World War II, but came to prominence in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that oversaw post-apartheid South Africa. Judicial redress has become a common facet of international efforts of transitional justice, but the Mau Mau Torture case has become a benchmark moment to the field for successfully putting history on trial— as it didn’t follow the end of an autrocity (like what happened in cases such as South Africa or Sierra Leone). And at the turn of the new millennium, cases of historical justice have been spreading, as evident in the return of human remains to Namibia, ongoing protests over the Japanese government’s denial of “comfort women” in World War 2, and investigations into the indigenous residential schools in Canada.

Transitional justice requires specialists in history, law, human rights, politics, religion, and international relations, and legal cases regarding past atrocities bring historians to the forefront to contextualize the “background information.” In the Mau Mau case, historians Caroline Elkins and David Anderson were central to parsing and corroborating victim accounts with colonial documents, as well as articulating how the effects of British war crimes warrant justice over 50 years later. And beyond Elkins and Anserson, Leigh Day enlisted the help of many other historians, including Erin Mosely, who is currently an Assistant Professor for the Department of History at the University of Maryland!

Mutua et al. v. UK is monumental, as it forced the British government to acknowledge the war crimes they committed against Kenyan communities, led to reparations for affected communities, and set a precedent for transitional justice to be applied to historical cases. In reaction to the ruling, David Tolbert, the President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, praised it as “the opportunity to set right an old injustice, as well as the possibility of strengthening the right to remedy and reparations that continue to be relevant in the present.” [13] Moreover, this is a case of successful grassroots activism uniting with historical and legal powers, and one that involves our own UMD history community. While transitional justice cannot fully right historical wrongs, the Mau Mau case shows that this field has the power to restore dignity and support to victim communities, and to reveal the dark truths that powerful parties have selfishly excluded from the historical record.


Abumrad, Jad and Robert Krulwich. “Mau Mau.” Radiolab. Podcast audio. 3 July, 2015.

Bijl, Nicholas van der. Mau Mau Rebellion : The Emergency in Kenya, 1952–1956. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2017.

“Decision in Mau Mau Case Strengthens the Right to Reparations of All Victims of Torture.”International Center for Transitional Justice, October 5, 2012.

Gander, Jemma. Kenya's Mau Mau: The Last Battle l Witness. London, U.K.: Al Jazeera English, 2013.

Portenier, Giselle, dir. Kenya: White Terror. London, U.K.: BBC, 2003. Uploaded on Youtube,

Press Association. “UK to Compensate Kenya's Mau Mau Torture Victims.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 6, 2013.

Wessely, Alex. “The Mau Mau Case- Five Years On.” Leigh Day, October 6, 2017.

[1] Mutua et al. v. UK, 2012.

[2] Wessely, Alex, “The Mau Mau Case- Five Years On,” Leigh Day, October 6, 2017.

Press Association, “UK to Compensate Kenya's Mau Mau Torture Victims,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, June 6, 2013),

[3] Bijl, Nicholas van der. Mau Mau Rebellion : The Emergency in Kenya, 1952–1956. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2017), 32

[4] Ibid, p. 46-47.

[5] Kenya: White Terror, directed by Giselle Portenier, (London, U.K.: BBC, 2003), Youtube.


[7] Kenya: White Terror

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[8] Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, “Mau Mau,” Radiolab, Podcast audio, 3 July, 2015.

[9] Kenya's Mau Mau: The Last Battle l Witness, directed by Jenna Gander, (London, U.K.: Al Jazeera English, 2013), Youtube.

[10] Mutua et al. v. UK, 2012.

[11] Wessely.

Press Association, “UK to Compensate Kenya's Mau Mau Torture Victims,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, June 6, 2013),

[12] “Decision in Mau Mau Case Strengthens the Right to Reparations of All Victims of Torture,” International Center for Transitional Justice, October 5, 2012.

[13] Ibid.


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