The British army has a bad reputation in Kenya dating back to colonial times, but until recently it has been beyond the reach of the country’s law. As the charge sheet grows, that may be changing.
In what the Kenyan daily The Nation (1) called a ‘landmark ruling’, Justice Antonina Cossy Bor of the Environmental and Land Court in Nanyuki this March opened the ‘floodgates to lawsuits against British Army’ when she ruled that Kenyan courts ‘have jurisdiction to hear and determine criminal and civil matters involving British soldiers’. This includes personnel from the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK) whose manoeuvres damaged the land of a thousand small farmers from Lolldaiga.
BATUK, which has been stationed in Kenya since 1964 and trains up to 4,000 British infantry a year, long enjoyed diplomatic immunity, but this ended in 2016 when Nairobi and London renewed their five-year defence agreement. Justice Bor was the first to follow through on the implications of this, meaning BATUK, previously protected from legal action, could now face a ‘flood of lawsuits’.
The Lolldaiga community’s fight in Laikipia County (one of Kenya’s 47 counties) is just the latest in a long series of struggles against the former colonial power’s military. BATUK has left Kenyans with innumerable unresolved issues and unaddressed resentments, ever since its first exercises in the north of the country during the presidency of the father of Kenyan independence, Jomo Kenyatta.
Kenya was a jewel in the British empire’s crown from 1920 to 1963 (it had been part of the East Africa Protectorate since 1895), and is now the UK’s largest trading partner on a continent that includes 21 Commonwealth countries. That makes it a focus for the ‘Global Britain’ project promised post-Brexit by then prime minister Boris Johnson. In December 2020 a bilateral free trade agreement replaced an existing one between the European Union and the East African Community (EAC). It grants duty-free access for all Kenyan products (including tea and other agricultural produce) to the UK market, which buys 43% of total Kenyan fresh produce exports. The City of London, with governmental backing, is also supporting the transformation of Nairobi into a regional financial centre intended in time to rival Dubai (2).
Military cooperation has also adjusted to the UK’s new foreign policy. Under the latest five-year defence agreement of July 2021, BATUK has new responsibilities, including conservation projects, and training the Kenyan Defence Forces in combatting poaching and terrorism — especially necessary in a country that has suffered deadly attacks by Al-Shabab militia for the past decade. The agreement also includes a multilateral component, which, according to several British military and diplomatic sources, could, with Nairobi’s agreement, allow foreign forces to join military exercises here. Senior Dutch officers have already visited BATUK, raising the possibility that NATO troops might soon come to Kenya for training. Kenya has a strategic position in the economic war between China and the West as its ports on the Indian Ocean ship minerals from Central Africa to China.
Suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion
BATUK’s base is 200km from Nairobi, in Kenya’s Central Highlands, which descend to the arid north of the Rift Valley. In colonial times, the town of Nanyuki, at the foot of Mt Kenya, was home to a King’s African Rifles garrison. This colonial regiment was responsible for guarding the north, a region highly regarded by the ‘great white hunters’ of the day and a prized possession of the British empire in Africa. In the 1950s the town was a rear base for military operations to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, which was entrenched in the forests and caves.
Since January 2021 BATUK has had new headquarters, Nyati Barracks, a £70m facility built directly alongside the town (population 40,000) on land leased from the Kenyan Air Force. It houses the British Army’s largest fleet of vehicles (over 1,000) and employs 528 permanent British staff (including 280 military personnel) and 581 Kenyans. BATUK runs Exercise Askari Stor (‘soldiers in the storm’) twice a year here. Each exercise runs for four months and involves around 2,000 infantry from the UK and 1,500 Kenyan workers. The scenario for Askari Storm last March, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was, appropriately, ‘deployment to a friendly nation at its request after a hybrid attack by a hostile state actor’.
BATUK manoeuvres began just under 60 years ago in the Rift Valley, on public land at Dol Dol and Archer’s Post to which access was granted by the Kenyan army. BATUK then expanded its operations into the Central Highlands, renowned for its huge estates owned by the descendants of British settlers. Six of the seven ranches from which BATUK leases land belong to white Kenyans (3). ‘Johnnies’ — as the new recruits are known in Nanyuki — come here to ‘push the limits ... way out of their comfort zone’ (4). It was here that BATUK trained the British soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ranches are also private wildlife reserves, sometimes with luxury lodges for wealthy tourists on expensive safaris. Martin Evans, chairman of the Laikipia Farmers’ Association and owner of Ol Maisor Ranch, rents out 12,000 hectares of savannah to BATUK for six weeks a year. ‘It’s not a big part of our income, but it’s fine,’ says Evans, a white Kenyan descended three generations of settlers. ‘Anyway, the army’s never given us any trouble.
Compensation to the Maasai
Not all Kenyans can say that. Until the 2000s, BATUK was less concerned with winning hearts and minds than with toughening up soldiers in an environment full of ‘a range of potentially deadly animals, from lions and leopards to scorpions and black mambas’. The Samburu and Maasai pastoralists who live around Archer’s Post and Dol Dol have paid a high price for this. In 2002 the British Ministry of Defence reached an agreement with human rights law firm Leigh Day to pay £4.5m in compensation plus interest to 228 Maasai families whose members had suffered serious injury or death from unexploded ordnance that BATUK had left behind.
Two years later, there was a second compensation agreement for a further 1,100 people. In the same year, an Amnesty International investigation, supported by the local Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), revealed that since the early 1970s at least 650 Maasai and Samburu women had accused British soldiers of rape, but their cases never came to trial because of the difficulty of verifying accounts that sometimes dated back decades.
BATUK now faces additional accusations from the Lolldaiga community, where people are calling for justice for environmental crimes. In this case, the plaintiffs aren’t Samburu or Maasai (minorities marginalised by the central government and often exploited by the tourism industry), but small Kikuyu farmers. (The Kikuyu and the Luo are the two major ethnic groups in this country of 53 million.) ‘The transactional compensation paid by London isn’t enough: justice must now be done in Kenya,’ says lawyer Kelvin Kubai.
Gabriel Ngata, an elder from the village of Muramati, was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Justice for Lolldaiga’ when I visited. From the yard, where he and his wife were watching their livestock, you can see the land owned by Lolldaiga Hills Ltd. This was where the fire began that ravaged his community’s land a year and a half ago. At the time of the fire, the private game reserve, home to elephants and lions, belonged to the prominent white Kenyan Robert Wells, who has since sold up. Each year he rented 20,000 hectares to BATUK for its exercises.
In March 2021 a brushfire during Exercise Askari Storm — probably caused by a British soldier failing to extinguish a stove properly — ravaged 50 sq km of this biodiversity haven. Panicked elephants stampeded down the hillside, trampling crops. The Ngatas and their neighbours, about 10,000 households in three villages, lived under a blanket of thick, acrid smoke for three days. ‘Then, when the rainy season came, we noticed the water that comes from the hills had a different colour and taste,’ Ngata told me. Cows went blind, more women miscarried, older people developed lung problems, and one of them died of unexplained causes in December. ‘Since these dramatic events, no BATUK official or even a representative from the reserve has come to offer help,’ says Pentecostal minister Duncan Weitheke of the Victory Chapel.
‘We’ve lost our crops and are starving’
The local administrator of one village, who grew up here and requested anonymity, still can’t believe what happened. ‘OK, BATUK’s night exercises sometimes stop us sleeping, with the noise, the trucks and the helicopters, but I’ve never seen anything like this,’ he told me. ‘We’ve lost our crops and are starving,’ another farmer said. Her avocado tree had been destroyed by an elephant. However, lawyer Kelvin Kubai was keen to get across that ‘We’re not against BATUK exercises. But we’re totally opposed to the disruption of the communities’ daily lives and the environment. For a long time we bought the line that BATUK was contributing to the local economy, giving jobs to young people. But when we took a closer look at this collaboration, we realised that we’d lost more than we’d gained.’
BATUK faces other problems at the Nyatti Barracks with the reopening of an old murder case. In March 2012, after being missing for two months, the body of Agnes Wanjiru, a 21-year-old Kikuyu prostitute, was discovered in the septic tank of a Nanyuki hotel frequented by off-duty soldiers. Last autumn the UK Sunday Times revealed that a British soldier had been accused of the murder by his comrades (5). The facts were allegedly covered up by the military hierarchy and the Kenyan police, who cared little about the murder of a sex worker. The case’s return to media spotlight led to a wave of enraged editorials in the national and international press.
‘The attempt to cover up the Wanjiru case by both the Kenyan and British governments,’ Kenyan political cartoonist Patrick Gathara wrote in November 2021 on the Al Jazeera website, ‘is also a potent reminder that no British settlers, officials, troops, or police officers have ever been held to account for the brutal murder and torture of thousands, and the incarceration of up to 1.5 million people in concentration camps, during the 7-year State of Emergency declared in 1952 at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule.’ This time, the case was not dropped: this spring, two lawyers from Leigh Day visited Nanyuki to gather new information on the circumstances of Wanjiru’s death.
Faced with a wave of protest, BATUK embarked on a charm offensive to try to show its ‘socio-economic role helping communities’. It was led by one of its former soldiers, Major Adrian Weale. The reservist, whose claim to fame was having been interim deputy governor of Iraq’s Dhi Qar province in 2003, returned to Kenya to head the effort. The British army injects 7.5bn shillings ($62m/£55m) into the Kenyan economy every year and has already invested over 100m shillings ($830,000/£735,000) in development projects (improving schools, digging wells etc). During severe droughts, BATUK tankers crisscross the region delivering water. On the outskirts of Nanyuki, the army has also just financed 75% of a 9m-shilling ($75,000/£67,000) Policare centre that houses ‘forensic experts, doctors, counsellors and magistrates specialising in sexual violence’. An admission in itself?
According to Major Weale, BATUK was ‘very disturbed’ by the revelations about Wanjiru’s murder. The military police now patrol the town more regularly; Johnnies have been ordered to stop visiting sex workers and to return to barracks before midnight. Maryanne Wangui, who was born and raised in Nanyuki’s working-class district of Majengo, is a former Kikuyu sex worker in her 40s who is campaigning on behalf of the town’s 500 sex workers. Last autumn, after the Sunday Times revelations, she demonstrated with the women, calling on the Kenyan government to open an inquiry.
‘A hundred years is enough’
‘We’ve always had cases of sexual violence from the Johnnies, especially when they’re drunk,’ she says. ‘But many women have been afraid to come forward, fearful the police won’t believe them. They’re also afraid to confront BATUK.’ ‘BATUK’s a sensitive subject,’ says Fidel Jesus, a young blogger from Nanyuki. ‘Even if politicians rant about it in private, they’re afraid of challenging it publicly. There are too many local and national interests involved.’ I contacted the outgoing governor of Laikipia State for comment several times without success.
In the 2000s Maasai activist Mali Ole Kaunga was a thorn in the side of the British army. As head of IMPACT, he was the driving force behind the lawsuit against the British Ministry of Defence, which was settled out of court. Kaunga also led many media-oriented demonstrations with shouts of ‘a hundred years is enough’ and demanding the descendants of British settlers leave. At the time, Kenya was marking the centenary of the removal of the Maasai from their homelands to reserves after the 1904 agreement that the colonial administration forced on one of their ancestral figures, Olonana Ole Mbatian.
During this period of strained diplomatic relations between London and Nairobi, the UK even threatened to relocate BATUK to the Sultanate of Oman, where it had established one of its five regional military centres, along with those in Brunei, Belize and Germany. The Lolldaiga private game reserve was invaded by nomadic Maasai pastoralists; the rangers’ response caused one death and three serious injuries. Kaunga has since mellowed and IMPACT is now well established and respected. But his views are unchanged: ‘BATUK operates on land owned by colonial barons who stole the land from the Maasai. Its presence is therefore totally unjustified.’
The Maasai and their Samburu cousins have traditionally been vocal in their demands and have faced ostracism from the country’s majority ethnic groups. Kaunga explained that ‘For a long time, our ethnic group was the only one to openly and clearly criticise BATUK and its ecosystem involving white ranchers of British origin. Nairobi ignored us, and in Nanyuki, if you started to criticise the British military presence, you were considered a traitor, harming local business. Today, other communities are speaking out, helped by social media. A different dynamic’s operating.’
A hundred kilometres from Nanyuki, the north bank of the Ewaso Ng’iro river marks the start of Samburu County, a region Western diplomats discourage their nationals from visiting because of conflicts over land and water. Across the bridge, 10,000 inhabitants who live mainly from agro-pastoralism have been enduring BATUK exercises ever since the military came to Kenya. Here, unlike the exercises on private land in Laikipia County, live ammunition is used, including mortars and white phosphorus bombs which, BATUK says, light up night exercises.
Several hundred nomadic families who live around here and had been victims of unexploded ordnance received £4.5m in damages from Britain’s Ministry of Defence. ‘But it was all decided in London, with no community involvement,’ says Fabian Losoli, who used to be in local government. ‘When the compensation was distributed, many had never seen so much money. The lives of many nomadic people were again seriously affected, but for the worse, especially by alcohol.’ People resent BATUK for its casualness, but the Kenyan government also failed to help them cope with such a windfall.
Today, the tone may have changed, but the problems remain. ‘They may be clearing the land of unexploded ordnance and giving jobs to young people,’ Losoli admits. ‘But that’s just buying social peace.’ Further up the road, in a game reserve along the A2 highway that goes to Marsabit, a local ranger nicknamed Kayu Lochode (‘he who sees from afar’ in Maa) admits he’s ambivalent about BATUK: ‘They may give us work securing their activities, but we haven’t seen anything for renting our land, though they promised to pay us.’
‘It’s my land in the end’
Kenya’s 2010 constitutional reform, which created its counties, has also given rise to land claims. It’s alleged that BATUK, which officially trains on land loaned by the Kenyan army, is encroaching on 36,000 hectares that belongs to Losesia Community Land, a community of 940 Samburu herders who have cattle, goats and also camels. ‘They’ve kept on training here for free and their explosions burn the grass that feeds our livestock, which is already suffering from drought,’ says Samuel Lemoyog, their new president, who was born and raised in Losesia but is also his community’s intermediary with BATUK. ‘It’s my land in the end! We won’t wait for the general election in August: we can count on our generation making their voices heard before then.’
This new generation are also the first to take to social media with songs they’ve filmed on their smartphones against the spectacular backdrop of the Rift. This new music of the Kenyan countryside draws heavily on reggae and deals with such themes as protecting the environment, drought, inter-communal tolerance, love, mobile phones, and the past: the song Ukoloni, sung by 22-year-old statistician Pilaz Pilonje, describes the confidence with which the Samburu welcomed the British in the early 20th century and the disillusionment that followed (6). A song, the singer acknowledges, that has contemporary resonance.
In Lolldaiga, bad news came in April. BATUK’s commander-in-chief had appealed against Judge Bor’s March decision. ‘This means delays and financial pressure on an already vulnerable community of small farmers,’ says Kubai. At times like this, he thinks about his grandfather, who operated out of the Mount Kenya bush during the Mau Mau rebellion; Major Musa Mwariama was its highest-ranking officer to avoid death or capture by colonial forces, and one of the last to emerge from hiding. ‘Until the end of his life in 1989,’ Kubai says, ‘he used to say: “Not Yet Uhuru” — not yet free. We need to admit that’s still the case. But we won’t give up.’
Translated by George Miller
(1) See Mercy Mwende, ‘Landmark ruling opens floodgates to lawsuits against British army’, The Nation, Nairobi, 14 March 2022. (2) See Mercy Mwende, ‘Kenya deal with UK aims to turn Nairobi into Africa’s financial hub’, Financial Times, London, 27 July 2021. (3) See John Letai, ‘The sun never set: British army’s secret payments to colonial-era farms’, Declassified UK, 6 April 2021, declassifieduk.org/. (4) ‘Paras push the limits in Kenya’, British Army online newspaper, 16 November 2017. (5) Hannah Al-Othman, Larisa Brown and David Collins, ‘Crying with laughter: British soldiers joked about mother’s “murder” on Facebook’, The Sunday Times, London, 31 October 2021. (6) Pilaz Pilonje, Ukoloni (official video).
(c) 2022 Le Monde diplomatique