Kenya not yet free from British hold

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.

Stop poaching: Corporal Andy Smith, 3rd battalion Parachute Regiment, instructs Kenya Wildlife and Forest Services rangers on a training exercise, Nanyuki, 5 December 2013 [Carl De Souza · AFP · Getty ]

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 work