Sins and Strategy: Kenya Through the Looking Glass

Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger
Bianca holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Otago, New Zealand. As the Africa Desk Chief for Atlas, her expertise spans conflict, politics, and history. She is also the Editor for The ModernInsurgent and has interests in yoga and meditation.

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“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” were the words of Eric Griffith-Jones, the British Attorney-General to Kenya in the late 1950s, when the country was in the throes of the Mau Mau rebellion. At the time, the Attorney-General was referring to the actions of his own countrymen against detainees of the rebellion, which he claimed was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or communist Russia.”

Had it not been for a group of lawyers representing Mau Mau veterans in a case against the British Government decades later, this utterance, stored neatly under a vast pile of evidence of British brutality in Kenya and tucked away at His Majesty’s Government Communications Centre—otherwise known as Hanslope Park—would have never seen the light of day.

Despite the passing of many years since Griffith-Jones wrote this sentence, the words remain eerily relevant.

Two cases in particular, that of Fresh Del Monte Produce, also known as Del Monte Kenya, and that of the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), had, until recently, acted in line with Griffith-Jones’ sentiment.

Had it not been for immense pressure laid on these two actors over many years by NGOs, civil rights groups, and investigative journalists, it is likely that their sins would have gone without rectification.

What’s So Important About Kenya?

Aside from it recently becoming the first nation in sub-Saharan Africa to be designated as a major non-NATO ally, Kenya is Africa’s 20th richest country, with 80 percent of East Africa’s trade passing through its port of Mombasa.

Not only is it seen as the economic hub of East Africa, it is also a major stabilizing force, both regionally and internationally. Kenya is a key player in counterterrorism operations against radical Islamic groups in the region such as al-Shabaab and al-Qa’eda, as well as contributing heavily to United Nations peacekeeping operations, with Kenyan military officials holding top leadership positions within these operations.

Moreover, as tensions rise in the international arena, the world’s great powers are increasingly anxious to secure allies within the African continent, with its vast resources and human capital proving to be a valuable bargaining chip.

Under the leadership of President Mwai Kibaki and beginning in 2005, Kenya followed the ‘Look East’ policy, wherein Kenya sought to secure Chinese investment capital as an alternative to western investment capital. That policy continued under Kibaki’s successor Uhuru Kenyatta, who also happened to be the son of the nation’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta.

Kenya’s current President, William Ruto, has forged his own path in the international sphere, committing troops to stem gang violence and insecurity in Haiti, and in recent months, solidifying itself as an ally of the West. This turn to the West was first seen after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN committed in a speech his country’s support of the rules-based international order, state sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Moreover, a recent invitation sent by the Organization of American States to incorporate Kenya as its 75th member, although without voting rights, illustrates the budding relationship between the African nation and the West.

Despite its strides to uphold law and order in the international sphere, Kenya is ranked as ‘partly free’ on the Freedom House index, scoring just 22 out of 40 in political rights and 30 out of 60 in civil liberties.

According to Freedom House’s 2023 report, “Kenya holds regular elections. However, pervasive corruption and brutality by security forces remain serious problems. The country’s media and civil society sectors are vibrant, even as journalists and human rights defenders remain vulnerable to restrictive laws and intimidation.”

The country scored the lowest (1 out of 4) on its safeguards against corruption and due process in civil and criminal matters, with the index stating, “Corruption continues to plague national and county governments in Kenya, and state institutions tasked with combating corruption have been ineffective. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) lacks prosecutorial power and has been largely unsuccessful in pursuing corruption cases. The EACC’s weakness is compounded by shortcomings at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) and within the judiciary.”

Continuing, “Constitutional guarantees of due process are poorly upheld. There remains a significant backlog of court cases. Government figures released in late 2022 indicated that the number of cases pending before the courts had reached a six-year high. For the year ending June 2021, there were 649,112 pending cases, with 375,671 classified as backlogged.

The police service is thoroughly undermined by corruption, misconduct, and reports of extrajudicial killings. Although Parliament established the Independent Policing Oversight Authority in 2011, the agency’s work secured the conviction of only 17 officers through 2021, out of more than 20,000 complaints and nearly 3,500 investigations.”

Thus, one begins to understand that although the country is somewhat of a ‘model citizen’ on the international stage, it lacks that same vigor in its domestic sphere, which comes oftentimes at the expense of its civilian population, as will be shown through the cases of Del Monte Kenya and the British Army Training Unit.

Del Monte Kenya

Del Monte Kenya is a ‘food processing company that operates in the cultivation, production, and canning of pineapple products.’ It is the largest exporter of Kenyan produce to the global market, with its headquarters in Thika, Kenya, which is also home to its 10,000 acre pineapple plantation. Del Monte Kenya’s parent company is Fresh Del Monte Produce Incorporated, which has its headquarters in Coral Gables, Florida. In Kenya, the company employs an approximate 6,500 workers and another 28,000 workers indirectly, making it a key economic driver in the wider Kenyan economy as well as that of Muranga’a County, where the farm is located.

A series of public roads run through Del Monte’s 10,000 acre farm, of which Thika’s civilians make use. However, the roads are also utilized by pineapple thieves, who cross the dam that lies adjacent to the farm to sneak in, and out with their loot. The thieves that are caught are subject to brutal beatings by the company’s security guards and sometimes die as a result. As posited by Tyler Antonio Lynch, in Thika, stealing pineapples is a de-facto capital crime.

A June 2023 joint exposé by the UK media outlet The Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalists looked into the deaths of four men, John Rui Karia, Stephen Thuo Nyoike, Bernard Murigi Wanginye, and Saidi Ngotho Ndungu, that were allegedly linked to brutality utilized by Del Monte guards.

52-year-old Karia collapsed and died in prison as a result of the injuries he allegedly sustained through a beating given by Del Monte guards. According to the exposé, a pathology report pronounced Karia’s cause of death as a “head injury due to multiple blunt force trauma to the head, with abdominal and multiple soft tissue injuries.”

22-year-old Nyoike was found dead on the road adjacent to the Del Monte farm. His neck had been cut with a wire, and the the cause of death was confirmed to be “pressure to the neck due to ligature strangulation and head injury due to blunt force trauma to the head.”

By October 2023, Del Monte was again in hot water, after it announced that casual workers should expect to work just 13 days per month. Stephen Makau, a spokesperson for the farms workers stated, “we are suffering and we are going through hell. Our payslips are reflecting zero shillings net pay. We cannot save and we can no longer be described as workers… maybe slaves.”

In response, in the same month, Boniface Kavuvi, a board member at Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions, outlined the rationale behind the government’s support of the company, “in an economy that desperately needs employment opportunities, tax and foreign exchange, we got no choice but [to] support Del Monte as a national asset and as an important link to our friendly ally that is America. This firm must offer quality employment and welfare to its workers and be helped to recruit more.”

Then, a February 2024 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), found that in December 2023, 32-year-old Francis Kilule, who was found naked and floating in the dam adjacent the pineapple farm, had died from “drowning and soft tissue injuries due to multiple blunt force trauma.”

As a result of the deaths, and after pressure applied to the company following the exposé, a joint effort by several human rights organizations, including the African Center for Corrective and Preventative Action, launched a series of claims against Del Monte alleging their clients had been subject to battery, rape, and torture by the company’s guards.

Adding to the pressure against Del Monte was a confidential report by Partner Africa, seen by personnel from the Bureau of Investigative Journalists in mid-January, that outlined major human rights violations occurring at the farm.

In court in early February, the company claimed that they could not be sued in the country as they are registered in the Cayman Islands. By March, the court rejected Del Monte’s claim, paving the way for the claimants to seek compensation. In addition, the company fired 214 of its guards and replaced them with 270 personnel from the G4S global security company.

Had it not been for the work of The Guardian, the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, Partner Africa, the OCCRP, and the Africa Center for Corrective and Preventative Action, it is likely Del Monte’s sins would have continued quietly. Throughout this case, various agencies connected to the Kenyan state, such as the police and the Organization of Trade Unions, failed to adequately protect the civilian population. In this case, the economic interests of the state took precedence over the well-being of the civilian population, as is seen in many nations in Africa and abroad. However, the Del Monte case is not the only instance in which the state has placed its interests, whether that be economic, military or political, in front of the interests of the civilian population.

The British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK)

Britain has maintained a permanent army training unit (BATUK) in Kenya—its former colony—since 1964, with Kenya gaining independence in 1963 as the result of the pressures stirred up by the Mau Mau rebellion.

The rebellion, which began in 1952, was the result of growing anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments among the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru people, whose main grievances revolved around the loss of their lands. To date, there is no agreed-upon reason as to why the rebels were referred to as the ‘Mau Mau.’

Throughout the onset of the rebellion, many Africans deemed loyal to the colonial regime were killed by the Mau Mau, including a Kikuyu chief, which triggered a state of emergency in October 1952.

By April 1954, the British authorities in the country launched ‘Operation Anvil’ to seek out and detain suspected rebels. As seen during the Malaya emergency, which began in 1948, the authorities began to use game trackers to track the Mau Mau through the bush. This counterinsurgency method would later be utilized by the Rhodesian and South African armed forces in their fight against communist rebels.

Operation Anvil resulted in the capture of an estimated 16,000 suspects, who were subjected to brutal treatment, including torture, in detention camps.

By 1963, Jomo Kenyatta, a political moderate who had previously been arrested for his alleged links to the Mau Mau, assumed the Presidency in the newly independent Kenya.

Despite the British belief in Kenyatta’s Mau Mau sympathies, Kenyatta sent the newly integrated Kenyan army in 1965 to Meru district, where the last of the Mau Mau who had not taken up Kenyatta’s offer of amnesty had gathered. Field Marshal Mwariama and Field Marshal Baimungi, alongside several Mau Mau rebels, were killed.

Thus, one begins to understand that throughout its history, even just years after independence, the Kenyan government has taken steps to protect its interests, whether those interests be political—in the case of Kenyatta—military, or economic.

Today, most of BATUK’s activities occur at its headquarters at Laikipia Air Base’s Nyati Barracks in Nanyuki, although two smaller rear bases exist in Nairobi. BATUK holds 100 permanent staff and trains up to six infantry battalions on eight-week exercises per year. In addition to military activities, the troops also conduct training to combat poaching and disrupt the illegal wildlife trade.

The barracks is also an important aspect of Nanyuki’s economy, as locals make a living selling goods to the approximately 10,000 troops that pass through each year.

However, over the last decade, the unit has come under fire over its approach to unexploded ordinance, the murder of a 21-year-old woman, and its role in starting a fire which burned for three days and scorched thousands of acres of land.

As a result of pressure applied by the African Center for Corrective and Preventative Action, the same organization that took Del Monte to court, the Kenyan government launched public hearings this year across three days (May 28th-May 30th) to investigate thousands of claims against the unit.

According to the Kenyan Parliament, the hearings seek to “investigate the allegations of human rights violations, including mistreatment, torture, unlawful detention, [and] killings.”

The Murder of Agnes Wanjiru

In March 2012, 21-year-old Agnes Wanjiru entered the Lions Court Hotel in the surrounding area of Nanyuki with at least two soldiers from the Duke of Lancasters regiment, as alleged by a 2021 report by the Sunday Times. Wanjiru never left the hotel, and her body, covered in stab wounds, was found two months later in a septic tank on the hotel’s grounds.

21-year old mother, Agnes Wanjiru

A year after Agnes’s murder, in 2013, after a series of legal proceedings which had been launched seven years earlier, the UK government paid 5,228 Kenyans a total of 19.9 million pounds in compensation for the abuse suffered during British counter-insurgency operations during the Mau Mau rebellion. Thus, while some historical grievances were rectified as best as they could be, contemporary grievances continued to muddy the UK-Kenyan relationship.

After an inquest in 2019, a Kenyan judge found that based on the evidence, “Agnes was murdered by British soldiers.”

Although the British army had previously claimed it held ‘sovereign immunity’ and was thus unable to be tried in Kenya, a 2023 Parliamentary amendment to the UK-Kenya security agreement allowed for trials of accused personnel to be held in the country.

Despite this amendment, it is not yet clear if ‘Soldier X’ who has been identified as the perpetrator although not named, will face legal action in Kenya despite evidence supplied by his associate ‘Solider Y’ to the UK’s Defense Serious Crime Unit (DSCU), who claims he was shown the body on the night of the murder.

The Maiming of Lisoka Lesasuyan

In 2015, a 13-year-old boy, Lisoka Lesasuyan, picked up what he thought was a rock and lost his eye and both arms. The ‘rock’ was a mortar fuze that had been left behind by British soldiers. Although BATUK paid 67,000 pounds in compensation to the boy’s family, an internal report from the British Ministry of Defense illustrated that the military was aware as early as 2009 that Tetryl, the explosive used in the fuze, was unstable.

Lisoka Lesasuyan in Dol Dol, November 2022. (Photo: Phil Miller / Declassified UK)

According to Declassified UK, because production of Tetryl-containing explosives ended in the mid 1950s “all UK Tetryl stocks and consequently all Tetryl continued in UK munitions and munitions sourced from abroad is now more than 50 years old.”

Despite this, the use of the Tetryl mortar fuze by the British army was only ceased in late 2019.

The Lolldaiga Hills Fire

In March 2021, a fire that BATUK claimed was accidentally started ripped through the Lolldaiga Hills Conservancy. The fire burned for three days and scorched 10,000 acres of land. Many surrounding locals lost their livestock to smoke inhalation and have reported smoke-related illnesses themselves.

The Lolldaiga Hills fire burned for three days and sorched 10,000 acres of land. Image: The Kenyan Standard

In the same month in 2022, a Kenyan court ruled that affected individuals experiencing health issues as a result of the fire were able to sue the British military. Since then, an approximate 7,000 claims have been laid.

However, according to Kenyan outlet, The Nation, that applied through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a document from the British Ministry of Defense, “British soldiers had also caused five smaller fires at other training camps in Kenya in the month leading up to the Lolldaiga Hills Blaze.”

Speaking to that same outlet on June 8th, Nelson Koech, Chairman of the Kenyan Defense Committee, stated that every victim who made their grievances known at the hearing will get their justice.

So, What Now?

It is clear to see that the British Army has a checkered past in Kenya, and in some ways, the initial lax approach to these incidents has made the Kenyan government an accomplice to the plight of its civilians. As illustrated, without immense lobbying from the likes of the Africa Center for Corrective and Preventative Action, civil society and rights groups, and attention from international media outlets, it is likely that both Del Monte and BATUK would have continued to ‘sin quietly’.

The public hearings held at the end of May represent a monumental step for those harmed by BATUK activities, although the government was most likely more inclined to push through with the process as just four days before the hearings kicked off, it had gained the status of a major non-NATO ally from President Biden. This move not only enabled Kenya to diversify its military partnerships, but to also gain some bargaining power in its relationship with the UK.

This article also attempted to illustrate that in given circumstances, where the Kenyan government is poised to gain in the economic, military, or political spheres, then it is more likely to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the plight of its civilians. Additionally, in covering the Mau Mau, it becomes clear through the UK’s 2013 settlement that, given the chance, the UK government will ‘drag its feet’ when it is faced with an undesirable outcome.

In essence, this is the reality of politics, as posited by advocates of the realist tradition, that all states are self-interested, with power the currency of domestic and international politics. Moves and countermoves are made in both the domestic and international arena based on the current circumstances, instead of following a given ideology.