A Challenge to British Impunity in Kenya
A parliamentary inquiry into an alleged 2012 murder by British soldiers is causing a diplomatic crisis for the U.K. government.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Gabon’s coup leaders in no rush for elections, South Africa formally denies arms shipment to Russia in report that remains classified, and Nigeria’s government renews its demand for Benin Bronzes after British Museum theft scandal.
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Kenya Seeks Answers From British Troops
Neil Wigan, the new British high commissioner to Kenya, had only been in the country for a few hours when he was confronted with fresh legal challenges involving a murder that occurred more than a decade ago.
Members of the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) have been accused of murder, the sexual abuse of local women, and the use of dangerous chemicals close to their base in Nanyuki, in northern Kenya, about 125 miles north of Nairobi. Britain has kept roughly 200 military personnel permanently based in Kenya since the country gained independence from the U.K. in 1963. As well as being a camp to train its own soldiers, the unit provides vital anti-terrorism training to around 1,000 Kenyan soldiers fighting al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia.
Kenyan police announced the reopening of a case concerning 21-year-old Agnes Wanjiru’s death after a Sunday Times investigation in 2021 identified a British soldier accused of her murder, who was named by his fellow troops after he allegedly confessed to the killing.
Wanjiru’s body was found after she was stabbed and dumped in a hotel septic tank near the army’s barracks in 2012. According to the Sunday Times report, British troops had allegedly paid Wanjiru and other local women for sex on a drunken night, which was the last time that Wanjiru was seen before her body was discovered. The Sunday Times said another soldier reported the killing to senior British officers at the time—but no action was taken. Her body was discovered nearly three months later. Reports in the U.K. media claim soldiers laughed and joked about the murder on Facebook.
An autopsy found evidence Wanjiru had been beaten and died as a result of stab wounds to her chest and abdomen. A 2019 inquest in Kenya concluded that British soldiers were responsible for her murder and ordered further investigations. Eleven years later, no one has been charged.
In a statement to Foreign Policy, the British government reiterated that “the jurisdiction for this investigation lies with the Kenyan Police Service, and the UK Government is working closely with the Government of Kenya to accelerate progress.”
The statement continued: “The UK’s Defence Serious Crime Command and Unit are proactively engaged with the Kenyan police in support of their investigation where appropriate. In order to protect the integrity of that investigation and in the interests of justice, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The same year that Kenyan police reopened Wanjiru’s case, residents worked with the African Centre for Corrective and Preventive Action, a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, to sue the British Army training unit for having caused a devastating fire from the use of white phosphorus at a wildlife conservancy.
More than 10,000 acres of wildlife reserve were destroyed in the fire at the privately owned Lolldaiga conservancy in March 2021.
In a statement, a British Army spokesperson told FP that the army uses “white phosphorus illuminant rounds on training exercises in the U.K. and overseas, they are never used as a weapon. They are not considered to be hazardous to health and safety, provided that the existing safety precautions are followed. In Kenya, the British Army only fire white phosphorous on Archer’s Post Training Area, which is a Kenyan Ministry of Defence gazetted training area and not communal land.”
The British government invests about 1.2 billion Kenyan shillings (about $8.6 million) every year into the defense partnership, which has contributed 5.8 billion Kenyan shillings (about $40 million) to the local economy since 2016. Kenyan critics contend that dependence on this assistance is why Kenyan authorities have failed to act.
Kenya and the U.K. signed a new five-year joint defense agreement in July 2021, but it was only ratified this April because communities objected that no one had been held accountable for Wanjiru’s murder. Under the treaty, British soldiers cannot be put on trial in Kenya without agreement from Britain. Kenyan politicians voted for an amendment in April that makes it possible for U.K. soldiers to be tried for grave offenses committed against Kenyans in Kenya.
However, according to Kenyan media, Kenyan lawmakers only included their recommendations to list murder as a crime that British soldiers can be tried for in the country after the treaty had already been signed by the Kenyan and U.K. defense ministries. At the same time, the U.K’s Overseas Operations Bill, signed into law in 2021, takes precedence and means that foreign victims cannot bring into U.K. courts prosecutions against British soldiers for crimes committed abroad more than five years ago. Rights groups say the new law places Britain’s “armed forces above the ordinary criminal law—in a way that is completely unprecedented.”
Last month, the Kenyan network NTV ran a documentary in which a British soldier was allegedly filmed undercover paying for sex, an illegal act in the country that would violate a ban on the use of sex workers abroad introduced by the British defense ministry last July. The documentary focused on Wanjiru’s murder and caused further anger among Kenyan citizens.
Kenya’s parliamentary defense committee put out a call this month for Kenyans to submit petitions of any alleged crimes or wrongdoings by the British army.
According to the East African, the committee has so far received 10 petitions on gross human rights violations and atrocities implicating BATUK soldiers.
“There has never been checks on what has been happening with the British army in Kenya. Whether it will be an incident that dates back to 1963 or happened yesterday, this inquiry will be able to look into it,” said Nelson Koech, the committee chairman.
Investigations are scheduled to begin in October, and BATUK is expected to respond to any claims made. The U.K. government told FP that its High Commission in Nairobi and BATUK intend to cooperate with the inquiry. A final report of the committee’s findings will be submitted to the Kenyan parliament by the end of 2023.
The Week Ahead
Monday, Aug. 28, to Friday, Sept. 8: U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer visits Nairobi and Addis Ababa to meet with Kenyan and Ethiopian officials as well as the African Union. He is expected to discuss Sudan and conflicts in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Oromia regions.
Monday, Sept. 4, to Friday, Sept. 8: Nairobi, Kenya, hosts the Africa Climate Week and Summit. U.S. Climate envoy John Kerry is expected to attend.
Tuesday, Sept. 5, to Thursday, Sept. 7: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will visit Eswatini, the island’s last African ally.
Thursday, Sept. 7, to Friday, Sept. 8: G-20 finance and energy ministers meet in New Delhi, India.
Saturday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 10: Nigerian President Bola Tinubu and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to attend the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi, India.
What We’re Watching
Gabon coup. Last week, after questionable results in a demonstrably unfree election, Gabon’s military overthrew longtime ruler Ali Bongo Ondimba. The junta leader, Gen. Brice Oligui Nguema, was sworn in as Gabon’s interim president on Monday. The military has said it is in no rush to organize elections and “end up with the same mistakes.” Although the army takeover has received strong public backing, it ironically continues the Bongo family’s 55-year rule. Nguema is a cousin of Bongo and spent his career within the Bongo inner circle, serving as a military assistant to Bongo’s father, Omar. In his inauguration speech, Nguema quoted and praised the elder Bongo.
The putsch in Gabon, a central African nation, is the result of unaccountable government and different from coups in West Africa, which have occurred due to instability and insurgencies across the Sahel. Gabon has the third-highest GDP per capita in Africa, but more than 30 percent of citizens are poor due to oil graft by its elites, and there are reasons to think this will continue. Nguema spent more than $1 million in cash on properties in the United States in 2015 and 2018, according to a 2020 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
The report found that the Bongo family had properties worth $4.2 million in the United States. Gabon’s opposition leader, Albert Ondo Ossa, called the coup “a family affair” in which “the Bongo clan continues being in power,” and has urged the junta hand back power. A regional trade bloc, the Commission of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) bloc suspended Gabon’s membership following the inauguration.
Niger Protests. Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered outside a French military base in Niger’s capital city of Niamey for nearly a week, demanding that France’s 1,500 soldiers leave the country. Demonstrators slit the throat of a goat dressed in French colors and say they won’t leave until the troops are out. The French army was reportedly holding talks with Niger’s military over withdrawing “elements” of its presence.
French Ambassador to Niger Sylvain Itté remains in the country despite being given a 48-hour deadline to leave last Friday. Itté said his “expulsion” was illegitimate following the ouster of Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, a French ally.
Unfolding events could mark a humiliating end across Africa to Françafrique, a system in which France engages with its former African colonies, often led by authoritarian governments, to benefit from preferential trade. Niger is the second-largest supplier of uranium to France, and deals have repeatedly been challenged by Nigerien activists for facilitating “embezzlement of public funds.” For the putschists, the ambassador’s expulsion would be an important show of strength to its supporters.
Niger’s military-appointed prime minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine said at a press conference in Niamey that he hoped a deal could be reached in the “coming days” with regional bloc ECOWAS so harsh sanctions imposed on the country can be lifted.
Lady R inquiry. An independent panel found that the sanctioned Russian cargo vessel, the Lady R, offloaded equipment ordered in 2018 for the South African Army, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised address to the nation on Sunday, without giving details of the equipment. The panel found no evidence that the ship was carrying South African weapons as it headed for Russia when it left Cape Town last December.
In May, U. S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety said South Africa had provided arms to Moscow, which led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries. “None of the persons who made these allegations could provide any evidence to support the claims that had been leveled against our country,” Ramaphosa said. The panel’s full report will not be released for security reasons (though an executive summary will be), he said, while concluding that the accusations had damaged the country’s relationships and currency, the rand.
However, according to reports, the vessel took an unusual route and switched off its location tracking device at critical dates. South African opposition party the Democratic Alliance has said that if the government has nothing to hide, then the report should be made public.
This Week in Culture
Nigeria’s new minister of arts, culture, and creative economy, Hannatu Musawa, has promised to oversee the return of Nigerian cultural artifacts stolen by British soldiers during the seizure of its pre-colonial kingdoms. Musawa used her first public address in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to unveil the newly elected government’s arts and technology policy, which includes a pledge to create more jobs and revenue in the creative sectors.
The Nigerian government renewed calls last week for the return of the Benin Bronzes in the wake of a theft scandal engulfing the British Museum. The British Museum has long held that it is better equipped than developing nations to safeguard historic artifacts. “It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin Bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” Abba Isa Tijani, the director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, told Sky News. China published its own renewed request for artifacts to be returned by the British Museum in state-run newspaper Global Times, citing support for India, Nigeria, and South Africa’s claims.
Some 2,000 objects had been stolen from the British Museum over several years, leading to the sacking of a curator, the resignation of Director Hartwig Fischer, and the announcement on Saturday of a new interim director. Items worth 50,000 British pounds ($63,800) were allegedly put up for sale on eBay by one of the institution’s senior curators for as little as 40 pounds ($50), according to the Telegraph.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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What We’re Reading
Conflating Africa’s coups. In the Financial Times, Chidi Anselm Odinkalu warns the international community not to treat each coup in Africa as the same, following the ouster of Gabon’s president, whose 14-year rule—which came after his father had ruled for decades—was marred by vote-rigging allegations. Odinkalu argues that presidents who use illegitimate elections to retain power can be more dangerous than putschists. “If the world can learn to treat civilian coups in Africa with the same sense of alarm that it reserves for military takeovers, it is likely to have greater success in seeing an end to both,” he writes.
Kenyan workers abroad face deadly risks. President William Ruto’s administration has encouraged thousands of Kenyans to look for jobs abroad, announcing nearly 400,000 job opportunities for Kenyans in other countries. In the Continent, Waihiga Mwaura argues that those who seek those jobs could face grave dangers. That’s because Kenya’s failure to protect the rights of its citizens abroad is a glaring problem. “Over the past three years, 283 Kenyans—predominantly domestic workers—lost their lives in Saudi Arabia alone,” Mwaura writes.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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