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"... it is in vain that Nero prospers, for Tacitus is already born in the empire"

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The secret archives of colonial counter-insurgency: Kenya and Cameroon (6/11/11)

When in the decades after 1945, Britain and France came to recognise that they could not keep colonies, their political priority became the manipulation of decolonisation. The European powers, with the support of the United States, sought to ensure that the right kinds of nationalists came to power.1 The ‘right nationalists’ were those leaders who would give the West full access to their resources, would keep their independent countries safe from communists, from such Pan-Arab or pan-African “ultranationalists” as Nasser and Nkrumah, and would not nationalise the land and mineral resources which Europeans had seized during the colonial era. The British and French did not care if their successors were kleptocrats, Islamicists, or thugs, so long as they promised not to change the colonial social and economic arrangements.

This could often be done easily and cheaply: many were the ambitious lawyers and doctors educated in Oxford or Paris who wanted nothing more than collaboration with the former colonial masters. But in many places— such as Malaya and Kenya or Cameroon and the Congo — to ensure that the West got what it wanted in the post-colonial world required brutal interventions, campaigns of bombings, the mass internment of tens of thousands of people, torture, Mau Mauthe assassination of key leaders of the wrong kind, and even small and large massacres. Most of this was done in secret, covered up at the time and for decades afterwards. We are only gradually discovering the scale of violence and human rights abuses which were part of the secret history of decolonisation. This deserves our attention because, as we have learned, there is a direct line of descent in terms of personnel, tactics, and strategy, from the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau nationalists in Kenya and the regime of Idi Amin (veteran of the King’s African Rifles) in the 1970s, from the shoot-to-kill orders given to paratroopers in Aden and the Bloody Sunday Massacre in Northern Ireland in 1972, and from the extermination of the Bamileke rebels in Cameroon c. 1960 to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.

In April 2011, the British government admitted that it had a secret archive of over two thousand boxes of files which had been brought back from former colonies when they became independent. They were and are held at Hanslope Park, a Foreign Office base which is also part of the British intelligence community (it is an important centre forHanslope Park electronic communications and surveillance). These files should, with the rest of local colonial government’s documents, have remained in Palestine, Malaya, Nigeria, Kenya, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana, Cyprus, Aden, and another twenty-five territories when they became constitutionally independent. Instead, those papers which might have lead to the criminal prosecution of British officers for crimes of murder or torture or other abuses, would have exposed local collaborators and informants, and would embarrass Britain, or all three, were secretly removed and returned to Britain.

Only the archival ingenuity of the historian David Anderson forced the British government in court to come clean. He was able to find  

daenough evidence in open archives of some of the hidden documents, and of the process of hiding, to allow the lawyers of alleged victims of British human rights abuses in Kenya to force their release through the courts, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13044974.  A few years ago, when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins had written about the scale of torture she was accused of wild exaggeration, and of depending once unreliable oral testimony. But we now have in black-and-white detailed accounts of beatings, torture, death squad killings, even “murder by beating up and roasting alive” of one captive (Top Secret telegram of January 17, 1955, http://www.scribd.com/doc/52818586/eight-offices-implicated-in-murder-and-abuse-in-Kenya?in_collection=2964763).

On October 31, 2011, Anderson gave a paper on “Rule of fear: Col. Arthur Young, state violence and the Kenya Emergency, 1953-55” to the Imperial and World History seminar that I co-convene at the Institute of Historical Research in London. What was striking about his paper, one of the most important ones given to our seminar in recent years, was not just the scale and histories hangedrange of violence, but the layers and layers of cover-ups, with officers on the ground, colonial officials in Kenya, and ultimately politicians and civil servants in London putting a blanket of silence over the most extraordinary atrocities, while granting amnesty and protection to their perpetrators. We may hear much more when the matter comes before the British courts in 2012.

The Hanslope Park papers, if they are ever released as was promised by William Hague, will force us to rewrite the story of decolonisation. Only 300 of the 2,000 boxes concern Kenya. What else do they contain? The lawyers for the victims of a 1948 atrocity in Malaya, when the Scots Guards allegedly murdered 21 villagers, forced the survivors onto trucks and burned villages to the grounds, are suing to find out what the secret records say about the incident? Will the Nigerian papers tell us how the independence census was manipulated to the benefit of the more pro-British Muslim North and of British oil companies? Will the British Guiana papers tell us how much the British government knew about who was organising strikes and terror bombings in Georgetown, and about the involvement of the CIA? And what really happened in the SAS suppression of the Dhofar insurgency?


It is interesting to consider these British cases in the light of the recent revelation of the scale and violence of French counterinsurgency activity in Cameroon in the 1950s. This weekend I have been reading a remarkable new book— Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa,
Kamerun!: Une Guerre Cachée aux Origines de la Françafrique, 1948-1971 (Paris: La Decouverte, 2011). It tells the story of the dirty war Kamerun!fought by France to destroy the Union des Peuples Camerounais (UPC). Key leaders in particular Reuben Um Nyobe and Felix Moumie were murdered— Moumie poisoned with radioactive thallium by a French spy in Geneva, while hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes, thousands of people tortured. British diplomatic sources in the 1960s estimated that 70,000 civilians were were killed, but noted that the exact number of deaths was difficult to calculate because the French army frequently burned entire villages, often by dropping incendiary bombs from planes. Credible estimates run over 120,000, and less reliable estimates go much higher. As in Kenya, many deaths resulted from the system of mass detention of insurgents and their supporters, especially among the Bamileke. But Kamerun! is also a portrait of “the origins of the French neo-colonial system in Africa”, showing how the promise of oil and uranium in the territory made its destiny a priority for French geostrategy, and how during and after decolonisation France worked through local collaborators to preserve its interests. The authors note in particular how the French army created a model of counter-insurgency which would later be applied, with its help, by African politicians seeking to maintain power by force. The “French school of counter-insurgency”— the systematic use of propaganda, psychological warfare, mass surveillance, torture, targeted killing, punitive reprisals —- found a post-colonial afterlife.   The photographs of the severed heads of nationalists make clear the reign of terror which these “techniques” involved. While tetes decoupeesthese methods applied in Algeria failed, in Cameroon they were judged a success, and from the bloody Central African Republic of Bokassa in the 1970s to Rwanda in the 1990s, the authors argue that we may see how African soldiers were trained in methods of eradication of the “internal enemy” forged and diffused by French military and political figures in the era of decolonisation. As the journalist Patrick de St-Expury wrote about Rwanda: “we instructed the killers, we furnished the technology, our theory, we supplied the method, our ‘doctrine’” of counter-insurgency.


From the “successes” of colonial counter-insurgency in the 1950s, the rivers of blood continue to flow across Africa. 

1For which see R. Robinson and W. Roger Louis, ‘The Imperialism of Decolonisation’, Jl of Imperial and Commonwealth History (1994).

Filed under Cameroon Caroline Elkins David Anderson Felix Moumie Foreign and Commonwealth Office Francafrique Hanslope Park Imperialism of Decolonization Kamerun! Kenya Malayan insurgency Mau Mau Reuben um Nyobe counter-insurgency Nasser Nkrumah COIN

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