Economic mission or pilgrimage to colonial-era crime scenes?

Wednesday November 08 2023

Britain's King Charles III (L) walks with Kenyan President William Ruto (C) at Moi International Airport in Mombasa County, Kenya on November 3, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Germany and the United Kingdom this week offered a conciliatory hand to their former colonial powers in East Africa, pushed by economic reasons they argue have been hindered by complaints about their colonisation history.

But, even in their public clean-up campaigns, the two countries were divergent in strategy, sticking to their political needs back home.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on a tour of Tanzania, asked for “forgiveness”. But King Charles III, in Nairobi, offered “regrets”.

For the Germans, it has been policy for the last 20 years to correct errors of their failed colonial bids dating back to the 19th century. For the British, it has been policy to move on by avoiding culpability for their colonial misdeeds.

Read: Colonialism on agenda for UK King visit to Kenya

King Charles was making his first state visit to Africa since his coronation in May, but he had been in Kenya three times before including attending Kenya’s independence in 1963.


Yet the history of the British colonial governors here was punctuated with atrocity especially during the Mau Mau war in which more than 10,000 Kenyans died. At a state banquet in Nairobi, King Charles said that bit has hurt relations.

“The wrongdoings of the past are a cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret. There were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans as they waged…a painful struggle for independence and sovereignty – and for that, there can be no excuse,” the UK monarch told an audience at State House.

Dark chapters

“In coming back to Kenya, it matters greatly to me that I should deepen my own understanding of these wrongs, and that I meet some of those whose lives and communities were so grievously affected.”

His host, President William Ruto said Kenya and the UK should not deny their chequered history but should not also be enslaved by it.

“Neither can we go far into the future if we turn our backs on historical actions and omissions whose legacies encumber our present,” President Ruto said.

In Dar es Salaam, Mr Steinmeier arrived carrying a burden of the 19th century massacres, including the killings of the (in)famous Maji Maji rebellion.

Read: German president faces colonial past on Tanzania trip

Germany, once a world power, ruled Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, from the 1880s until 1918, when British forces took control after World War I.

But it is Germans who had a hand in the atrocious colonial history. Historians estimate that as many as 300,000 warriors were shot dead or starved in the southern region of Ruvuma, where local communities rejected colonial rules.

After meeting with Tanzania President Samia Suluhu, the German leader said: “It is important to me that we come to terms with this dark chapter, that we come to terms with it together.”

He offered to repatriate remains of anti-colonial war heroes glassed in German museums.

“We have discussed this in detail, and we are ready to open negotiations to see how we are going to agree on the German colonial legacy. I know there are families who are still waiting for their loved ones’ remains that are in German museums,” President Samia said.

“The negotiations will guide us on how to do this well,” Samia said after her meeting with the German president at the State House in Dar es Salaam late Tuesday.

Read: Germany president visits Tanzania

Germany had offered similar pledges to Nigeria, Benin and other countries where indigenous artefacts were taken during their prehistoric days.

But it is when Steinmeier visited the Maji Maji War Museum that he came face to face with the German brutality in the 1900s. The War Museum stands at the burial place where Ngoni chief Songea Nduna was buried in a mass grave. He was hanged for refusing to be German puppet leader, historians say.

“I join you in mourning Chief Songea and all who were executed. I bow before the victims of German colonial rule. And, as Germany’s Federal President, I want to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your forefathers.

“I ask for forgiveness, and I want to assure you that we Germans will together with you look for answers to the unresolved questions that haunt you,” he told the audience in Ruvuma on Thursday, admitting shame.

But this wasn’t a free stance. The Germans have, since 2021, been upending their policy in Africa, seeking partners to help their domestic industries thrive without looking paternalistic.

“Respect and fairness,” argues Svenja Schulze, the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, is the new attitude by Berlin.

Rebuilding trust

“We voice our values and interests, but also listen, thus building trust and partnerships to give us a sound basis in the new multipolar world order,” she says in a bulletin published on the Ministry’s website. That policy will be about engaging in “a dialogue with Africa rather than about Africa”.

Read: OBBO: Visiting Germany, UK, confronted but didn’t slay colonial monsters in EA

In Tanzania, Mr Steinmeier took the long route to economic discussions, perhaps knowing the wall the colonial past had built between the two countries.

The German leader admitted there are positives between the countries, however, including the economic projects and projects. Germany is one of Tanzania’s biggest sources of tourism averaging 58,000 in a good year, according to the Tanzania Tourist Board. Firms like Twiga Cement factory in Dar es Salaam, run in partnership with the Scancem International under Heidelberg Cement, have German fingerprints. Germany has also funded various health and education projects through the GIZ.

“And we will make the most of them. Yet we are also tied by the burden of a difficult past. My message to you is that I have come to Songea today as President of a different Germany. Of a country different from the one your ancestors had to encounter. Germany stands ready to address the past together.”

Things varied in Kenya. Although King Charles offered ‘regrets’ of the past, the Kenya-UK relations are quite strong. In 2020, the two sides signed the Strategic Partnership, to focus on collective expertise, resources, and leadership on bilateral, regional and global priorities “that will help deliver more prosperous, secure and sustainable societies.

That Partnership was based on mutual prosperity, security and stability, sustainable development, climate change, and people to people exchanges. Though not the head of government, King Charles referred to this, offering strengthen relations as “a modern partnership of equals facing today’s challenges, and looking to the many opportunities that, together, we can seize.” Those challenges include climate change and security.

“Whether by using the King’s Cross regeneration as a model for the Nairobi Railway City, or by learning from Kenya how the Blue Economy can really work for local communities, all of you here this evening, and across our countries, deserve our gratitude for your ceaseless work to realise our joint ambitions.”

The UK is among Kenya’s top ten bilateral development partners, providing $87 million in bilateral Official Development Assistance and $110 million in multilateral spend in Kenya as at 2022. The UK was Kenya’s 5th largest export destination in 2022 buying mainly flowers and tea.

Yet as King Charles toured the country with his wife, Queen Camilla, Kenya showed him the history of colonial misdeeds, taking him to a museum where statues of freedom fighters Dedan Kimathi and Mekatilili wa Menza stand.

“I am optimistic that through the Kenya-UK partnership, we shall keep up our endeavour to inspire the change we hope for by making people,” said Ruto at State House Nairobi.

“The fundamental consideration in our pursuit of trade and investment, defence and security, conservation and climate action, research, development and innovation as well as our work of designing a future that works for present generations and distant posterity.”