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

Saturday November 04 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Big men from two former colonial powers in East Africa were in the region at the same time last week, softly singing mea culpas.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Tanzania and expressed his “shame” at crimes committed during Germany’s colonial rule in then-Tanganyika.

“I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your ancestors here,” Steinmeier said during a visit to the Maji Maji Museum in Songea, the capital of Ruvuma Region in southwestern Tanzania.

Read: German president faces colonial past on Tanzania trip

Tanzania was part of German East Africa until 1920, when in the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I, it became a British mandate.

Between July 1905 and August 1907, Germany faced a determined rebellion against its predatory labour and agricultural policies in southwestern Tanganyika, the famed Maji Maji Rebellion.


As it had in its other colonies, especially in German South West Africa, now Namibia, German suppression of the uprising was unflinchingly brutal, killing between 200,000 and 300,000 local people.

Steinmeier said Germany was ready to work with Tanzania towards a “communal processing” of the past.

“What happened here is our shared history -- the history of your ancestors and the history of our ancestors in Germany,” he said, promising to “take these stories with me to Germany so that more people in my country will know about them”.

Steinmeier’s trip to Tanzania, coincided with a visit by the UK’s King Charles III, accompanied by his wife Queen Camilla, to Kenya.

Read: UK King begins four-day Kenya trip

The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, which lasted from 1952 to 1960 was to Britain, what the Maji Maji rebellion was to Germany.

A land and political rights movement led by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), based mainly in central Kenya. According to Kenyan historians, as the movement broadened, it got a popular Swahili street name, “Mzungu Aende Ulaya, Mwafrika Apate Uhuru” (Let the foreigner go back abroad, let the African regain independence), which was abbreviated to Mau Mau.

Radical Kenyan history holds that the British preferred to use the term Mau Mau instead of KLFA “to deny the Mau Mau rebellion international legitimacy”. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries themselves adopted it “to counter colonial propaganda”.

A conservative counting puts the number of deaths among the Mau Mau and other forces at 11,000. More recent reckonings put the figure at between 20,000 and 30,000. This included 1,090 executions by hanging. Most of these casualties were African. By the end of the war, the Mau Mau had killed 32 European civilians. The British also established over 100 concentration camps, where Kenyans were held in degrading conditions.

Ahead of the visit, activists and relatives of those maimed or killed during the colonial era demanded that King Charles apologise for the atrocities.
He did – sort of. Biting down on the proverbial British upper lip, King Charles walked gingerly around the subject.

“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”, he said at a state banquet in his honour at Nairobi State House.

“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,” the king said.

Read: Colonialism on agenda for UK King visit to Kenya

Steinmeier was sorry and promised to raise awareness of German colonial atrocities at home, and King Charles said he was learning from Britain’s “unjustifiable acts of violence”. What are Tanzanians and Kenyans, and indeed formerly colonised Africans, doing?

There were nationalist movements that led to independence, and an often virulent anti-colonial/imperialist political and intellectual tradition has taken root in many African countries. But, decades later, there is still no serious study or teaching of why colonialists succeeded; what that says about African societies of the time; and what we might learn from that period to fortify ourselves against malevolent foreign forces in future.

To his credit, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni is almost alone among African leaders in consistently raising difficult questions about the slave trade, colonialism, and Africans’ culpability.

He often argues in speeches and has written severally, that Africans were subjugated by European colonialists because they were divided. That they were technologically backward. The African chiefs and kings were corrupt, stupid, and not ideologically progressive, so they sold their people and land for trinkets, a few guns, and whisky.

However, because his nearly 40-year-long rule has not been a stellar example of an enlightened democratic Africa, marred as it has been by nepotism, corruption, violence, election rigging, and opportunistic alliances with superpowers, the similarities to the colonial era have too often been uncomfortable. As a result, he is often forced to speak from both sides of his mouth.

But for setting the direction where we need to look hard, he can’t be faulted. So the chiefs and kings were stupid and greedy. Why? African societies were technologically backward and didn’t develop machine guns first. Why? Africans participated in capturing fellow Africans and selling them to Arab, and later European, slavers. Why? Why did some rise in the Maji Maji and Mau Mau rebellions, while others rolled over or collaborated?

Perhaps the most meaningful reparations Steinmeier and King Charles can pay is to put money into examining why we dropped the ball. Of course, we will have to fight to ensure that our modern chiefs, like their predecessors, don’t steal it.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3