Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How Britain tortured Obama's grandfather

With great excitement sections of the press have "revealed" that the President elect's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was tortured by the British. Whilst I'm glad to see this in the papers, seeing as Obama Jr published this himself in 1995 I'm cringing slightly at the word "revealed" here. "Revealed again" might be a bit more more appropriate.

The Guardian concedes in a rather straight faced way that "Obama, with more pressing contemporary problems on his plate, is unlikely to be fixated on extracting revenge from the UK." Well, I think they might be right on that one, but Brown better watch it just in case.

One good thing to come out of this rather old story is that the press has been publishing potted histories of the resistance movement in Kenya that led to Obama snr's arrest. It's worth remembering that during the Mau Mau phase of this resistance ('52-'60) between 11 and 30 thousand Kenyans were killed, 80,000 imprisoned and around one and half million Kenyans were "resettled"by the British (Ken Olende).

According to Dreams from my father prior to his arrest Obama's grandfather had been known locally as a great admirer of the British and had proudly served in the British Army. Arrested for a connection to the resistance that he always denied Hussein Onyango Obama was imprisoned without trial and tortured - an ordeal from which he never recovered either physically or psychologically.

According to The Times “The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” and he'd recalled how “they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down”.

The alleged torture was said to have left Mr Onyango permanently scarred, and bitterly anti-British. “That was the time we realised that the British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies,” Mrs Onyango [his wife] said. “My husband had worked so diligently for them, only to be arrested and detained.”

Whilst the paper is horrified that "Mr Obama has nothing good to say of the colonial era, which he summarises as “the manipulation of colonial boundaries, the displacements, the detentions, the indignities large and small”" The Times still does not flinch when it comes to eye witnesses, which include rebels of the day, one of whom recalls of his own ordeals;

First he was pushed through a cattle dip. Then he was beaten around the back of his head until he fell unconscious. “But the worst punishment was carrying overflowing buckets from the cells,” he said, in the Kikuyu language of his tribe. “We were made to carry them on our heads. The guards would make us run so the excrement would run down our faces. It stank and made our eyes sting. We were all ill, all the time.”

In a sworn statement collected by human rights activists, he details other abuses at Manyani, which he described as “hell on earth”. The screams of other inmates turned the camp into a lunatic asylum, he said. Their days would be spent digging rocks from the ground. One of the white guards would force young inmates to carry him on their backs, as if they were horses.
If anyone were tempted to say that Abu Graib or Guantanamo were uniquely American institutions they should consider some of the barbarities British colonialism inflicted upon its subjects in order to keep Kenya British.

One British officer recalls being horrified when he first arrived when his superintendent outlined what they did in the camps. “He said, ‘I don’t know why you’re looking so queasy about this, it’s just like a good rugger scrum’.” The officer went on “The war in the forests lasted for maybe two and a half years. The more serious situation was created by the operation to sweep Nairobi clean of anyone who was black — or that’s how it seemed.” To his credit he eventually refused to continue to take part in the British offensive.

Even The Mail has a potted history which concedes that the British response in Kenya "only radicalised Kenyans who may otherwise not have felt as strongly about the violent path to independence." Which is a lesson worth learning time and again for any budding ruler of an Empire.

Obama never met his grandfather and whilst it seems he found these stories instructive and moving he's hardly emulated the politics of the Mau Mau or Fanon in his meteoric rise but his determination to close down Guantanamo, and end US sanctioned torture may well be a fitting tribute for his grandfather and those who, like him, suffered under the misrule of the British Empire.

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