Is This Why King Charles Stopped Short Of Apologising For Colonialism In Kenya?

It's easy to forget that the British monarch takes its instructions from the government.
King Charles III in Kenya this week.
King Charles III in Kenya this week.
Samir Hussein via Getty Images

King Charles notably stopped short of apologising for colonialism during an emotive speech on Tuesday in Kenya, prompting a wave of criticism.

But there may be a reason for that – here’s what you need to know.

Why are people calling for an apology?

Kenya was colonised by Britain for decades, one of many countries which were considered part of the British Empire.

When its citizens started to call for independence in 1952, insurgents called the Mau Mau started a rebellion, triggering a wave of violent suppression from British forces and the introduction of a state of emergency the same year.

This “emergency” saw Britain force 1.5 million Kenyans suspected of being part of the Mau Mau rebellion into concentration camps. This lasted from 1952 and 1960, when the state of emergency was lifted.

The country declared its independence from Britain in 1963, 11 years after Charles’ mother Queen Elizabeth II had taken to the throne.

So a royal apology during Charles’ first state visit to a Commonwealth country, ahead of Kenya’s 60th anniversary of independence, has been seen as apt for some.

Ahead of the royal visit, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission said that only “an unconditional and unequivocal public apology” for Britain’s colonial abuses – along with compensation – would be enough.

Why did King Charles not apologise for colonialism?

He, like his mother, is a constitutional monarch. As the Royal Family’s official website explains, this means “the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected parliament”, even though the sovereign is head of state.

And the sovereign “no longer has a political or executive role”, but continues to act as “a focus for national identity, unity and pride”.

Apologising for colonialism would err away from the official line the British government toes, therefore breaching his apolitical position.

Even when the UK offered £20 million of compensation to more than 5,000 Kenyans in 2013 after they suffered under colonial authorities during the state of emergency, then foreign secretary William Hague stopped short of an apology.

He just said the UK “sincerely regrets” its actions.

Neil Wigan, the UK high commissioner to Nairobi, told a local radio station last week a royal apology would take the King into “difficult legal territory”.

Britain's King Charles III (CL) meets with Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge (L) and other Kenyan runners during a visit to Karura Forest in Nairobi on November 1, 2023.
Britain's King Charles III (CL) meets with Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge (L) and other Kenyan runners during a visit to Karura Forest in Nairobi on November 1, 2023.
TONY KARUMBA via Getty Images

So what did Charles say during his visit?

On his first state visit to a Commonwealth state since he inherited the throne, the monarch expressed his “deepest regret” at the “unjustifiable acts of violence” the British forces carried out against Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s.

He said: “There were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans,” by the colonial forces, therefore triggering a “painful struggle for independence and sovereignty”.

He added: “For that there can be no excuse.”

The King continued: “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.

“None of this can change the past. But by addressing our history with honesty and openness we can, perhaps, demonstrate the strength of our friendship today. And, in so doing, we can, I hope, continue to build an ever-closer bond for the years ahead.”

Kenya's President William Ruto welcoming Charles to Kenya
Kenya's President William Ruto welcoming Charles to Kenya
via Associated Press

How did Kenya respond?

His words were welcomed by Kenya’s president William Ruto who said the monarch was a “veteran visionary”.

He told Charles he appreciated the monarch’s “expression of willingness to acknowledge the painful aspects of our shared history” and praised “his exemplary courage and readiness to shed light on uncomfortable truths”.

Ruto said: “This is a highly encouraging first step, under your leadership, to deliver progress beyond tentative and equivocal half measures of past years.”

However, the president also called for “full reparations”, and said “much remains to be done” to achieve this.

Others such as David Ngasura, a historian from the Talai clan in western Kenya, told Reuters news agency that “acknowledgement alone is not enough”.

He said: “I am yet to hear him about compensation and reparations by the British government to the victims of historical injustices meted by the British colonial government.”


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