Why is Kenya investigating alleged abuse by UK soldiers?

Multiple offences, including a murder, have hounded British soldiers in Kenya for years.

Boris Johnson with UK troops in Kenya
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, left, awards a Long Service and Good Conduct medal to an officer at the British Army Training Unit Kenya [BATUK] in Nanyuki, Kenya, on March 17, 2017 [Thomas Mukoya/AP Photo]

Kenya this week kick-started public hearings into widespread allegations that United Kingdom soldiers stationed in the East African country have committed multiple human rights violations.

For over a decade, locals on different occasions accused British soldiers training in towns in central Kenya of misconduct, environmental degradation, murder, and a host of other serious offences.

The hearings mark the culmination of long-winded legal proceedings to try British soldiers under Kenyan law following years of lobbying by civil society groups and after initial pushback from the British government.

Here’s what we know about the abuse allegations and what’s expected to happen after the hearings:

What is BATUK and what are members accused of?

The British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) is a permanent training support force based in Nanyuki, central Kenya – and it has existed since Kenyan independence from the UK in 1963.

BATUK has about 100 permanent staff and some 280 rotating short-term regiments from the UK. The unit trains British troops and provides antiterrorism training for Kenyan troops facing the al-Shabab armed group. 

Although the unit has become essential for the economy in Nanyuki and surrounding counties close to training sites, with hundreds of locals employed and with many shops catering to the soldiers, residents have long listed grievances against the troops. Unexploded bombs left from training have claimed people’s limbs in multiple incidents.

Lethal chemicals, such as white phosphorus used in the training exercises, have also raised concerns. The chemical is believed to have contributed to a massive blaze that ripped through the privately owned Lolldaiga Conservancy in March 2021, burning swaths of forest. Locals said the smoke pressed in on them for days and caused eye and inhalation problems. Others said it pushed wildlife onto their farms, leading to crop loss. Some 5,000 people have sued BATUK over that incident.

Who is Agnes Wanjiru?

Sexual abuse claims are also key among the allegations, with several accusations of assault by troops against local women. One soldier in 2021 was dismissed and fined for lifting the skirts of a local woman in public.

In the highest profile case to date, UK soldiers are accused of the March 2012 murder of 21-year-old Agnes Wanjiru in a hotel in Nanyuki. The woman’s body was found in a septic tank two months later close to the room the soldiers used.

The allegations came to light in 2021 after a Sunday Times investigation revealed that a “Soldier X” who Wanjiru was last seen with, is believed to have stabbed her in the chest and abdomen. Although he revealed his actions to colleagues immediately, at least one of whom reported to senior commanders at BATUK, no action was taken.

The investigation also revealed Soldier X and several others poked fun at the murdered woman in Facebook posts.

How have victims tried to seek justice?

Attempts to get justice have in some cases yielded results. One teenager who lost two arms in 2015 after picking up an explosive that appeared to have been left behind by UK soldiers received $100,000 in compensation from the British government – although the UK disputes if the bomb that caused the injuries was for its army or the Kenyan army.

Other cases have recorded slower progress. Thousands of locals affected by the Lolldaiga fire are still fighting for compensation, their lawyers said.

Attempts by the murdered Wanjiru’s family to sue BATUK in Kenya also initially met with resistance as the British government claimed Kenyan courts did not have jurisdiction over UK troops as per the existing security agreement between the two countries. However, following the Sunday Times expose, General Nick Carter, UK chief of defence staff at the time, told local media the allegations were “shocking” and the UK would “cooperate very closely with the Kenyan authorities”.

A parliament vote to amend the security agreement between the countries in April 2023 means British troops can now be tried locally – although there are concerns the changes cannot be applied retrospectively. In August 2023, the Kenyan government officially launched an inquiry into Wanjiru’s killing.

“It has been a battle with them because the way they treat our people has been quite unfortunate,” John Macharia, head of the Africa Center for Corrective and Preventive Action (ACCPA) said. The local advocacy group lobbied for investigations into Wanjiru’s case and helped bring the fire incident to court.

“It’s both countries that are to blame because there have been compromises in Kenyan investigations and prosecution teams, some of whom went to the UK. We have asked how the Wanjiru investigation is progressing but they don’t respond to us and this is a concern for us. The impunity has caused a lot of harm to our people and the ecosystem,” he added.

An open letter from Wanjiru’s family to meet with King Charles – commander of the British armed forces – on his October 2023 trip to Kenya was not acknowledged.

What happened at this week’s hearings?

Victims of alleged abuse and crimes by British soldiers stepped forward with emotional testimonies in hearings held this week.

The mother of a young woman in a wheelchair testified how her daughter was the victim of a hit-and-run incident involving a BATUK truck. BATUK paid for her daughter’s hospital bills for two years, but never gave the family any compensation.

Another mother, holding her five-year-old daughter, narrated how she had been abandoned by a British soldier with whom she had been in a consensual relationship after he discovered she was pregnant. The soldier is believed to have since left Kenya. The woman said she wanted child support.

Survivors of the Lolldaiga fire also spoke at the hearings.

Kenyan authorities had invited Kenyans to submit written and oral testimonies. The hearings, they said, are meant to “investigate the allegations of human rights violations, including mistreatment, torture, unlawful detention, [and] killings”.

The hearings will also examine “alleged ethical breaches related to ethical misconduct, including corruption, fraud, discrimination, abuse of power, and other unethical behaviour”.

What’s next?

Lawmakers will collate evidence from the testimonies, evaluate them and then engage with the British government on possible redress mechanisms through diplomatic channels, a member of parliament told local reporters.

Activists say the hearings are likely to trigger multiple lawsuits against BATUK.

“It will shock the world,” Macharia of ACCPA said. “There are many other issues that have never been taken to court. But this will let the lawmakers interact with the community and understand those issues.”

Locals say their aim is not to force BATUK to close down but rather to make sure that troops who are still stationed at the base can act in a way that does not endanger the lives of villagers.

But there are fears that the inquiry might not achieve much or see anyone held accountable – at least in the short term, due to friendly relations between Kenya and its former colonial power.

The UK government has meanwhile reiterated that it intends to cooperate with Kenyan authorities. On Thursday, Neil Wigan, British high commissioner to Kenya, met with Wanjiru’s family.

“The meeting provided an opportunity for the High Commissioner to listen to the family and offer his condolences,” a statement by the British High Commission read.

“The High Commissioner also reiterated the UK’s continued commitment to cooperate fully with the Kenyan investigation into [the] death of Ms Wanjiru,” it added.

Source: Al Jazeera