AFRICANGLOBE – In that oak-panelled gentlemen’s club for torturers and mass murderers, there is a small leather-bound handbook with instructions on how to respond to evidence of atrocities.
The club members range from elderly officials from the British and French colonial service to rather more youthful state apparatchiks from Kenya and Sudan, along with Mexican and Columbian drug lords, ageing special forces officers in Francisco Franco’s and Augusto Pinochet’s armies and a legion of middle-ranking officers from Sri Lanka, Syria and Russia’s Caucasus.
It is a bibulous and diverse crowd, all in the deadly serious business of self-justification and mass obfuscation.
As the post-prandial port circulates around the main dining table and Cohiba cigars are lit, talk turns to the unhealthy interest among citizens in holding governments to account.
“We must return to first principles,” a moustachioed Chilean colonel explains to a Sudanese intelligence officer.
“It was a choice between us and anarchy – the people wanted us to protect them. In the name of God, we did what we knew to be right!”
A wizened and very retired British colonial officer with a house in Nanyuki prods the Sudanese affectionately: “Governments have to know how to rule. If you go soft on the opposition, they’ll never respect you.”
As he droned on, a Kenyan politician half his age a few seats away had an uneasy sense of déjà vu.
He started leafing through a yellowing copy of the torturers’ handbook. It was a first edition, 1884, just in time for the Congress of Berlin.
After a brief table of contents, the author sets out his advice.
“The first rule when faced with accusations of atrocities is deny everything and put the accuser on trial. Be sure to belittle the claims of the bereaved as shrill exaggerations or self-interested lies.
“Take the moral high ground away from them. It’s all more complex than it looks. Talk about the need for context to answer these outlandish charges.
“And we all know that trying to hold to account the people who ordered the torturing and killing of thousands can just make a bad situation worse. Better to choose peace over justice…”
Then the airbrushing of history can start in earnest.
Perhaps, thought the Kenyan politician, our political advisors weren’t as original as they claimed.
Turning to the British colonial officer, he asked: “What I don’t understand is why your government tortured and killed the Mau Mau fighters, then kept all those official files detailing how you did it.”
Unfazed, the Briton returned: “Young man, we did our best. Did you know we burned three and half tonnes of documents before handing the country over to Jomo Kenyatta?
“If it hadn’t been for some do-gooder at the Foreign Office finding that archive of documents at Hanslope Park, the Mau Maus’ lawyers would have been at sea. Anyway, we only had to give them £3,000 ($4,500) each and didn’t even admit liability.”
The Chilean colonel butted in: “But it all sets a worrying precedent. Like when your British Labour Party had the nerve to have our General Pinochet arrested for organising tor- ture and assassinations. Let’s face it, none of us are safe these days.”
The older men looked nervously at each other for a few moments. “And that includes you two,” said a veteran from Franco’s army facing the Kenyan and his Sudanese companion: “How are you going to deal with this International Criminal Court? We never had that in my time, mon dieu!”
“We will take our cue from you,” said the Sudanese intelligence man looking straight at the Brit from Nanyuki: “You managed to cover up your atrocities for over 50 years, even torturing the United States president’s grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama.
And as for our stabilisation strategies in Darfur and my Kenyan friend’s efforts at quelling post-election unrest, you’re not going to see any credible witnesses or our civil servants uncover an archive of embarrassing files because we’ve already burned them.”
A nervous almost admiring laughter broke out around the table: “You mean you burned the witnesses or the files?” the Mexican drug lord asked intently. “Take a guess, my friend,” replied the man from Nanyuki.
By: Patrick Smith