(AFP) – King Charles III paid a solemn visit Tuesday to the birthplace of independent Kenya, at the start of a trip clouded by calls for an apology over Britain’s bloody colonial past.
Although the four-day state visit by Charles and Queen Camilla has been billed as an opportunity to look to the future and build on the cordial modern-day ties between London and Nairobi, Buckingham Palace has said the king will address historic “wrongs” during decades of colonial rule.
It is the 74-year-old British head of state’s first tour of an African and Commonwealth nation since becoming king last year and comes just weeks before Kenya celebrates the 60th anniversary of independence in December.
Under rainy skies, Charles and Camilla were given a ceremonial red-carpet welcome by Kenyan President William Ruto, who said on X he was “honoured” to host the royal couple.
Later, Charles and Ruto laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the Uhuru Gardens memorial park.
Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili and the site is steeped in Kenya‘s turbulent history. Independence was declared there at midnight on December 12, 1963. The Union flag was lowered and replaced with Kenya‘s black, red, green and white flag.
The gardens were built on the site of a camp where British colonial authorities detained suspected Mau Mau guerrillas during the suppression of their 1952-1960 uprising.
The so-called “Emergency” period was one of the bloodiest insurgencies of the British empire and at least 10,000 people — mainly from the Kikuyu tribe — were killed.
Tens of thousands more were rounded up and detained without trial in camps where reports of executions, torture and vicious beatings were common.
– ‘Help the healing process’ –
Britain has said that while the royal tour will “spotlight the strong and dynamic partnership between the UK and Kenya“, it will also “acknowledge the more painful aspects” of Britain’s historic relationship with the East African country.
Buckingham Palace said Charles will take time to “deepen his understanding of the wrongs suffered” by Kenyans during colonial rule.
On Sunday, the Kenya Human Rights Commission urged him to make an “unequivocal public apology… for the brutal and inhuman treatment inflicted on Kenyan citizens”, and pay reparations for colonial-era abuses.
Britain agreed in 2013 to compensate more than 5,000 Kenyans who had suffered abuse during the Mau Mau revolt, in a deal worth nearly 20 million pounds ($25 million at today’s rates).
Then foreign secretary William Hague said Britain “sincerely regrets” the abuses but stopped short of a full apology.
“The negative impacts of colonisation are still being felt to date, they are being passed from generation to generation, and it’s only fair the king apologises to begin the healing process,” delivery rider Simson Mwangi, 22, told AFP.
But 33-year-old chef Maureen Nkatha disagreed.
“He doesn’t have to apologise, it’s time for us to move on and forward,” she said.
– Family ties –
Kenya bears special resonance for the royal family.
It is the country where Queen Elizabeth II — then a princess — learned in 1952 of the death of her father, King George VI, marking the start of her historic 70-year reign.
Charles has previously made three official visits and this week’s tour is being staged 40 years since his mother’s state visit in November 1983.
Kenya and Britain are close economic partners with two-way trade at around 1.2 billion pounds ($1.5 billion) over the year to the end of March 2023.
The royal programme focuses on efforts to tackle climate change, with Charles long a fervent campaigner for action to protect the environment, as well as support for creative arts, technology and youth.
During their two-day stay in the capital, the royal couple will attend a state banquet, meet tech entrepreneurs and visit Nairobi’s famed national park.
They then travel to the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa, stopping at a marine nature reserve and meeting religious leaders.
– Republican voices –
But another lingering source of tension is the presence of British troops in Kenya, with soldiers accused of rape and murder, and civilians maimed by munitions.
In August, Kenya‘s parliament launched an inquiry into the activities of the British army, which has a base near Nanyuki, a town 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of Nairobi.
The royal visit also comes as pressure mounts in some Caribbean Commonwealth countries to remove the British monarch as head of state, and republican voices in the UK grow louder.
More than a dozen nations out of the Commonwealth grouping of 56 countries still recognise the UK monarch as head of state.
But clamour to become a republic is growing, including in Jamaica and Belize, after Barbados made the switch in 2021.
© Agence France-Presse