More than five decades after British soldiers gunned down 51 unarmed freedom fighters in northern Malawi, survivors and relatives of the slain men are pushing the Malawi government to seek £100-million (about R1.7-billion) in compensation for what they call “unjustified killings”.
But the call for compensation has met stiff resistance, with Malawi and the United Kingdom giving the petitioners the cold shoulder.
On March 3 1959, 56 years ago, the British declared a state of emergency in what was then Nyasaland – which lasted until 1960 – and implemented Operation Sunrise, arresting Malawi nationalists and others. Fury over the arrests resulted in death for 51 demonstrators, detention for more than 1 300 and the wounding of many others.
Anecdotal evidence from eyewitnesses and survivors indicate that the soldiers who killed the 51 men were acting under the orders of the federal district governor, John Brooke.
In honour of the slain freedom fighters, the Malawi government declared March 3 Martyrs’ Day, celebrated as a public holiday to honour those who lost their lives in the struggle against British colonialism.
But the survivors and families say this is not enough. They want the UK to make a payout of at least $2-million to each family of those who died.
Not everyone agrees with the request for compensation. Malawi historian Desmond Dudwa Phiri said there was no justification in the request, considering the country continues to benefit from British aid and budgetary support.
Malawi’s flagship daily, the Nation newspaper, said in an editorial this week: “Let dialogue prevail. Innocent lives were needlessly lost at the hand of the federal forces as people of this country struggled for their emancipation. In the end, a lot is indeed at stake given the age-old relations between the two countries.”
Survivors and relatives of the slain men, led by lawyer Ralph Mhone, the MP for the constituency where the killings occurred in 1959, contend the victims were freedom fighters.
Mau Mau uprising
Mhone, who has taken on the petitioners’ brief pro bono, said he was confident it has substance because of the precedent set in 2013 when, after a high court case, the UK government paid out £19.9-million in costs and compensation to 5 228 Kenyans who had been tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960.
During the Mau Mau uprising against white settlers, the Kenya Human Rights Commission says 90 000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed, and 160?000 people were detained in appalling conditions, although some historians have argued that the figure is much lower.
After the court case, UK foreign secretary William Hague told the Guardian newspaper his government regretted the abuses that marred Kenya’s progress to independence.
“Torture is an abhorrent violation of human dignity, which we condemn. We understand the grief felt by those involved … The British government recognises Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague said.
Phiri said the comparison between Malawi and Kenya was erroneous because those compensated in Kenya last year were war veterans, not families of the dead.
Mhone says the British are responsible for the deaths of the 51 men and the litigants will ask Lilongwe to support the litigation.
“It’s high time Malawi seeks reparations from the UK because our people died fighting for the freedom we enjoy today. They were not criminals but freedom fighters,” Mhone said.
Mhone indicated he would take the British government to London’s high court should “plan A”, to settle the matter outside court, hit a snag.
Dr Edge Kanyongolo, a law professor at Malawi University, cautioned those championing the call for compensation and said they should carefully study the Kenya case.
Kondwani Nankhumwa, the minister of information who is also a Malawi government spokesperson, said the government would not pursue any request for reparations until it received a formal request, adding that the “issue needs a sober and diplomatic approach”.
So far, the British high commission in Malawi has diplomatically brushed the issue aside, saying it has not discussed it with the government.
“We are saddened by any loss of life … but compensation does not arise. Malawi and the UK enjoy strong ties that go back many years; we look forward to continue those relations for many years,” said Michael Nevin, the British high commissioner to Malawi.
Lazarus Chakwera, the leader of the opposition in Malawi, who has visited families and relatives of the slain men, said the best way to honour the freedom fighters was to attend to the needs of the bereaved families. Chakwera leads the Malawi Congress Party, which ruled Malawi from 1964 to 1994.
“Where is the change our freedom fighters wanted? What have we done to compensate freedom fighters’ families?” he asked.
Chakwera said he would take the issue to Parliament to persuade the government to act.
Survivor says Britain must be held accountable
John Chunda, an eyewitness to the Operation Sunrise massacre and the representative of the families of the 51 slain men, said he and the families had suffered psychologically and physically over the years and that it was time to seek redress.
On Monday, Chunda presented a petition claiming £100-million (about R1.7-billion) to the office of the British high commissioner to Malawi, in the capital Lilongwe.
Chunda also delivered copies to the office of the attorney general, the office of the president and Cabinet, the National Assembly and the Malawi Human Rights Commission.
“This is the initial step,” Chunda said on Wednesday. “If the UK government insists on denying, then we follow with litigation. It is a simple case. Representatives of the British Crown ordered the shooting of our freedom fighters and it’s on record. There is no way they can deny liability.”
Chunda first made the claim for compensation on March 3 2014 as Malawi commemorated the 55th anniversary of the martyrdom.
Former president Joyce Banda and her government did not acknowledge or act on the claims.
“We have suffered for 56 years,” said Chanda, “a period long enough for people to make a meaningful [contribution] either to their families or the country had they not been slain like animals.
“On top of that, people must be accountable for their actions, and there’s no point why the British must go scot-free,” said Chunda, adding that, should the UK pay, the money would be shared equally among the families of the 51 slain men. – Collins Mtika