LONDON (AP) — King Charles III wants to look to the future when his state visit to Kenya starts on Tuesday. But first he will have to confront the past.
As Charles prepares for the four-day trip to Kenya, he is facing calls to address the legacy of eight decades of British colonial rule, as well as complaints that foreigners still own large swaths of rich farmland, and that the U.K. has failed to accept responsibility for the crimes of British soldiers stationed in Kenya.
The trip will also be closely watched around the world, because it’s the king’s first state visit to an African nation and his first to a Commonwealth member since he ascended the throne last year. It comes at a time when the U.K. and the royal family is under pressure to reexamine the history of colonialism and apologize for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Behind the history and symbolism, Britain is keen to buttress its modern relationship with Kenya, which includes cooperation on counterterrorism and efforts to boost trade that totals more than 1.1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) a year. Charles will underscore his commitment to environmental protection with visits to a national park to see vital conservation work undertaken by the Kenyan Wildlife Service.
The king has already shown a willingness to address difficult issues, opening the royal archives to researchers studying the monarchy’s links to the slave trade. Before assuming the throne, he acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery” during a speech on the Caribbean island of Barbados.
“History never disappears,” said Nick Westcott, a professor of diplomacy at SOAS University of London and a former director of the Royal African Society. “I think that’s how he sees it genuinely himself — that we shouldn’t paper over the past, pretending what didn’t happen, that you have to face up to it. But then the objective is to look at the future.”
Charles, the U.K.’s head of state, travels abroad at the request of the U.K. government and only when he’s been invited by the host country. The hope is that the glamour and goodwill generated by a visit from one of the most well-known men on Earth will strengthen the ties between Britain and Kenya.
Kenyan President William Ruto invited Charles and Queen Camilla for the visit beginning in Nairobi on Tuesday.
In the age of colonialism, Kenya was one of the jewels of the British Empire. It was the starting point for an ambitious railway project linking the Indian Ocean coast with the African interior, and the destination for thousands of white settlers who built coffee and tea plantations.
But the colonial administration also replaced Black leaders, pushed local people off their land and imposed crippling taxes.
That set the stage for the Mau Mau Rebellion of the 1950s, which hastened the end of colonial rule, but continues to cloud relations between the U.K. and Kenya. Colonial authorities resorted to executions and detention without trial as they tried to put down the insurrection, and thousands of Kenyans said they were beaten and sexually assaulted by agents of the administration.
In 2013, the U.K. government condemned the “torture and ill-treatment” that took place during the rebellion as it announced a 19.9 million-pound settlement with more than 5,000 victims
Kenya became independent in 1963, but the country has maintained close, if sometimes troubled, ties with the U.K.
“His Majesty will take time during the visit to deepen his understanding of the wrongs suffered in this period by the people of Kenya,’’ Chris Fitzgerald, deputy private secretary to the king, told reporters before the trip.
Charles and Queen Camilla plan to tour a new museum dedicated to Kenyan history, visit the site where Kenya declared its independence and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Uhuru Gardens.
For the U.K. and allies like the United States, Kenya is a strategically important hub of relative stability and democracy in East Africa, as they combat the threat from Islamic extremists based primarily in neighboring Somalia.
Two years ago, the U.K. and Kenya signed an economic pact designed to boost trade and investment between the two countries and renewed a defense agreement that underpins cooperation on counterterrorism efforts and allows British soldiers to train in Kenya.
But some among a new generation of Kenyans question what links, if any, their country should have with its former colonial power, which left behind not only memories of brutality, but also colonial-era laws, such as the ban of gay sex, that continue to influence attitudes.
The Rift Valley of western Kenya remains a flashpoint for concerns about land ownership, because most of the fertile region’s tea and pineapple farms are owned by foreigners.
Veteran politician and human rights activist Koigi Wamwere says the continued ownership of huge parcels by British citizens while local people have no land is an “injustice that should be corrected.”
Kenya and the U.K. “cannot move forward until they apologize, offer reparations and return the land they stole,’’ he said.
Charles’ visit is also likely to reignite tensions over defense cooperation.
Dozens of people are gearing up to protest what they describe as crimes committed by British forces stationed in Kenya. In the highlands of Laikipia and Nanyuki, east of Nairobi, many in the local community are demanding compensation for a fire allegedly started by British soldiers in 2021.
Local attorney Kelvin Kubai told The Associated Press that more than 100 of the 7,000 victims who were affected have died without compensation.
“The people feel that the buck stops with the king, ” Kubai said. “They also feel that as long as he owes an apology (for) the past colonial deeds, he also owes a responsibility to the present atrocities being committed by his forces here in Nanyuki and Laikipia.’’
The unsolved murder of Agnes Wanjiru, who disappeared near a British base in Kenya 11 years ago, is another issue that is likely to surface during the visit.
While a former British soldier is the prime suspect in the case, authorities have yet to charge anyone.
Wanjiru’s family told the AP that they had hoped the U.K. government would contact them about the case, but so far they have heard nothing.
“Numerous dignitaries from the U.K. have visited Kenya, promising to meet our family, but failing to do so,” said Wanjiru’s sister Rose. “They only make those commitments to the media and never honor them.”
With a growing number of people of African origin now living in the U.K. making a connection with the people of Kenya is important to Charles, Westcott said.
“They are an integral part of what Britain is today — and the king is acknowledging that in making this one of his priority visits,’’ he said. “It is not just Kenya he’s visiting. It is Africa.”
Evelyne Musambi reported from Nairobi, Kenya.