In a roadside cafe in Kenya’s majestic highlands, Elly Sigilai cradled a steaming mug of tea and recalled how 17 relatives died after British colonialists ousted them in 1934 to plant tea on their family land.
The 79-year-old is one of hundreds of elderly Kenyans seeking to sue the British government for alleged displacement and torture by its colonial predecessor, in a case that could encourage other former colonies to press similar claims.
“Those on this list died from malaria and sleeping sickness,” said Sigilai, a neatly folded piece of paper in his hand naming the dead in his family, including two brothers and a sister. “They were sent to a valley infested by tsetse flies to die.”
Survivors and their descendants hope to win “significant” compensation from Britain’s High Court and the return of swaths of land, largely owned by international tea companies, said George Tarus, a legal adviser to the government of Nandi County in Kenya’s North Rift region, which is financing the case.
“We became beggars in our own land,” Sigilai said, removing a faded baseball cap and putting it on the table by his tea.
“We love it,” he said of the commodity which is grown in and around Kericho, 260 kms (162 miles) northwest of Kenya’s capital. “But it has brought a lot of misery to my community.”
Around 200 people have already come forward with evidence to support the case, Tarus said.
“All land within Nandi belongs to the county and we want it all to be given back to us,” he said.
Kenya’s 47 counties manage leaseholds on their land.
A British foreign office spokeswoman declined to comment on the legal proceedings.
The case could be politically important for millions of voters ahead of Kenya’s elections in August, with some politicians already starting to stoke tensions over land.
More than 1,200 Kenyans were killed following a disputed 2007 poll, largely in the Rift Valley where resentment over the loss of land during the colonial era still festers.
Much of the land vacated when the British left Kenya in 1963 after 43 years was sold to the political elite who could afford to buy it, rather than returned to its original owners.
Kenya was one of Britain’s most important colonies with hundreds of settlers moving into the best agricultural land to grow tea, coffee and tobacco, forcing Africans into reserves and employing them as cooks, guards and gardeners.
The British displaced hundreds of Nandi and Kipsigis families — sub-tribes of Kenya’s third-largest ethnic group, the Kalenjin — from the Rift Valley highlands for tea plantations.
“They have to pay for what they did to us,” said Moses Mosonet, 83, a Nandi, his eyes coated with a milky veneer.
“They can take their tea and leave us with our land,” he said, seated outside his home, which overlooks lush, hilly tea estates in Nandi, some 70 km north of Kericho, not far from the African reserve where his parents were taken eight decades ago.
Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of black tea, an industry which employs more than 3.5 million Kenyans, directly and indirectly, the national trade union says.
London-based Finlays, one of the tea companies whose land is being targeted, declined to comment.
Dozens of villages were decimated, the potential plaintiffs say, and those who opposed the displacement tortured and exiled.
“Serious atrocities were committed,” said Philemon Koech of Lilan and Koech Associates, which won a tender from Nandi County government in March to pursue a civil case for reparations. “If such things like the torture of the people and their subsequent displacement were to happen in present day, we would be dealing with the International Criminal Court [ICC].”
More than 5,200 other elderly Kenyans won almost 14 million pounds ($18 million) in compensation from Britain in a 2013 out-of-court settlement for abuse by colonial forces during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency.
Gathering evidence will not be easy, particularly as the annexation of African land was legal under British colonial law, said Gitobu Imanyara, a Kenyan human rights lawyer.
“There can hardly be anyone alive to corroborate some of the claims,” he said.
Once the evidence is collected, British lawyer Karim Khan, who specializes in international criminal law and international human rights law, has agreed to assess its worth.
“I will advise on the merits or otherwise of a case under English law,” he told Reuters by phone. “I can’t possibly say that there will definitely be a case in the High Court until I have advised on the evidence.”
Khan is well-known in Kenya for successfully defending deputy president William Ruto against charges of crimes against humanity in the ICC from 2013 to 2016.
While the undulating manicured tea bushes, extending as far as the eye can see, evoke painful memories for the elderly, the younger generation are more skeptical about the case.
“If they tell the multinationals to leave who will employ us?” asked Justus Ngetich, 30, a taxi driver in Bomet, some 70 km south of Kericho. “It is all about power and politics, not about the well-being of the people. We shall just sit here and watch the tea estates change hands from the whites to blacks.”