Agnes Wanjiru, the British armed forces and the language of silence 

Elizabeth Brown

In recent years, two prominent British public institutions – the Metropolitan Police and the armed forces – have faced significant criticism regarding their ability to protect women both in the community and within their own organisations. Both have faced a multitude of allegations of bullying, harassment, sexual assault, and inadequate investigatory procedures, within a wider context of institutional misogyny. And in both cases, these discourses have been further inflamed by the violent deaths of young women.

Since then, scrutiny has concentrated around two tragedies: the 2021 rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving police officer Wayne Couzens, and the 2012 death of Agnes Wanjiru in Kenya, allegedly by a serving member of the British armed forces. While the former has received far more attention within British society, the two cases are remarkably similar, both in the failings which facilitated them and the toxic cultures surrounding the treatment of women which they betray. Wanjiru’s death should trigger just as much of a reckoning within the armed forces that Everard’s has in the Metropolitan police.

British soldiers on patrol in Kenya, photograph by Cpl Jamie Hart, used under Open Government License

In March 2012, 21-year-old Wanjiru left her five-month-old daughter with her sister in the room they shared in the Manjengo ghetto in Nanyuki, Kenya. She and a friend went into town for the evening, where they encountered a group of British soldiers who were staying at the nearby Nyati Barracks whilst preparing for their deployment to Afghanistan. The pair eventually found themselves at the bar of the Lions Court Inn Hotel, where Wanjiru was seen drinking with one of the sixty officers from the Duke of Lancaster Regiment there that evening. Later, four witnesses watched the pair leave the bar, with a guard escorting them to a lodge on the hotel’s grounds. This was the last time Wanjiru was seen alive. When she failed to return home the next day, her sister reported her missing. Her near-naked body was found two months later in a septic tank, only yards away from the room to which she had earlier been escorted. A post-mortem found evidence of a severe beating, as well as stab wounds in her chest and abdomen.

Six days after Wanjiru’s disappearance, and seven weeks before her body was found, the Duke of Lancaster Regiment was back in England and a rumour began to circulate that one among them had killed a local woman while they were in Kenya. The crime, and the identity of its perpetrator, were apparently an ‘open secret’ within the unit – so much so that when the group were on deployment in Afghanistan, one senior officer was overheard referring to the alleged murderer as ‘the one that killed the prostitute in Kenya’.

In 2021, five soldiers identified the same serviceman – Soldier X – to journalists investigating the case. Another soldier in his unit – Soldier Y – alleges that on the night of Wanjiru’s disappearance, Soldier X burst into the hotel bar asking for help. He purportedly exclaimed ‘I’ve killed her’, and when prompted led Soldier Y and his friends from the bar to the sewerage tank behind the hotel, where they saw Wanjiru’s body floating inside. When Soldier Y returned to the base, he claims to have immediately reported the incident to senior officers, but was called a liar and told to leave. The first people to question him about that night were not from the Royal Military Police, but from the Sunday Times. ‘I’ve told enough people for someone to have done something. How can everybody know and he’s still a free man?’ he told them. The Kenyan police were investigating the incident, but their request to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to question and retrieve DNA samples from nine of the British soldiers at the hotel that night was met with silence. Questioned about it later, the MoD said they never received the request. Despite a 2019 Kenyan inquest finding that Wanjiru was murdered by one or more British soldiers, no one has been held accountable. Soldier X, meanwhile, claims the allegation was fabricated by an angry colleague. He had also not been questioned about the murder until being approached by the Sunday Times.

This incident must not be viewed in isolation. In November 2021, a colour sergeant serving in Kenya was dismissed after lifting a local woman’s skirt. Back home, an inquest into the 2019 suicide of cadet Olivia Perks found that the Army missed opportunities to provide much-needed welfare support after rumours about her sex life spread around the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Another young soldier, Royal Artillery Gunner Jaysley Beck, died by suicide in December 2021, having earlier made allegations of sustained sexual harassment from a superior. A report later found that the harassment was ‘almost certain[ly]… a causal factor in her death’. Another cadet was dismissed after admitting to disgraceful conduct, having repeatedly hidden in a female colleague’s room waiting for her to return from the showers.

A 2021 report published by the House of Commons Select Committee on the Armed Forces shows these incidents are not anomalies. The committee found that almost 62 percent of the over 4,000 servicewomen who responded to their survey had experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD). Servicewomen were over ten times more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the previous twelve months than their male counterparts. Compounding the issue, the complaints system was found by service personnel to be inefficient and ineffective. Subsequently, six in ten of those surveyed who had experienced BHD had deliberately not reported it, while 75 percent of those who did make a complaint described suffering negative consequences as a result.

Everard’s murder drew attention to an apparently similar reticence within the Metropolitan Police. In the weeks and months following Everard’s death, the public learned that there were multiple opportunities to catch Couzens’ behaviour before it escalated. In 2015 police received reports of a man, believed to be Couzens, driving around naked from the waist down. No action was taken. Shortly before Everard’s murder, Couzens was reported for two incidents of indecent exposure in a McDonalds. Indeed, before he’d even been hired by the Metropolitan Police, his colleagues at the Civil Nuclear Constabulary had given him the harrowing nickname ‘the rapist’ due to his behaviour around female officers. How Couzens was able to continue serving despite numerous allegations of sexual harassment is now the focus of a public inquiry, the first report of which identified numerous failings relating to vetting procedures, workplace culture and the investigation of previous offences which may have contributed to Everard’s death. Retired female police officers have since confirmed that Couzens’ is not an isolated case, but rather that the culture within the Metropolitan Police encourages the silencing of allegations against male officers, even when they are made by their own colleagues.

While these allegations have rocked confidence in the Metropolitan Police, Wanjiru’s murder has not had a comparable impact on the armed forces. This is despite the many similarities between the two cases. Both feature young women who were violently murdered at the prime of their lives. Both involve men who were representatives of institutions who are intended to serve and protect. Both involve perpetrators who benefited from a culture of silence within their institutions surrounding the mistreatment of women. Indeed, the perpetrator-status of both men was an ‘inside joke.’

Thankfully, the attention which they attracted has resulted in many acknowledging the need to do better. However, as noted by Gaby Hinsliff, while Everard’s death has garnered more public attention, Wanjiru’s arguably has more significant implications. ‘Imagine,’ she says, ‘being a female soldier, knowing that in combat your life depends on your unit having your back, [and] agonising over whether to report sexual harassment by one of them.’ Moreover, if servicemen are harassing and sometimes assaulting their own colleagues, ‘how might they treat civilian women – often desperate and vulnerable – who they encounter on operations far from home?’. There has, of course, been outrage. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace summoned senior generals to his office in early November 2021 to convey his exasperation with the allegations. Former Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter pledged the army’s cooperation with the Kenyan police in their ongoing inquiries. However, as MPs Diane Abbott and John Healey asserted, there must be a full inquiry into not only the death itself, but also how it was able to go unnoticed by those responsible for ensuring that soldiers’ conduct aligns with the values their organisation claims to espouse. This inquiry will need to investigate not only those on the ground in Kenya, but also the culture of an institution whose former leader advocated for the utility of ‘laddishism’ in warfighting. Following Everard’s murder, the Senior Inspector at HM Inspectorate of Constabulary said that Couzens’ violence cannot be seen as an aberration; neither should the alleged violence of Soldier X.

At the Kenyan inquest, the presiding judge made the unconventional decision to release the names of the nine British soldiers who were under investigation by Kenyan Police concerning Wanjiru’s murder. In her justification, Judge Njeri Thuku quoted a passage from the poem Silence by Anasuya Sengupta. ‘Too many women in too many countries speak the same language of silence,’ she said. ‘The court refuses to speak the language of silence.’ As Sengupta so beautifully writes, it is only when women gain not only the freedom to speak, but also the power to be heard, that they are able to escape the bounds of silence. It would seem that this lesson has not yet been fully internalised by the British armed forces.

Elizabeth is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where her PhD research concerns accountability mechanisms following allegations of war crimes by British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is also co-ordinator of Kings’ War Crimes Research Group.