Meru, Kenya – LATE MATURING PROBLEM CHILD
Once the real archipelago of peace in the vaunted ‘island of stability,’ the Coast has become Kenya’s problem child. Formerly the most docile and well-mannered member of the family, although prone to indolence and performing poorly in school, the locals now appear truculent, drugged, and uppity. It is hardly surprising things turned out this way; the region has been drifting in this direction for several generations.
Several factors kept the potential for an even more volatile state of affairs in check. These include outmigration and jobs in the Middle East, the Sunni passivism of the region’s traditional Islamic faith, and the non-violent quality of Coastal culture. But if the power relations of the post-Independence period worked to reinforce the prevailing status quo, it is a mistake to think that this is a permanent condition. The Coast was not always an exemplar of what one scholar referred to as ‘Sunni quietism’ in 1995.
The later decades of the 19th century witnessed the heyday of Swahili nationalism provoked by Arab and European domination. The resistance tapered off after British cannons levelled the former independent Sultanate of Witu in 1895
Coastal communities have for centuries resisted external domination. The later decades of the 19th century witnessed the heyday of Swahili nationalism provoked by Arab and European domination. The resistance tapered off after British cannons levelled the former independent Sultanate of Witu in 1895. Mbaruk Mazrui and his Miji-Kenda allies kept the spirit of independence alive after the turn of the century. But the die was cast, the malaise set in, and the focus of coastal affairs turned inward.
SUBLIMATING THE DRASTIC COLLAPSE OF COASTAL POWER
In many coastal towns, Beni dance competitions filled the vacuum. Thomas Ranger’s book, Dance and Politics in East Africa, provides an important albeit often ignored chronicle of the transitional shift from Coastal political ascendency to decline and marginalisation. The locals responded to the transfer of Coastal hegemony from Zanzibar to the British by forming clubs that adopted the trappings of power through costumes based on the uniforms of Imperial naval officers and royalty. Beni chama became established in towns across the Coast, and like other elements of Swahili culture and language, spread into the interior as far as Malawi.
The Beni phenomenon sublimated the drastic collapse of Coastal power through cultural performances that combined poetry, feasting, and other hedonistic behaviours. Chama, bearing names like Kingi and Aronauti, held ‘dance’ competitions accompanied by traditional feasts and parades. The energies that went into shaming their competitors substituted for the factional battles in the once independent towns and sultanates.
Theme and motif became the vehicle for identity; the Auronati, for example, decked themselves out in navy uniforms, and another chama in Lamu styled themselves after American cowboys. Cultural performances became proxies for real power struggles — like the internecine factional fighting that completed the decline of Pate after the death of the sultan during the early decades of the 19th century.
The standard Beni competition began with the slaughter of cattle for the mandatory pilau karamu, which followed musical parades through the town led by bands that had added brass instruments to the traditional complement of drums and tamboura. The events were lively and raucous affairs. The leaders of these chama waved the tails of the slaughtered cows to demonstrate the wealth lavished by their supporters. Their competitors responded by slaughtering more cows and holding bigger parties.
Beni became a Swahili variation of the potlatch of the northwest Pacific Amerindians, where villages met to feast and nobles gave away and even burnt material goods and food to shame rivals and to show they were wealthy enough to wantonly dispense with their most valuable possessions.
One friend mine described a Beni karamu he attended as a child. He and companions were served a mountain of pilau so large they could not see over the top
Such phenomena typically feed an unsustainable cycle of escalation resulting in their eventually demise. Beni was in decline by the end of World War II, but persisted in some settings — like the Lamu archipelago, where it continued into the early years of Independence.
The persistence of Beni chama in Lamu extracted a high price: Bajuni informants report that most of the stone buildings in places like Siyu and Faza were cannibalized and the valuable coral blocks sold off as building materials to fund Beni. This and outmigration had reduced these former seats of power and prosperity to backwater villages by the 1960s.
One friend mine described a Beni karamu he attended as a child. He and companions were served a mountain of pilau so large they could not see over the top; he recalls so many cattle were slaughtered for their tales a number of unused carcasses were left to rot on the Lamu waterfront. Beni chama ceased to exist soon after this crescendo — but only to be replaced by football clubs that kept the fires of internal factional competition burning, albeit with much lower expenditure.
Beni-style bands still exist and typically re-emerge during political campaigns. If you visit Fort Jesus today, you may see a tour guide decked out Auronati-style in navy whites. A Beni chama from Tanzania popped up in Lamu once during the late 1980s, precipitating a circus atmosphere as the townsfolk turned out to join their afternoon processions of music and bawdy lyrics:
Nataka ndogo ndogo, chipai, chipai!
Nataka ndogo ndogo, chipai, chipai!
While many disapproved of the lewd choruses ‘I want a sweet young girl — right now, right now!’ and libertine behaviours they subsumed, this did not prevent them from turning out to dance behind the Beni to the cadence of rat-a-tat-tat snare drums and blaring trumpets.
As one anthropologist observed in a 1995 journal article, Swahili ngoma events function to ‘stake claims to higher positions on the social ladder, negotiate difference, create socioeconomic security networks, establish and mark group identity.’
NO PLAN, AND NO REALISTIC ALTERNATIVE
This brings us to the Swahili aphorism, nyimbo yatoka ngomani, or, ‘The song will come out of the rhythm of the drums.’ This can be glossed as ‘the plan will emerge from the mix of events.’ It is also another way of saying there is no plan — which was the reality of affairs during colonialism and after the Coast Peoples Party’s attempt to secure Coastal independence during the run-up to Independence failed. The Coast was content to drift, and there was in fact no realistic alternative to acquiescence.
Parliamentarians served as agents of the patrimonial status quo, while the alienation of Coastal land by state elites and upcountry settlers progressed unopposed
The 1962 Carter Commission’s recommendations to provide a measure of autonomy for Kenya’s Coast featured in the Memorandum of Understanding that ‘legalised’ the Coastal Strip’s transfer from the Sultanate of Zanzibar. The measures, including a special land board, local representation in the civil service, and protections for human rights, were subsequently ignored, except for the retention of the Kadhi’s Court — which came under control of the new state and has done little to protect Muslim rights as a consequence.
The Coast came to be governed as a conquered people, with diminished local control over their resources and economy. This helps explain why the Coast’s sometimes frivolous and often destructive predilection for duality and disunity reappeared as the dominant meme of post-Independence politics. Parliamentary campaigns often displayed the same polarising dynamic of the Beni competitions. Before long, the fractious nature of post-Uhuru Coastal politics led President Jomo Kenyatta to elevate the provincial administration above local councils.
Around the same time, the president parlayed the Swahili chant of Hallambee, used to exhort the men pulling on ropes to launch boats – rolling off Mzee Kenyatta’s tongue as harambee – into the policy of community self-help. Among other things, harambee forced politicians to contribute to community projects. Schools were built, clinics established, and bright students were sponsored to pursue higher degrees abroad, entire villages escorting their brightest sons to the airport.
The reverse principle prevailed on the Coast. On Pate Island, a community project to connect the two towns separated by the tide with a footbridge provoked a series of violent clashes. In Mombasa, one long serving MP actually charged his constituents when they came to him for assistance. Parliamentarians served as agents of the patrimonial status quo, while the alienation of Coastal land by state elites and upcountry settlers progressed unopposed.
President Nyerere adopted another Swahili term, Ujamaa, to identify Tanzania’s African socialism. But like harambee, the concept enjoyed no real currency on the Swahili Coast. Rather, the Coastal intelligentsia used to lampoon Tanzania’s ‘visionary’ leadership by referring to Nyerere as ‘Musa.’ Unfortunately, no Moses along the lines of William Ntimana or Francis Polisi Lotodo, who aggressively championed the cause of their Masaai and Pokot communities, emerged to lead the Coastals out of the wilderness.
Except for a brief spurt of activism over the proposed Islamic Party of Kenya, their counterparts on the Coast continued to be the compliant and tame wards of the independent state. The pliant quality of their politicians reinforced the common perception of Coastal Kenyans as supine and hedonistically inclined complainers.
Then the music stopped.
BROWN SUGAR, HOW COME YOU TASTE SO GOOD?
Insofar as the erstwhile Coast Province is Kenya’s most popular open house, consistent with the region’s tradition of interactive integration, and the indigenous inhabitants have proved to be tolerant hosts. The co-evolutionary cultural sensibilities evident in the region’s appeal to foreign tourists and local transplants alike, however, are atrophying under the accumulating stress and displacement. The spreading anomie arising in its place is feeding issues, like drug abuse and radicalisation, afflicting the Coast’s millennial generation.
In 1983, a clutch of wealthy Italian pleasure seekers vacationing in Shela introduced heroin to the quasi-Rastafarians supplying them with marijuana from Mombasa. They did not know it was addictive when they began sharing the ‘brown sugar’ with their friends. Before long, an alleyway in Makadara, two hundred metres away from Mombasa’s Central Police station, became the central distribution point. I went there to visit an old friend in 1985 — and was introduced to a ‘tea merchant’ from Malaysia.
The number of acquaintances and friends who succumbed to the drug increased exponentially over the next several years, and then plateaued. The first generation of addicts confined themselves to smoking raw heroin; many of them were able to shake the habit. The scourge was a self-inflicted problem in the beginning, a development not inconsistent with the opiated political culture discussed above.
The users and dealers who followed them, however, unleashed a major epidemic. Other players moved in. Mombasa became a centre for transshipment of narcotics, a node in a much larger criminal network. It appeared this was no longer a strictly Coastal issue. In 2014, a dhow captured on the high seas with a tonne of heroin on board was towed out to the ocean and blown up. The demolition was done in in direct violation of a court order, and Kenya’s head of state witnessed the event.
The first generation of addicts confined themselves to smoking raw heroin. The scourge was a self-inflicted problem in the beginning, a development not inconsistent with the opiated political culture
Local dealers flushed out by community activists, are routinely arrested only to be released in broad daylight. This has been going on for years. Although some real progress in curbing the menace may be occurring, it is hardly surprising that many view the latest round of drug busts and arrests as one act in the political circus preceding the elections later this year. In any event, in a 2016 coastal survey, entitled Perceptions of County Governance, the number of Mombasa respondents citing drug abuse as the area’s greatest problem surpassed the numbers for unemployment and corruption combined.
The radicalisation that began to manifest around the same time the drug problem surfaced represents a major disconnect with the region’s Islamic traditions. The advocates of jihad ignore the region’s formal ulama (Islamic scholars) and look to more activist theological sources to fight the rot. The resulting violence is a symptom, and not the source of shifting religious orientations.
HEAVY HANDED SECURITISATION
Radicalisation is an amorphous concept that subsumes a kaleidoscope of factors and unlimited individual combinations. By definition it is highly context dependent, and a product of social conditions, psychological predilections, and political forces. Although sometimes a precursor to terrorism, not all terrorists are radicalised, and many radicals are not violent. This is why failure to discriminate among the complex drivers of the phenomenon in Kenya qualifies some policy makers and their administrative counterparts as part of the problem.
When a Beni-style parliamentary campaign overheated in 1980, the district commissioner marched the GSU through Lamu town. For three days, this harbinger of things to come scared the bejesus out of the townspeople. Such heavy-handed approaches to securitisation are now standard procedure.
When a bank guard outside the Gulf Bank African Bondeni branch office was killed in a drive-by shooting, an entire neighbourhood was rounded up. Police dragged my wife’s son-in-law and his 12-year-old son from his fourth story flat and beat him severely
After the terrorist attacks in Paris, a multinational dragnet captured 10 suspects. When a bank guard outside the Gulf Bank African Bondeni branch office was killed in a drive-by shooting, witnesses identified the perpetuator as Shoshi, a well-known criminal responsible for several other ‘terrorist’ attacks. Even so, an entire neighbourhood was rounded up and incarcerated. Police dragged my wife’s son-in-law and his twelve year-old son from his fourth story flat and beat him severely before throwing him and other victims into the awaiting lorry.
Lamu has never been home to radical mosques or preachers. Ironically, the County has become an epicentre in Kenya’s own long war against terror—even though almost all the actors come from outside the Swahili umma. The leader of the Al Shabaab unit who attacked Mpeketoni in 2014, for example, was identified as Ismael Kamau, several of his merry men were also Gikuyu, two other foot soldiers came from Germany and the UK, and many other Shabaab fighters are upcountry converts.
Terrorism is more a Kenyan problem than a Muslim issue. The government demonstrated as much when it claimed the attack was not the work of Al Shabaab, and instead arrested the Lamu County Governor, Issa Timamy. He was arrested again with his entourage en route to a meeting with the president in Nairobi after his release. Yet despite the punitive curfew that brought the local economy to a halt, the County Perceptions survey data showed that only 18 per cent of the Lamu respondents listed insecurity as the County’s biggest problem.
Where it is difficult to control drug abuse and radical behaviours through policing, building support within communities serves the double objective of prevention while promoting integration. Few Kenyans will dispute this. But responses to Coastal problems all too often repeat flawed approaches of the past due to the influence of distorted media reports and other sources of fake news.
Kenya’s reaction to the Mombasa Republican Council is a prime exhibit. The social and political movement, a product of the Coastal sensibilities noted above, was committed to using legal advocacy and other non-violent methods to achieve ‘Coastal redemption.’ The movement’s leaders have systematically eschewed violent methods. The MRC was nevertheless demonised by the press, misrepresented by the provincial administration, and violently repressed. Even after being legalised by Kenya’s Supreme Court, the government continued to harass its leaders and drive the movement underground with numerous and sundry charges, like being in possession of Pwani si Kenya T-shirts.
The popularity of the MRC, undiminished despite its inactivity, does not contradict Coastarian communities’ faith in the new constitution as reflected in the Perceptions of County Governance study. Unfortunately, the government has been rolling back many of its key provisions, through policies like the extra-constitutional revival of the former Provincial Administration through the creation of a post for the ‘Coastal Commissioner.’
Waving symbolic cattle tails to mark the Governor’s vendetta with the Jubilee government will do little to counter the noxious mix of historical grievances, poor leadership, and state impunity underpinning the Coastal conundrum
The last question in the survey of three Coastal counties asked: ‘Do you think the new Constitution is being implemented and enforced a) on the national level; and, b) on the county level?’ Sixty eight per cent of the sample said no for the national level, and sixty two per cent for the counties.
DEVOLUTION WILL PRODUCE RESULTS OVER TIME
It is interesting that the feedback from our Coastal study were otherwise more positive than the general profile elicited by the recent National Constitutional Socioeconomic Audit, a study designed to assess the ‘Direction of Things in the Country.’ This mirrors the generally positive view that devolution will produce results over time.
But when it came to political leadership, the respondents on the coast ranked their Governors, Senators, MPs, and County Assemblies much lower than the cross-section of Kenyans featuring in the national sample. Civil society organisations, in contrast, received much higher marks than elected leaders, many hailing their contribution to peace, justice, and local welfare.
This backdrop provides the larger context of Governor Hassan Joho’s triumphant Beni-style parade through Mombasa following his early March return from Washington. The MRC generated a similar circus-type atmosphere during its heyday, and the jubilant crowds are not indicative that a similar awakening is underway. Rather, waving symbolic cattle tails to mark the Governor’s vendetta with the Jubilee government will do little to counter the noxious mix of historical grievances, poor leadership, and state impunity underpinning the Coastal conundrum.
As for the state’s role in this trope, it is still nyimbo yatoka ngomani, but draw your own conclusions.
 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC AUDIT OF THE KENYA 2010 CONSTITUTION: Data management processes and select findings. Office of the Auditor General, Presentation to Working Group 6th January 2016.
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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
Peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions.
The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.
The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.
The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.
On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.
Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.
I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.
The toppling of the statue
At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.
For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.
The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.
The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.
One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.
Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.
In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”
The wider significance
The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.
Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.
The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.
This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.
In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.
One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.
These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”
Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.
The Politics of Street Names
Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.
June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.
Recent movements like Rhodes Must Fall, Faidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”
To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!
Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.
As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?
There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.
Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”
The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.
In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.
The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”
He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”
Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.
We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”
This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.
Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.
Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”
Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.
At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”
In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”
Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”
Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”
It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”
The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.
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