Who is Uganda’s enigmatic leader Yoweri Museveni? Since seizing power 33 years ago, his army has profoundly reshaped the politics of central and eastern Africa, and yet few outside of this region have even heard of him.
To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers and foreign aid programs, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.
I’ve been reporting on Uganda for almost 25 years, and I still find Museveni fascinating. As a rebel leader during the early 1980s, his shape-shifting exploits were legendary. Again and again, his small band of rebels would menace and outwit Uganda’s much larger national army and then melt away into the bush. Ugandans joke that Museveni could turn into a cat and walk through roadblocks.
William Pike, who served as editor of Uganda’s government-owned New Vision newspaper from 1986-2006 has almost certainly had more contact with Museveni than any other non-Ugandan writer. Pike’s gripping new book Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda provides an insider’s view of the Ugandan leader and his movement.
By all accounts, Pike is a highly effective editor and manager. Former employees have described him to me as a gentle boss who ran a productive, disciplined newsroom. He wasn’t afraid to go after cases of corruption involving senior cabinet ministers and even sporadic cases of torture and extra-judicial killings carried out by Museveni’s security forces. Under his leadership, the New Vision soon became Uganda’s most popular publication. I’m personally acquainted with Pike and have always found him kind, intelligent and extremely likeable. His book is also very well-written.
Unfortunately however, Combatants presents an overly flattering image of Museveni’s regime that belies reality, overlooks recent scholarship that challenges Pike’s version of events and sometimes contradicts the findings of Pike’s own New Vision reporters.
Pike first met Museveni in 1984, when the young reporter snuck behind enemy lines during the so-called “bush war” against Uganda’s then-president Milton Obote. By then, Museveni’s rebels known as the National Resistance Army, or NRA– controlled a significant part of the Luwero Triangle, an 8000 square mile area northwest of Kampala that had been the site of intense fighting. Until then, the bush war was viewed internationally as a minor skirmish, but Pike’s articles for the UK Observer and Guardian newspapers helped bring Museveni’s struggle to the attention of western policymakers.
The Luwero Triangle is the rural homeland of the Baganda people—Uganda’s largest ethnic group. Soon after launching his rebellion, Museveni, a Munyankole from western Uganda, promised Baganda leaders that if he managed to take power, he’d restore their traditional kingdom, which Obote had violently crushed in 1966. In return, the Baganda allowed Museveni to base his forces in their villages. When Museveni’s men attacked army and police posts, Obote’s undisciplined and brutal soldiers responded with disproportionate force, killing anyone, including innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the rebels. During his visit, Pike was shown areas littered with human skulls. Quoting Museveni, he estimated that Obote’s forces had killed some 300,000 people—roughly half the population of the Luwero Triangle at the time.
The UK government, which supported Obote, was claiming that some 12,000 people had been killed on all sides of the fighting. If Pike was correct, Obote was responsible for genocide, and Britain’s support was unconscionable. By then, the Reagan administration was already distancing itself from Obote. While Pike was in Luwero, then Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams told a congressional hearing that Obote’s regime had killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people.
Normally such a huge figure would be referenced by a reputable source, ideally a forensic investigation, but like Pike, Abrams cited no independent source for those figures. When asked by Congressman Don Bonker where his source for the Luwero death toll came from, Abrams equivocated. “You wouldn’t be able to document those numbers,” he said. “There is no way of measuring directly, but there seems to be some kind of consensus that that is the order of magnitude.” Around the same time, the Washington Post also published a brief article on Uganda. Citing unnamed refugee monitoring groups and “official US sources” the author, who had not visited Uganda, also wrote that Obote’s forces had killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.
Since then, a more complex narrative about the Luwero skulls has emerged which Pike does not explore in Combatants. Not only is there no evidence that the death toll was as high as Pike and Reagan Administration officials claimed, Obote’s army, though undisciplined and brutal, may not have been responsible for all the casualties that did occur. Most deaths probably resulted from disease and hunger as a result of mass displacement. In 1983, the government launched a counter offensive against the NRA, and in the process rounded up more than 100,000 villagers into squalid camps without adequate food, water and medicine. The NRA then ordered the evacuation of those who remained in the area. As thousands of peasants trudged north with the NRA, more reportedly died. When the NRA retook those areas, the bones of the casualties of these operations could have been among those shown to Pike.
Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters.
The NRA was also probably not blameless. Shortly after Pike’s visit, a journalist for the London Daily Telegraph visited one of the villages where the army was alleged to have massacred hundreds of people a year earlier. He found “nothing to support [these] claims.” The army had withdrawn to allow the Telegraph reporter to freely interview the chief and villagers. “The surprise these people showed when asked about a massacre could not have been an act,” he wrote. However, they did mention that Museveni’s rebels had recently killed three men and four children. Some of the rebels came from the area and locals recognized them, even though they were partially disguised in army uniforms. “They were dressed halfway,” the chief said. “I mean they were in army and civilian clothes, all mixed up.”
Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters. In his 2011 memoir Betrayed By My Leader, former NRA Major John Kazoora describes an NRA massacre of Obote-loyalists belonging to the Alur tribe. “They would dig a shallow grave,” he writes, “tie you [up] and lie you facing the ground and crack your skull using an old hoe called Kafuni.”
In some cases, the NRA may even have killed its own. At first, Museveni mainly recruited from his own Banyankole tribe and Buganda, but after Obote brutally forced Uganda-based Rwandan Tutsi refugees into camps where many starved and died, some of them joined the rebellion as well. They grew close to Museveni, whose Hima people are closely related to the Tutsis, and soon began to dominate the force. Toward the end of the war, Baganda NRA soldiers began dying mysteriously and some suspected foul play. “We were fighting tribalism,” one Muganda NRA veteran told The Monitor newspaper, “but it was growing in the bush.” In 1983, Museveni warned all Westerners, including aid workers and diplomats, to leave Uganda at once. “We don’t possess the power to prevent accidents,” he wrote in a signed letter issued by his representatives in Kenya. Three weeks later, a Canadian engineer was gunned down on his doorstep in Kampala; four other European aid workers were killed a few months later. While the killers were never definitively identified, the NRA had kidnapped and released four other Swiss hostages and a French doctor around the same time.
In July 1985, Obote was toppled by his own army. The NRA continued to battle for power as desultory peace talks dragged on in Nairobi. Eventually, the NRA took Kampala from the disorganized, weak Ugandan government forces, and Museveni was sworn in in January 1986.
Back in London, a series of glowing tributes to Museveni appeared in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, many of them written by Pike. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen Years of Torture and Killing,” read one headline; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again,” read another. According to his admirers, Museveni was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled into one.
As the war was winding down, Pike and Times of London journalist Richard Dowden toured NRA held areas, where villagers unanimously told them that all the atrocities were the fault of Obote’s forces; none were committed by the NRA, they said. However, both journalists were being escorted by NRA officers. Under the circumstances, it’s conceivable that villagers might have been afraid to report NRA atrocities, if they knew of any.
In recent years, opposition politicians including Kizza Besigye who served as Museveni’s doctor during the bush war, have called for a forensic investigation of the Luwero killings. Museveni has refused. Such an investigation would be very difficult in any case, since the NRA ordered locals to rebury the bones or gather them in memorial sites after the war.
Whatever the reality, the Luwero skulls provided Museveni with political capital early on. Shortly after coming to power, he escorted diplomats around the Luwero Triangle, pointing out the scattered remains and mass graves that Pike had seen. This helped bolster international support for Museveni, who came to be seen as Uganda’s best hope for a way out of the quagmire of its bloody history. Billions of foreign aid dollars would soon flow into his treasury.
According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns
During the 1996 presidential campaigns, the New Vision reported that Museveni’s main challenger, Paul Ssemogerere was planning to invite Milton Obote back from exile and appoint him to his cabinet. Ssemogerere vigorously denied this, but Pike insisted it was true. The article was published alongside a Museveni campaign ad with images of Luwero skulls heaped up in a pyramid and the following slogan:
“Don’t forget the past. Over one million Ugandans, our brothers, sisters, family and friends, lost their lives. YOUR VOTE COULD BRING IT BACK.”
According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns. After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”
More recently, Uganda’s tourism board has proposed creating a museum to commemorate those killed by previous regimes, including the Luwero dead.
Combatants also covers the early years of the war in northern Uganda that would give rise to the terrifying warlord Joseph Kony. But here, again, Pike paints an overly rosy picture of the NRA’s role. After Museveni was sworn in, his troops continued to pursue soldiers of the former Ugandan army, most of whom came from northern and eastern Uganda. In March 1986, former government soldiers in Acholiland—comprising the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum—finally put down their guns. When the NRA arrived in Gulu they were “disciplined, friendly and respectful,” according to New Vision journalist Caroline Lamwaka. They requested the former army soldiers to surrender their weapons and some did so. Then in late April, the NRA began conducting raids on villages where they suspected guns were still being hidden. Property was looted, women were raped and unarmed people were shot and killed. Some Acholi ex-soldiers who surrendered were taken to Western Uganda and never seen again. As political scientist Adam Branch puts it, the NRA appeared to be launching “a counter-insurgency without an insurgency.” In August 1986, a few thousand former members of Obote’s army who had escaped over the border to Sudan invaded and attacked the NRA. In turn, NRA attacks against Acholi civilians escalated, and more rebel groups, including Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army soon emerged. Uganda’s twenty-year northern war was soon underway.
After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”
In Combatants, Pike attributes the NRA atrocities to a few bad apples in the ranks or to poorly integrated former rebel groups, including one named FEDEMU, that weren’t mainstream NRA. But the New Vision’s Caroline Lamwaka disputes this. “I do not agree with the common argument advanced by some NRM officials, as well as some Acholi,” she writes in her posthumously published memoir,
“that it was the actions of FEDEMU soldiers that caused the rebellion….the NRA proper is equally to blame for the mess. If it were only FEDEMU, war would not have broken out in Teso and Lango, or in the whole of Acholi. The government’s argument that the war was due to former [government] soldiers fighting to recover “lost glory” or the “soft and easy life” or that they were “criminals” who feared to face the law, also misrepresents and oversimplifies the complex causes of the conflict.”
Throughout Combatants, Pike emphasizes how Museveni’s government respected media freedom, and insists that he was never prevented from printing stories critical of the government. However, he does not mention that many journalists have received bribes and death threats from the regime, and some have been tortured, including his own employee Lamwaka, quoted above. In 1988, she was assaulted by a Ugandan army officer after reporting on cattle thefts by government forces. In her memoir, she writes that what she experienced was so humiliating she could not describe it in print.
Pike also downplays NRA abuses in eastern Uganda, where another rebel group emerged after the NRA, which was at first welcomed by locals, committed atrocities similar to those in Acholiland. He downplays Museveni’s involvement in arming the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, setting the stage for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. Pike also downplays Museveni’s responsibility for the Congo war which claimed over five million lives. According to Pike, Museveni ordered his troops not to engage in business on Congolese soil. He nevertheless fails to explain how Museveni’s own brother and son came to be linked to a company that traded in smuggled Congolese diamonds during this time.
During the 1990s, Pike and other western journalists helped create a new narrative about central Africa. By then, many of Africa’s independence movements were a mess–in part because of western Cold War meddling, but also because of the limited capabilities of some African leaders. But Museveni, along with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, would be celebrated in the Western media as Africa’s great new hope. All had come to power by the gun and distained democracy, but made well-spoken promises to keep their countries in order and concentrate on development.
Western leaders from Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the President of the World Bank quickly bought into the idea that Africa needed “strong leadership” –a wiggle phrase which could mean anything from a firm stance on corruption to outright tyranny. Foreign aid and military hardware flowed into the coffers of the “new leaders”. But even as the chorus of praise was rising around them, they were using Western largesse to escalate wars with their neighbors, giving rise to an orgy of violence that would claim millions of lives from Eritrea to Uganda to Congo and southern Sudan.
In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents….”
Pike never questions whether Museveni’s harsh repression, not democracy, might have been the source of these problems; nor does he ask himself whether this repression might help explain why Uganda was so riddled with rebel groups in the first place. There is something tragic about Pike’s Combatants, which could have been a much more powerful book. Where it falls short is in the matter of empathy, like the half-hearted white religious leaders who supported civil rights in the southern United States in principle, but chastised Martin Luther King for what they considered his “unwise and untimely” civil rights activism.
In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents.
“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner,” wrote King in frustration,“but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
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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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