Between 2006 and 2010, the Egyptian national men’s football team proved to be a resolute force at the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), winning the continental trophy three times. Fans of this all-conquering Egyptian side remember such names as Essam El-Hadary, Hosni Abd Rabou, Mohamed Zidan, and Amr Zaki. For many, the qualities of marauding midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, exemplified the spirit of the team. Aboutrika, also known as “El Magico”, “Amir El Qolob” (prince of hearts), or, simply, “Arab’s Zidane”, won the CAF ( Confederation of African Football) Africa Best Player of the Year a record four times and scored the sole goal in the final in AFCON 2008 as The Pharaohs edged out the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra. With his status as a legend of Egyptian football, one would have expected that at the concluded 2019 Total African Cup of Nations hosted by Egypt, Aboutrika would have been the face of the tournament, his image emblazoned across the country’s stadia. However, Aboutrika was absent from the tournament, and from the country entirely. Aboutrika has been in exile in Qatar since 2017 and on the country’s terror watch list because of his links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Aboutrika established a reputation for voicing strong political views. In 2008, in a national team game against Sudan, Aboutrika celebrated a goal by removing his jersey to reveal a T-shirt underneath with a message reading “Sympathize with Gaza”, written in both Arabic and English, in protest of Israel’s ten-day blockade of Gaza. In Port Said, Ultras Ahlawy a fan group founded in 2007 that supported the Cairo-based football club Al Ahly, that Aboutrika represented for ten years gained prominence for its pyros, songs and chants during football games, of which the most prominent was one that went “We Are Egypt.” Ultras Ahlawy had several violent clashes with Egyptian police through to 2011 as the Egyptians took to the streets to end Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule. After the overthrow of Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohammed Morsi, by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) the Ultras Ahlway took to singing mocking songs about SCAF and the police.
On 1st February 2012, Al Ahly travelled to Port Said to face Al-Masry in a national league game. After the match, Al-Masry supporters attacked Al-Ahly supporters with stones, knives and bottles, leading to a massacre that left 74 Al-Ahly supporters dead, and hundreds injured. The Al-Ahly players were also attacked by the Al-Masry supporters, and fled the pitch to the dressing rooms under police cover. One boy who had followed the players in an attempt to flee the violence, succumbed to his injuries, and died in Aboutrika’s arms. Aboutrika, together with two of his teammates, promptly announced his retirement from the game. “This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us,” he cried.
Immediately, people began to question the incident, saying that it could not have been simply fan violence. Why were the Al-Masry fans so heavily armed? Why had the police stood by and done nothing as the Al-Ahly fans were being killed? Why had the escape doors been locked? Who had turned off the lights so soon after the violence started? Some people began to allude a link to the violence to Ultras Ahlawy opposition to SCAF. It was alleged that the Port Said attack was retribution, and police and military officers had facilitated the attack.
On 1st February 2012, Al Ahly travelled to Port Said to face Al-Masry in a national league game. After the match, Al-Masry supporters attacked Al-Ahly supporters with stones, knives and bottles, leading to a massacre that left 74 Al-Ahly supporters dead, and hundreds injured.
The national league was suspended, and no matches played for seven months. Later that year, it was announced that first match would be played on 9th September 2012, and would pit Al Ahly against ENPPI in the Egypt Super Cup final. Ultras Ahlawy protested this decision, and called for a boycott of all football matches until there was justice for the seventy-four people who had been murdered in Port Said. Aboutrika, who had rescinded with his retirement, supported the Ultras, and announced that he would not play any game until the seventy four had received their justice. By siding with a fan group known for its anti-SCAF position, Aboutrika, who a year earlier had publicly campaigned for Morsi, seemed to seal his fate with the ruling military junta.
On July 19th, 2019, The Desert Foxes of Algeria lifted the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations, beating Senegal’s Lions of Teranga via an early goal from Baghdad Bounedjah. I spent a huge chunk of the tournament on the road, and watched matches from Kisumu, Marsabit, Moyale, and Nairobi. In a matatu in Kisumu just before Kenya’s first match in the competition, the driver and his mate were talking about the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations. The friend asked the driver what he thought of Kenya’s chances of progressing in the competition. The driver said, in Dholuo, “I must support our home team, even if they are beaten”.
A few days later, I was in Marsabit. Seated in a kinyozi (a barbershop) in town, I listened to men talk about AFCON. Kenya had just beaten Tanzania, coming from behind to win off two magical goals by Michael Olunga, and there was a euphoric sense of belief coursing through the room. Up next was Senegal, and there was a sense that, though a difficult ask, beating them was not impossible.
Kenya’s match against Tanzania, which was one of the most exciting games of the group stages, was played under a maelstrom caused by Starehe MP Charles Njagua’s xenophobic remarks about Tanzanians, and other foreign workers in the country. In a video that was shared widely across social media, the first-time legislator accuses foreign nationals, notably Chinese, Tanzanians and Ugandans traders of dominating trade in Gikomba and Nyamkima markets in Nairobi at the expense of Kenyan traders and threatens them with eviction.
As we watched the Kenya-Tanzania game, my host and I talked about Mr. Njagua’s comments, and we wondered whether the match had gained added importance because of them. We were both supporting Kenya. His wife, N, however, was not. Kenya, she said, had harmed people from Northern Kenya, and she did not see why she should support a country that had harmed her. The matatu driver in Kisumu had said that he had to support the home team irrespective of the results. But, what happens when the state itself is oppressive and the force behind personal harm?
A few weeks earlier, I had been in Kisumu watching an Elgon Cup rugby match between Kenya and Uganda, and I had remained seated while Kenya’s national anthem was being played, in a silent protest to the injustices committed by the Kenyan state. Yet there I was, having bought a ticket, supporting Kenya. N didn’t know any of this, didn’t know that I had been thinking about this for weeks, didn’t know that when she said that she would rather support Algeria and Senegal and Tanzania and whoever else Kenya was playing against, I felt her frustration.
I wonder what it feels like to be a football fan in Egypt, to be a fan of the Egyptian national team. A major talking point from the African Cup of Nations is how empty the stadiums were. One would have expected more fans in the stadiums, since part of CAF’s reason for changing the dates of the competition from the traditional January to June had been to draw in more fans. In January, the European football leagues occupy attention. However, a combination of high ticket prices and the complicated process of getting fan IDs meant that a lot of fans were locked out. To get a fan ID, one has to supply all manner of personal details to the government, and the risks of doing this in a country with minimal data privacy laws outweigh their interests in watching the game.
The militarization of Egyptian football has played a part in keeping fans away from the stadiums. Writing in African Arguments, a researcher, says, “It is also seen – albeit less obviously – in the securitisation of the sport’s superstructure and infrastructure by the army and security apparatus. Among other things, security forces have been acquiring sports media, specifically TV channels, in the past few years. Through this, they have been influencing the discourse around football by vilifying organised fans groups known as The Ultras and glorifying the regime.”
The military junta in Egypt changed the law making stadiums, in effect, military establishments, and any fans arrested in a stadium would be subject to military trials. The regime’s fear of organized protest has led to the crackdown of fan groups as a political threat. Speaking to Ruth Michaelson of The Guardian, Ziad Akl, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said, “The state is trying to teach you how to cheer…It’s not that the state has an issue with you cheering, it’s that it has an issue with how you’re cheering.”
After the Port Said disaster, the government banned fans from the stadia. This had a knock-on effect on the national team, as, without any fans to roar them on, and national league matches most of the players lacked match practice, The Pharaohs sank to hitherto unimaginable lows. Former Egyptian national team coach, Bob Bradley, describes this difficult period. “Playing games in empty stadiums is not what football’s about—a game without fans has no soul,” he says. “And yet when we prepare for the games, we say we can’t expect our energy to come from our supporters. We have to do it ourselves.”
The military junta in Egypt changed the law making stadiums, in effect, military establishments, and any fans arrested in a stadium would be subject to military trials. The regime’s fear of organized protest has led to the crackdown of fan groups as a political threat.
Later, the national government realized that rather than keeping fans out of stadia, they could instead seek ways to control them. As Michaelson writes, “After years of repeated crackdowns on the extreme fans known as ultras, seen as an insurgent group due to their involvement in the 2011 protests that overthrew the former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the government now views football as a boon to the economy and to its nationalist project.”
On February 8, 2015, fans were allowed back into the stadia for the national team games. The first match, slated to take place at the 30 June Stadium was between Zamalek and ENPPI. Whatever security provisions the authorities had in place for the match proved insufficient, as, before the match, as fans jostled at the entrance, police fired tear gas at them, and in the ensuing stampede, twenty eight people were killed. Even as the police force issued a defense, claiming that the use of tear gas had been to control unruly fans, a video circulated online, showed hundreds of fans hemmed in by barbed wire and police firing straight into the crowd. Zamalek supporters alleged that, like with Ultras Ahlawy in 2012, the violence had been deliberate, intended to punish the Zamalek fans for their perceived revolutionary expression.
Militant football fans were a huge part of the protests, during the 2011 revolution that toppled then strongman Hosni Mubarak, and the subsequent protests against Mohamed Morsi. On the brief occasions when fans are allowed relatively unfettered access into stadia, such as during national team games, fans have been banned from making political chants, and waving political slogans. One of the things that has been interpreted as political slogans is the waving of Aboutreika’s old national team jersey.
During Algeria’s semi-final match against the Ivory Coast on their way to the trophy, Algerian fans were observed chanting Aboutrika’s name. In the 22nd minute of the match, a reference to Aboutrika’s old jersey number, the fans were heard chanting, “Allah Almighty, Aboutrika!” That the Algerian fans were the ones to flagrantly break the ban on political slogans in the stadia is noteworthy. On 16th February 2019, ten days after the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced his intention to vie for a fifth term in office, the Smile Revolution, or Hirak, began. Two months later, Bouteflika was out of office, and in May, his younger brother, Saïd Bouteflika, together with the former head of the secret service, General Mohamed Mediene, and intelligence chief Athmane Tartag were arrested
Some of the anti-government protests took place abroad, especially in France, where, on 8th March, 10,000 people demonstrated in Paris. During the Desert Foxes run to the final of the continental showpiece, occasions of celebrating the teams win turned into episodes of anti-government protest. For instance, after celebrating the team’s defeat of Cote d’Ivoire to reach the semi finals, thousands of protesters flocked the streets of Algiers to demand a civilian government. In France, after the team’s victory over Nigeria in the semi-finals, thousands of Algerian fans descended the streets of Paris, Marseille, and Lyon, and after clashes with French police, 282 people were arrested across the country.
Algeria has a particularly complicated relationship with France. The French colonized Algeria for 132 years until a very bloody independence war earned the Algerians their freedom. The far-right in France has taken advantage of the raucous celebrations by Algerian supporters to stoke anti-immigrant rhetoric. Marine Le Pen’s The National Rally issued a statement where it said, “Far from being only manifestations of joy of simple football amateurs as the majority of commentators have described, they are real demonstrations of force in which the objective is to ostensibly signify a massive presence and a rejection of France.” Far-right politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan was stark, echoing Donald Trump by declaring that Algeria supporters should return to Algeria.
Ever since Algeria’s independence, Algerians have migrated to France, and millions now, by some estimates, live in France. In 2005, the number of people of Algerian descent living in France was put at 1.9 million people, which was 3.5% of the total population. This dual identity held by these immigrants is seen in the setup of the Desert Foxes. Riyad Mahrez, the national team captain and star player, was born in Sarcelles in France, while Ismaël Bennacer, who was voted player of the tournament, was born in Arles in the south of France.
Marine Le Pen’s The National Rally issued a statement where it said, “Far from being only manifestations of joy of simple football amateurs as the majority of commentators have described, they are real demonstrations of force in which the objective is to ostensibly signify a massive presence and a rejection of France.”
No French-Algerian footballer, however, is as famous as Zinedine Zidane, who was born in Marseille. Zidane, or Zizou as he is affectionately known, played his last match as a professional footballer during the 2006 World Cup final where he was red-carded for a headbutt on Italian defender, Marco Materazzi. Zizou was a stalwart of the team that was dismissed by French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen as not being a team of Frenchmen. Writing about Zidane for Chimurenga in 2006, Grant Farred observes that Zidane, “cannot escape his own public naming: the meaning of his name, “Zinedine Yazid Zidane,” self-proclaimed “non-practicing Muslim” married to a Catholic Spanish-French wife Véronique Zidane (née Lentisco) and the father of four sons, three of whom have obviously Christian names, of which two are distinctly Italian in their flavour – Enzo, Luca, Théo and Elyaz.”
Thus, he, Zidane, “stands as the time before which is, because of history, the time of another violence: colonialism, and the event, the headbutt, “was a space into which the world was inserted, a space and a time into which Africa (an Africa far removed from Zidane’s Maghreb and Algeria, but an Africa familiar to his colleagues Thuram and the Senegalese-born Patrick Vieira), and South Africa in particular, was thrust, with a full and rare historical force.”
For Farred, the headbutt was not just a headbutt. Rather, it was an entry into the racism the French national team players had faced in the course of their careers, and an entry into the colonial history between France and its former colonial subjects. The symbolism of Aboutrika’s jersey and the chanting Algerian fans went beyond Aboutrika’s legendary status. It served as a metaphor for how the Egyptian revolution had failed, and how Hirak movement would not, could not fail.
It has been expressed, that sports fosters unity between participants, that sporting events between nations lead to greater relationships between the countries involved in the said competitions. George Orwell, for one, disagreed with this premise. In his essay, “The Sporting Spirit”, he posits that, rather than fostering healthier relationships between the participants, sports is an unfailing cause of ill-will. He says, “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”
Furthermore, it is easy for one to observe, just from watching sports casually, how the entire enterprise came to replace war in our psyches. In football parlance, for instance, one team attacks, while another defends, a player may shoot, volley, or take aim at goal, and there is a tactician who plans the tactics on the (battle) field. The Zimbabwean academic Evans Chapanga has an interesting analysis of the war metaphors that are used by commentators in Premier Soccer League (PSL) matches in Zimbabwe. He writes:
“Metaphors of war conceptualise most kinds of sport. War metaphors are not only used as far as description of players, their emotions and the actions on the football pitch are concerned although, these are, of course, the dominant image recipient fields. It can be argued that the whole tournament, footballers, their emotions, their characteristic traits, actions on the pitch and activities of spectators are transformed into a war scenario through the commentary.”
Still, it is isn’t quite war, for as Chapanga observes, “In reality, it was observed that while the proliferation of war metaphors in soccer heightened the electric atmosphere in particularly high profile matches, they tended to gloss over complexities and largely exaggerated the social contests. Frankly, in soccer there are no combatants and no massacres as dramatised eloquently by the professional commentators. War metaphors in football tend to go overboard in terms of their description.”
It can be argued that the whole tournament, footballers, their emotions, their characteristic traits, actions on the pitch and activities of spectators are transformed into a war scenario through the commentary.”
It is not possible, nor completely moral, to view Egypt hosting the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations without thinking about the ways in which football and politics intersect. Port Said in 2011, Aboutrika’s jersey, Zidane’s headbutt, Algeria’s AFCON win, all these things, despite starting out as footballing actions, transcended the game. That Egypt hosted the 2019 competition, even while taking into account all of CAF’s gimmicks with AFCON hosting rights is in itself an event. Egypt’s military regime motivation for hosting the African Cup of Nations, was described by Amnesty International as “sports washing”, a script that has been performed elsewhere in the world. The term first cropped up in media parlance when Amnesty International accused Abu Dhabi of trying to sportswash their “deeply-tarnished image” by pouring money into English club, Manchester City. This all came in the wake of an expose by German publication Der Spiegel about the subterfuge and lack of transparency in City’s financial dealings. Later, the same charge would be levied against UEFA, and Azerbaijan, with critics questioning why the European football body granted the hosting rights of one of its most prestigious events to the autocratic petrostate. In the same spell, we think about Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup, and, more directly, Egypt hosting the African Cup of Nations.
Questions about the intersection between nationalism and football were not raised only by AFCON. At the Women’s World Cup, American stalwart Megan Rapinoe voiced her opposition to Donald Trump by saying she would not honor an invitation to the White House if the team won, which they ended up doing. In Brazil, during the trophy ceremony for the Copa America which had been won by the hosts, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro was roundly jeered by the 70,000 fans at the Maracana. The national team coach Tite adeptly rejected a hug by the president, midfield playmaker Philippe Coutinho squirmed in his presence, and defender Marquinhos openly ignored the president.
After the conclusion of AFCON in Egypt, Samir Sardouk, an Algerian fan was sentenced to one year in jail and fined 50,000 dinars for raising “papers that could harm national interests in front of the public.” Sardouk raised a banner during a group stage match at that read: “There is no God but Allah, and they will come down.” The rulers had come down in Algeria, and perhaps in Egypt too. Football remains as an arena for political expression for a long time to come.
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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.
Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo
The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.
On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.
Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.
Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.
Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.
With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.
Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.
It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.
As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.
Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.
For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.
That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.
While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.
Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.
Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.
An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?
Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.
Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.
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