By now you have heard and read acres of text discussing and dissecting Eliud Kipchoge’s epic performance as the first human to run a marathon distance in under 2 hours at the incredible pace of 1:59:40. Much of the analysis from the foreign press comes with the rider: great athlete but it was not a record-eligible marathon.
The purists point fingers at Eliud’s turbocharged shoes (the Nike Vaporfly Next%), the rotating cast of 41 pacers, a powered carb drink dispensed with precision, the pace car with a laser system as an additional wind breaker, the flat course and the emotional spin of a humble hero, tugging hearts in a compelling story of courage. There were undertones of culturally reductive theories that profile elite Kenyan runners as being forged from the desire to distance themselves from their poverty by running great distances to school – the single story of all great Kenyan athletes.
The outsized PR of the INEOS 1:59 was bound to be a niggling point for the detractors. The title sponsor, the petrochemical business empire that is INEOS and its majority shareholder, Jim Radcliffe, are accused by some of moving their headquarters to Switzerland to avoid paying UK taxes. Critics point to INEOS’s chequered environmental track record in Europe and recent fracking controversies as INEOS flexes muscle in the fossil fuel space in the UK.
For us, his country folk, the Kenyans, it was an ecstatic moment. A once in a lifetime spectacle. I spoke to friends and family who had all reserved Saturday morning to watch Eliud Kipchoge race against the clock and his own limits and many compared it to the euphoric moment in November 2008 when Barack Obama beat Republican Senator John McCain to become the first black president-elect of America. Eliud had cemented his iconic status as a Kenyan hero. In the midst of the despondency with the national state of affairs, the record in Vienna provided a fleeting moment of patriotic fervour.
On the chilly evening of 12th October, I made my way to the VIP reception in honour of the greatest marathoner of our age, hosted at the finish line in the historic Prater park, in Vienna. I battled in my head, trying to articulate what I had witnessed that morning. In a different time and age, this event would have been described as miraculous. 8 hours earlier, I had witnessed how the simple act of running could achieve transcendental importance. The Prater Hauptalee, stretching 4.3 kms, thronged by an estimated 120,000 fans in the morning, was now empty. The only indicator of the event were the barricades stretching down the straight road lined by chestnut trees with yellow leaves.
The city of Vienna had a date with destiny that Saturday autumn morning in October. From the Praterstern train station, one walks past the Vienna Athletic Centre, located about 200 metres from the finish line where Eliud made history.
All agreed that Eliud Kipchoge had cemented his iconic status as a Kenyan hero. In the midst of the despondency that had settled among Kenyans, the record in Vienna provided a fleeting moment of patriotic fervour.
Behind those stadium walls, another Kenyan had set the pace for Eliud Kipchoge six years before he was born. In 1978, the incredible Henry Rono smashed the world 10,000m record in Vienna on his way to the unparalleled achievement of 4 world records (10 000m, 5000m, 3000m and the 3000m steeplechase) in a span of 81 days. Henry Rono was paced by a Dutchman, Jos Hermens, the former athlete-turned-sports management don and founder of Global Sports Communication that manages Eliud Kipchoge.
Vienna was also the birthplace of renowned Austrian athletics coach Franz Stampfl, who coached Roger Bannister for the world’s first sub four-minute mile, the man who would inspire Eliud’s sub 2 marathon attempt.
The venue of the VIP after-party comprised a series of enclosed white tents adjacent to the finish line. Suited bouncers manned the entrance and a DJ livened up the evening. The Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, was in attendance and in conversation with politician Njeru Githae, the newly appointed ambassador to Austria. Moments after the morning event, I had spotted the Deputy President with an entourage, perhaps on a solidarity run for Kipchoge, jogging down the road past the Vienna Athletic Centre, prominent in team Kenya colours. The irony of the moment was not lost on #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter).
Henry Rono was paced by a Dutchman, Jos Hermens, the former athlete-turned-sports management don and founder of Global Sports Communication that manages Eliud Kipchoge.
Eliud arrived in his classic understated manner, making his way from the back to the front without a fuss, pumping hands along the way and charging the energy in the gathering to fever pitch. He was indeed the happiest man that day and you could see the joy on his face after those many months of anticipation and meticulous planning. Catching his physio Peter Nduhia on the sidelines, he recapped the tension in the engine room leading up to the main event.
On the afternoon of 11th October, Eliud complained of muscle strain after rising from a sitting position on a slack sofa. Luckily, it proved to be nothing threatening but is frightening to imagine that the entire attempt would have been sabotaged by the cushioning of a couch.
The speeches commenced with a word from the organisers and the CEO of INEOS, Jim Radcliffe, reiterating that a billion people in the world had recognised that something incredible happened in Vienna. Then Eliud took the stage. As he stepped onto the raised platform, the audience burst into a thunderous cheer. He cut a diminutive figure in a fitting black tracksuit. When he started to speak, the audience fell into complete silence, hanging onto his every word. Several phones were in the air recording video.
Eliud graciously dished out his rounds of thanks to everyone involved in the success of the event, with emphasis on the 41 pacemakers, acknowledging the power of collaboration, sharing the moment and settled into his core message:
“I always say no human is limited. I hope the limitations from today will not appear anywhere in this world. I am the first and I trust that in the near future, more athletes will run under two hours.”
Of the many references made of Eliud’s sub 2 marathon history-making feat, from Neil Amstrong’s moon landing in 1969 to Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay’s climbing the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, it is Sir Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile record that Eliud has referenced consistently.
Eliud alluded to the story of the Englishman Roger Bannister who in 1954 ran a mile in under 4 minutes and broke an athletic barrier hyped as an impossible feat by journalists of the day. He mentioned this event when he revealed that experts had stated that the sub 2 hour marathon barrier would be unbreakable until around 2075.
A man’s heroes can offer a window into his own motivations.
Sir Roger Bannister (died March 3, 2018) was the first man to run one mile in under 4 minutes at 3:59:4. Comparatively, the 1 mile to the 26.2 miles ( 42 km) is world’s apart even in the categories of distance running. What is similar between these two men six decades apart is their grit. Bannister, like Eliud, had made an attempt on the record coming close and building the confidence required for a sub record attempt. Both men made the record attempts in what were managed speed trial events with pacesetters. Both men set out to make sporting history, and did.
No pain, no gain
Eliud’s daring and consistency in performance has raised his profile to global iconic status. He has achieved greatness as an exceptional athlete and a gracious individual. His work ethic and discipline is admired by sportswriters. There are YouTube videos analysing his running efficiency and form.
Fellow athletes marvel at his ability to maintain composure under great physical strain. It is that pain management that sets Eliud apart even within the elite ranks.
Endurance is a measure of high pain tolerance and Eliud is known for his ability to rise beyond pain, which is characterised by his signature smile in the heat of battle. Olympian Bernard Lagat, second only to Hicham El Guerrouj as the fastest 1500m runner of all time, looks up to Eliud as an inspiration. Lagat, who is Eliud’s senior, has been a collaborator on the sub 2 challenge, featuring as a pacesetter during the Breaking 2 Nike attempt in Monza, Italy. He featured twice as a pacemaker during the 1:59 challenge, and he put it plainly:
“It doesn’t matter who you are, at some point you will feel the pain.”
Peter Nduhiu, Eliud’s physio for 16 years, continues to marvel at Eliud’s ability to block pain and suspend it until the end of business. To endure the pain, one returns to the core tenet of Eliud’s training regime:
“With perfect preparation you can handle any pressure.”
After 10 marathons under 2:05 and a world record set in Berlin, Eliud had already traveled beyond previously set limits. It has been a long career of over 15 years of steady progress towards this mark.
For those who know Eliud, the record was never in doubt. His teammates, men such as Geoffrey Kamworor, the half marathon world record holder and Olympian Augustine Choge debated whether he would run a high or low 1: 59.
Eliud’s notoriety is single-minded focus and unwavering commitment to his goals. Alex Korio, one of the many pacesetters during the challenge, admired Eliud’s ability to be absolutely free of distraction. In Eliud’s own words,
“ Don’t make excuses. When you decide to do something, do it. Self-discipline is a lifestyle. Only the disciplined ones are free in life”.
He is a sought-after sports celebrity known for his motivational speeches and clear insights where he discusses running as a metaphor for principled living and a matter that involves not just one’s legs but also the state of one’s heart and mind.
James Baldwin, sharing advice on writing that applies equally across life noted:
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”
The way of the elite athlete is one of dedication and commitment to a monastic routine. This is now the common feature of the Kenyan athletes’ creed. It is the philosophy of the training camp: hard work, good form and teamwork.
Eliud has been a good ambassador for the marathon and a timely hero in a country where people also smile through their pains. He has the charisma and likeability of Liverpool football manager Jurgen Klopp, a man who is hard to hate.
Eliud’s notoriety is single-minded focus and unwavering commitment to his goals. He is a sought-after sports celebrity known for his measured speech and clear insights where he discusses running as a metaphor for principled living.
1: 59 becomes a symbolic number in the ranks of Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile and as a source of inspiration. True to that spirit, a day after Eliud’s achievement on the 13th of October, Kenyan athletes swept the Chicago marathon in both male and female categories. Lawrence Cherono broke away from a three-way battle to sprint to victory in the final mile and Brigid Kosgei smashed Paula Radcliffe 16-year-old marathon record. It is worth noting that Eliud’s first World Marathon Major was in Chicago in 2014.
A nation of champions
Eliud Kipchoge stands on the shoulders of his predecessors and he has taken the sport to unprecedented heights as the Tiger Woods of the marathon. However, his story is the culmination of three decades of marathon progression in Kenya. If Eliud has traveled far, it is because he built on the successes and failures of those who came before him.
Today, Kenya’s marathon talent runs so deep that the only athletes who make it to national prominence are world record holders and Olympic gold medalists. Every weekend somewhere in the world, there is Kenyan winning a marathon. Vincent Kipchumba, who won the Vienna marathon in April (2019) and the Amsterdam marathon a week after Eliud’s challenge would only be recognised by seasoned sports journalists. Indeed, before his world record feat in 2018, Eliud’s face was not even instantly recognisable in Eldoret, the hometown of the champions.
An excerpt from In Running with Kenyans by Adharanand Finn, tells the story of the phenomenal emergence of Kenyan running talent in the marathon.
“In 1975, no Kenyan had run a marathon time below 2hrs 20 minutes, compared to a time accomplished by 23 British runners and 34 US athletes. By 2005, only 12 Britons and 34 US runners had done a sub 2: 20 compared to 490 Kenyans.”
It is also easy to forget that Kenya only started to appear as a contender in the marathon as recently as 1987. The Japan-based Douglas Wakiihuri brought in the first gold medal at the world championships in Rome in 1987 and the Olympic silver in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. He was also the first Kenyan to win the London marathon in 1989.
The Olympic gold eluded Kenyans for another two decades. Many came close. Erick Wanaina with the bronze in 1996 in Atlanta followed by another bronze by Joyce Chepchumba in Sydney 2000.
In 2003, the year that Eliud’s career started to show promise with a gold in the World Championships in 5000m in Paris, another phenomenal Kenyan athlete, Paul Tergat, who switched from a successful career on track to marathon greatness, broke the world record in Berlin.
Paul Tergat was the first Kenyan to hold a marathon world record and the first man to run a sub 2:05 time. Tergat in my books was the greatest distance runner of his generation and he carried himself with a level of grace and humility that is epitomized in Eliud’s celebrity today. The following year, the sensational Catherine Ndereba brought home the first female silver in Athens 2004. Eliud Kipchoge won a bronze in 5000m final in those games.
In 2008, Japan-based Samuel Wanjiru, following in Wakiihuri’s footsteps became Kenya’s first Olympic gold medalist in the marathon in Beijing and set an Olympic record. The phenomenal Samuel Wanjiru went on to win the London marathon in 2009 and the Chicago marathon in 2010, two years before Eliud switched to road racing.
Tergat who was the original king of the roads believed that even the greatest runners in the marathon had their limits. When Wilson Kipsang lowered the mark in 2013 to 2:03:23, Tergat, watching victory in Berlin, had stated that he did not envision a sub 2: 03 marathon in his lifetime:
A year later, in 2014, Dennis Kimetto, took it under 2 hours 3 minutes, and Eliud Kipchoge lowered it further to its current mark at 2:01:39 in 2018. If the history of Kenyan performance in the marathon teaches us anything, it is that limits are to be challenged.
A good career is marked by one’s ability to meet challenges against the odds and rise beyond the established limits of the chosen discipline. However, even moments of greatness in life are fleeting. Like the rise and fall of legendary Henry Rono, ultimately an athlete’s career is a short episode in the span of a lifetime. There a dozen or so athletes who have run a sub 2.05, but only two have run a sub 2.02. One is Eliud Kipchoge and the other is his greatest rival Kenenisa Bekele who missed the world record by two seconds ( 2:01:41) in Berlin this year.
The phenomenal Samuel Wanjiru was Kenya’s first Olympic gold medalist in the marathon. He won the London marathon in 2009 and Chicago in 2010, two years before Eliud switched to road racing.
Eliud still has it in his tank to lower the world record in a World Major given his INEOS 1:59 confidence boost and to wrap up his incredible career run with a second Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2020.
His brand of humility amidst all the hype around his accomplishments has endeared him to the growing hordes of fans globally. (There were 11 billion impressions on Twitter during the 1:59 challenge.)
Humility is a core part of the Eliud Kipchoge brand and something his coach of 18 years, Patrick Sang, consistently echoes as a foundational principle behind his success.
“Life is not about stardom,” says Sang. He reassures that Eliud is not just a great athlete, he is also a great human being, inspiring in all aspects of his life outside his profession. Sang admits that in the last three years, he has moved from being Eliud’s role model and teacher, to now what he feels is the humble position as his student.
I prod him for the significance of the moment, and after a short pause in reflection, he wraps it down to a one-liner, “We implemented the belief”, leaving me ruminating on how far one can broaden their horizons with mental fortitude. Beyond the inspiration of Eliud’s transformational message #nohumanislimited lies the subtext of excellence which is not just belief but also execution.
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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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