In pre-colonial Africa, before the Berlin conference that led to the “Scramble for Africa” among European countries and the subsequent creation of arbitrary territorial boundaries we now refer to as countries, “states” were defined by some form of shared heritage, not just in the form of hard tangible artefacts, but in culture – practices and knowledge that are acquired by peoples in situ. When populations moved, they carried this heritage with them and adjusted it to fit in with the new realities they encountered in their new homelands.
The current crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 global pandemic has severely restricted travel for recreation and business and the sharing of experiences and ideas across the world. In a manner of speaking, it has put globalisation on “pause” as countries must look inwards for ways to mitigate its impact on health, social, and economic systems.
The complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic lies in the fact that there is still no universally accepted approach to its mitigation or management. Individual countries have, therefore, been compelled to draw on their own intellectual and material resources to address the impact of the pandemic, with varying levels of success. Some countries have taken a reactionary approach, while others struggle to find direction, illustrating the need for us to retake control of our living heritage and re-imagine ourselves in the light of our own needs and aspirations.
The true origins of this pandemic may never be known, so those of us who are lay people take what the media give us. The spectre of a zoonosis “jumping” from wild animals into humans through the consumption of their meat and the sheer speed of communication (or mis-communication) about this are among the most startling features of this pandemic.
When the pandemic started, the media were instantly awash with (frankly revolting) images of people of Asian descent eating whole bats in soup. Suddenly, newly-used terms like “wet markets” were de rigueur in news bulletins, as were images of Chinese markets with live and dead creatures of all kinds for sale, either whole, live, or in various stages of dismemberment. It was only a matter of time before the racist dog-whistle “bush meat trade” hit the airwaves (nauseatingly familiar to those of us who work in the conservation sector).
I have often spoken about how the portrayal of the consumption of wild animals is one of the most overt and widely accepted expressions of racial prejudice in our times. It has long been an accepted norm that the meat of wild animals must be described in genteel terms when it is consumed by white people, as is the killing of all manner of creatures. The nature of conservation discourse has normalised the use of the different terms “game meat” and “bush meat” even to describe consumption of flesh from the same animal species, based on the ethnicity of the procurer. Slaughter is routinely described as “sport” and dignified as ““noble” all over the world when perpetrated by white people, and occasionally elites of colour. After 20 years as a conservation practitioner, I am familiar with the cult-like manner in which we pursue the cause. It is considered above reproach, and all manner of ills can be visited upon human societies as long as they can be demonstrated to be serving some environmental conservation goal.
When the pandemic started, the media were instantly awash with (frankly revolting) images of people of Asian descent eating whole bats in soup. Suddenly, newly-used terms like “wet markets” were de rigueur in news bulletins, as were images of Chinese markets with live and dead creatures of all kinds for sale, either whole, live, or in various stages of dismemberment.
It was, therefore, a feeling of déjà vu when the tone taken by the Western media portrayed the outbreak almost as some kind of “divine retribution” visited upon the Chinese people for the consumption of meat from wild animals. (This was before the virus spread globally and stopped being regarded as a Chinese problem.) Indeed, scientists were falling over themselves to look for coronaviruses in all manner of trafficked animals, like pangolins. Racial undertones have always been part of global conservation practice, and that is the reason why Europe and the United States have largely escaped the opprobrium that has been visited on China for the ivory trade, despite it being third globally behind the former two in this vice.
When wildlife is used as food in the global South and East, it draws near universal revulsion in the West with regards to the “cruelty” of the activity. Those who have visited the United States, however, are familiar with the seasonal hunting and eating of deer, elk, moose, squirrels, opossum and rabbits, not to mention turkeys, ducks, and other wild birds.
Those who are so irked by “wet markets” would do well to familiarise themselves with the “rattlesnake roundup”, an annual activity in the state of Texas in the United States. The roundup is a display of extraordinary cruelty where thousands of rattlesnakes are collected from the wild, mostly by being flushed out of their dens with petrol. It takes around two weeks to collect the required number of snakes for the festival, during which time the captive reptiles are kept in the dark without food or water. Come the weekend of the festival, the entertainment of visitors will include the ritual decapitation of snakes and the participants (including children) competing to strip skins off the still writhing snake bodies and flaying them for meat (which is served on site and consumed with a variety of drinks). Children also engage in making murals from hand prints in snake blood, amongst other activities.
A close observation of the reportage on this reveals the degree of effort put into “cleansing” this strange ritual, notably its description as a “celebration of culture” that brings in $8.4 million into the town of Sweetwater, Texas. The scale of the carnage hit a record high in 2016 when 11 tonnes (24,262 pounds) of rattlesnakes were reportedly harvested. The reporting didn’t specify that this represented around 10,000 snakes (calculation made from the average weight of a rattlesnake).
Those who are so irked by “wet markets” would do well to familiarise themselves with the “rattlesnake roundup”, an annual activity in the state of Texas in the United States. The roundup is a display of extraordinary cruelty where thousands of rattlesnakes are collected from the wild, mostly by being flushed out of their dens with petrol.
How then does the Western media contrive to maintain this critical focus on “unacceptable” animal consumption practices in the global South while maintaining studious silence on the same in their own countries? What then is a “wet market”? Can the Texas rattlesnake roundup be described as such, and if not, why not?
Characterising the consumption of reptiles, rodents, chiroptera (bats), marsupials (opossums) as “Asian” traits is simply racial prejudice. Similarly, the capture, caging and sale of wild animals in Asian markets is described as cruel whereas sport hunting, whaling, and foxhunting by Caucasian peoplesare accepted, celebrated, and even defended robustly, when need be.
Conservation, tourism and dietary tastes
Personally, as an individual with very conservative (some might say pedestrian) tastes in food, travelling is full of challenges in terms of foods that I encounter around the world. I remember particularly an incident of a Maasai colleague being perturbed by a dinner offering of “venison” at a lodge in rural Quebec in Canada. I had to clarify to him that venison is deer meat.
The Maasai are traditionally livestock producers and are known to frown upon the consumption of meat from wild animals. But this was a relatively mild challenge for him, compared to various raw meats, raw fish, marine crustaceans, and snails that he and I have encountered on our travels to different continents.
The variety of dietary tastes and preferences around the world are one of the most prominent indicators of human diversity, and have long been celebrated and studied by travelers and scholars. This pandemic, however, has upset the genteel veneer with which we present our differences and has left our class, racial, and cultural prejudices ruthlessly exposed. If indeed the slaughter of wildlife is a vile aspect of human nature, then why is Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 hunting safari in Kenya so celebrated by a conservation body (The Smithsonian Institution) over a century later? This expedition was a bloodbath, where the hunters killed and trapped more than 11,000 animals, including multiple specimens of the “big game” species that Roosevelt took particular pleasure in killing.
Conservation and tourism have long been an arena that struggles with racism and classism, and my country Kenya has for the last 100 years been the poster child for what is good and wrong about the nexus of conservation and tourism in Africa. Due to travel bans and lockdowns, tourism in the country has largely collapsed. The obsession with foreign tourists (referred to lovingly as “arrivals”) has left established facilities struggling to appeal to indigenous and local clients for whom they had very little time under normal circumstances.
The real tragedy, however, is in the wildlife conservancies, where conservation NGOs had been going out of their way to convince and coerce previously resilient pastoralist communities to spurn their livelihoods and identities (that were based upon livestock production) and to share landscapes with wildlife. The narrative was that livestock was bad and their numbers had to be suppressed. The landscape didn’t belong to the people, but to the wildlife, and the wildlife had no intrinsic cultural value. It was for tourists, and pastoralists’ livelihoods would reside in service to the tourists.
To be a “good” (read: compliant) community worthy of handouts, the community needed to move to the periphery of their lands, leaving the best parts for tourism They had to reduce their herds (or move them away to go and overgraze someone else’s turf), and learn to serve (be a waiter, ranger, cook, or beadwork maker) at the altar of tourism.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, reports from community conservancies invariably feature penury – communities struggling to make a living and depending on food handouts, all due to the collapse of tourism. For those who understand the livestock economy, pastoralist communities depending on food handouts is unthinkable in a year that has seen such abundance of rainfall and pasture growth. The conservation cult had succeeded in compromising the resilience of entire communities.
The language of environmentalism and assistance
Students of political history will experience déjà vu; 200 years after its initial foray, Western neoliberalism is once again bringing rural Africa to its knees by destroying resilience and creating dependency. The only difference is that this time it is hidden in the language of environmentalism and assistance.
The world today needs to wake up to the threat to social stability posed by the global environmental movement fashioned in the West. The pursuit of its goals is relentless, and has the hallmarks of a cult. Nonagenarian Westerners like Sir David Attenborough routinely prescribe future goals to young populations in the global South (backed by environmental cinema that deliberately excludes human populations from the frame). As our youth struggle with the visions of old Westerners, our leaders are confronted with advice and “guidance” from a European teenage girl, delivered with the glib assurance of someone who doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge required to confer a modicum of self-doubt.
As African students of environmental sciences strive to make their voices heard in academia, they get confronted by ludicrous theories like the half-earth theory, proposed by E. O. Wilson, a pioneer of ecology from Harvard University, one of the pinnacles of academia. This theory proposes that half the earth should be “protected” for the survival of biodiversity.
The world today needs to wake up to the threat to social stability posed by the global environmental movement fashioned in the West. The pursuit of its goals is relentless, and has the hallmarks of a cult.
However, what proponents of this theory don’t state is that this biodiversity will be protected mostly in the tropics, because the temperate lands do not have biodiversity worth protecting in such a drastic manner. Any attempt to actualise such a move would amount to genocide, but the world routinely accepts such fascism when environmental reasons are used to support it.
Indeed, the United Nations and other global bodies like the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) have taken up the cause, proposing to raise the recommended percentage of land under protection, from the current 14 per cent to 30 per cent. The voices pushing this movement are varied, but two uniformities persist – the voices are of white people and they say nothing about the difference in consumption patterns between themselves and the global South.
So-called “global” environmental targets must be tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of individual nations, or we run the risk of imperialism. Yellowstone National Park was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but it is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later, and celebrated as a world heritage site.
For generations, our consumption patterns have never been spoken about globally, because to do so would be to acknowledge that we in the global South have always been sustainable societies. Logic dictates that our consumption patterns shouldn’t now be used to vilify us as the source of a scourge, which strangely appears not to have affected us in the way the global North expected.
The term “new normal” has been bandied about ad nauseam to describe the post-COVID19 world. In reality, the manner in which the people and the environment of the global South have been exploited by the Occident over generations has been abnormal. The coronavirus crisis may have just set a few things right.
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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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