If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.
So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.
The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.
At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.
“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”
The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.
“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.
Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.
“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.
Then, another surprise.
“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.
“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.
Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.
“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.
So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.
On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.
“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.
Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.
“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.
The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.
“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.
“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”
Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense. So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.
John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”
John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.
Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.
“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.
After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.
James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”
Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in
There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.
Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.
James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.
Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.
“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.
Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.
Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:
“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”
“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.
Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.
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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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