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Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?

14 min read.

“Conservancies” in Kenya are presented as an example of conservation by and for local people, but they can be a device to grab land. Unless this changes, the future for wildlife conservation looks bleak.

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Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?
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There are two approaches to exercising your imperial ambitions over others. One is simply to invade their territory with armed force and subjugate them. The other is to bring some of their own leaders, or potential leaders, onto your side with inducements or threats, and so enforce your rule indirectly. The big historical empires usually did both.

Britain, for example, famously ruled India by securing the allegiance of that vast country’s five hundred princely states, step by step. Some were defeated in battle, some were taken over with mutually beneficial trade – beneficial for the rulers, that is. Others were led to accept, even embrace, British dominion through inducements and bribery. London established its rule over the whole subcontinent and beyond even though its fighting men and civilian administrators were always vastly outnumbered by the locals. For every Brit in the “Raj”, there were always well over a thousand Indians. The numbers were only a little more balanced in Kenya, where just 23,000 European settlers dominated a realm of over five million Africans.

Of course, indigenous resistance forced the empires’ retreat and proved the imperial model to be unsustainable. But the Europeans’ belief in their own superiority, and that the rest of the world could and should be manipulated to their own advantage, proved harder to dismantle and may have as many adherents now as it had at the empires’ height.

Conservation is just one area in which colonial control remains embedded, certainly in Kenya and in much of Africa and beyond. About 20 per cent of Kenya’s land is in Protected Areas (PAs) (of which about 9 per cent is state land and the remainder is private) and they are overwhelmingly run by the descendants of white colonists and subsidised with enormous amounts of money provided by conservation NGOs and governments from northern Europe and the USA. Those which make a profit do so off tourism from non-Africans, often rich ones who can afford a minimum $1,000 per person per night for luxury holidays, with only a few crumbs from the table ever dropping into the hands of indigenous Africans. For comparison, the average salary for a Kenyan working in the hospitality industry or as a wildlife ranger is less than US$5,000 a year.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, some well-meaning conservationists finally began to note the criticism that they had been seizing indigenous and other peoples’ lands without consent, or even any pretense at consultation. They began to realise that the traditional concept of African Protected Areas, as zones which exclude local people – including those who had been living there for many generations – was in urgent need of reform. Even those with no interest in changing still recognised the pressing need for rebranding: conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.

At about the same time, some white farmers in Kenya began to think that their land – originally given to them to produce food for the colony – could make them more money if they turned it into Protected Areas and start hosting paying visitors. Overall costs would be small: the properties had been stolen from Africans and handed to the settlers without charge, the houses and other facilities had been built by underpaid locals, and a bevy of servants (now called “staff”) could readily be drawn from the nearby population. On the other side of the ledger, overseas guests would be happy to fork out the same fortunes they were used to paying for luxury accommodation in the Global North, or even more as an experience of “wild Africa” was highly prized and marketable. The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden, populated largely by exotic megafauna, and popularised in literature and film throughout the twentieth century, could be a money spinner.

Conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.

The realisation that conservation dollars might be ripe for the taking seems to have first occurred in the 1980s in Lewa Downs, an old cattle ranch north of Mt Kenya which had been given to the Craig family by the colonial government sixty years before. The Craigs had already leased part of it to an Englishwoman, Anna Merz, who trucked in rhinos from all over Kenya, keeping the animals in – and Africans out – with armed guards and electric fences. Ian Craig, a former big game hunter, decided to landscape the whole ranch around wildlife tourism, bringing in more rhinos and other iconic species that visitors would pay to see.

Lewa Wilderness

Lewa Wilderness

The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond. Most are promoted by a rather opaque local NGO, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), established by Craig himself in 2004, (although the NRT gives a different account of its genesis, saying the first suggestion came from Francis Ole Kaparo, former speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly) which in turn is heavily supported by the biggest and richest conservation organisation in the U.S., The Nature Conservancy (TNC) (more on that below).

There are now over three dozen conservancies, covering huge swathes of Kenya, totalling about 11 per cent of the country (6.3 million hectares at the last count). They have overtaken national parks in size and are often cited as the vanguard for a conservation reformation which has discarded the old “fortress” model and replaced it with “community-based conservation”, supposedly set up under the control and even ownership of local people. They have become the standard rebuff to critics who point out that wildlife protection remains essentially colonial, run by and for non-Africans.

The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond.

As so often with projects in the Global South – and many in the Global North for that matter – peeling away the propaganda can uncover hidden depths. To start with an aside, though one which resonates deeply with many Kenyans, Lewa’s links with the old colonial power remain celebrated. Prince William spent part of his “gap year” there in 2000 and was boyfriend to Ian Craig’s daughter. The royal heir remains a frequent guest, he proposed to the future queen in one of its tourist “camps”, and they named one of the guest tables at their wedding dinner after it. Ian Craig was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2016. British government ministers, including future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also visited. If you can pull the right strings, it’s easy to drop by. The largest British army base in Africa is less than fifty kilometres away, just a few minutes’ helicopter hop.

Boris Johnson visits Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Reuters

Boris Johnson visits Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Reuters

Land use in northern Kenya is key to understanding how the conservancies have been established and the problems they are throwing up. As the cool, fertile slopes of Mt Kenya slope down to a lower plateau which extends 250 miles north to the Ethiopian border, the country becomes hotter, arid, and less conducive to settled farming. This is part of the traditional domain of several peoples who have lived from mobile pastoralism for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They herd sheep, goats, camels and, most famously for the Maasai and Samburu, cattle. At first sight, it seems like an arduous way to live in a landscape which supports little visible vegetation. But in practise, like so many “traditional” lifestyles, it is actually highly – and sophisticatedly – attuned to the environment. It depends on a high degree of mobility, with herds walking large distances to take advantage of regional precipitation, changing seasons, and the appearance or disappearance of surface water. Both herds and herders know where they are heading, and why, applying a complex understanding of the terrain and weather consolidated over many generations.

The landscape gives sustenance to livestock and people, and is then left to regenerate until another herd arrives to take its share; it’s also the stage on which these peoples have their genesis and where their identity is forged. With many different peoples (Rendille, Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Pokot, etc., as well as Samburu and Maasai) using the same terrain, there is a perpetual balancing of neighbourship and shared values against the potential for friction, often over competition for grazing and water. National frontiers, drawn with rulers on maps by the colonial powers, are largely invisible and substantially porous, with troubled Ethiopia to the north and war-torn Somalia in the east.

British dominion over this part of Africa had been established for less than thirty years when the end of the “Raj” in 1947 India clearly signalled the sun was setting over the empire as a whole. After several years of armed struggle, which was met with brutal suppression by the colonials, Kenya finally saw the inevitable final lowering of the Union Jack in 1963. The British left a few thousand settlers behind, and many of their core beliefs. One was the mistrust, even hostility and disdain, with which all national governments view peoples who favour a mobile approach to life over a fixed abode: nomads, of course, are always very difficult to tax and control.

The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden populated largely by exotic megafauna could be a money spinner.

Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back. This is in spite of the increasing scientific realisation that the ecosystems of the great East African grass plains are actually the creation of grazing animals, which enhance rather than diminish the country. Peoples who live from mobile herding, like others who eat mainly from their hunting and gathering, enjoy a way of life which in reality improves rather than reduces biodiversity, and which has sustained a huge proportion of Africa’s population for millennia. The upper end of estimates count no less than one quarter of the population of all Africa as dependent on herding.

But the colonials saw things differently. Immersed in anthropological prejudice which placed settled agriculturalists at the apex of human evolution, they had long been in favour of reducing, and even ending, pastoralism – and subsistence hunting – altogether. The same bias was inherited by the newly independent Kenyan government which was largely dominated by those from the Gikuyu ethnic group, traditionally farmers who produced Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The herders have faced discrimination for a long time.

The British Crown had originally “given” the so-called “White Highlands”, the higher, cooler, malaria-free centre of the country, to white settlers in the 1920s, particularly to World War I veterans like Ian Craig’s grandfather. When the new landholders started erecting fences, the surrounding herders were forced to adapt, avoiding some areas altogether and grazing others only covertly, often risking arrest or armed violence when they cut fences. However, nomadic peoples, whether herders or hunters, are generally far more agile and versatile than their static neighbours, so they adapted and survived and, by and large, are still there.

After Kenyan independence, one way of continuing to try and press herders into the settled mainstream was to recognise their communal ownership, but only over restricted parts of their grazing. This was shoehorned into existing land legislation really written for peoples who stayed put. The herders, at least some of them, were awarded “Group Ranches”, in which specific kith and kin became the owners of limited areas. To represent their title to the authorities, they had to establish committees, habitually through their councils of elders—most African pastoral peoples have a codified hierarchy in age sets, where important decisions are traditionally referred to older folk.

That is an outline of the complex background of competition for land when white farmers decided to move into wildlife tourism. It was easy enough for them to embrace Craig’s conservancy model for their own farms, but when it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, the Group Ranches owned by the pastoralists, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.

Sometimes this might have involved genuine consultation with, and consent by, the community; in other cases, it didn’t. The elders, or sometimes just a few individuals picked up by NRT and driven to its meetings, would be asked to agree terms on a 30-year lease which gave away designated parts of their land to an “investor”, a company which would build visitor accommodation geared around wildlife viewing. In exchange, the African landowners would be given a few, largely menial, paid jobs in and around the “lodge” or luxury camp, but they would also have to provide security around its perimeter and clear any necessary roads and infrastructure, all without any further payment. The Group Ranch would receive a small fee for each night a tourist stayed, unless the visitor were an associate or family member of the investor, in which case there would be no payment. What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation. The herders had no experience in securing their own legal advice, and the contracts made no reference to Group Ranch members having access to any audited figures to check whether or not they were being correctly remunerated.

When it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.

Such agreements are not made public or translated into any local language. They would never pass scrutiny for fairness, or even legality, which is probably why copies of the contracts were not made available to some communities, and why some remain confidential to the investor decades after they were signed (Requests to be shown copies of contracts were ignored but I have nevertheless read some from confidential sources.) Moreover, when the lease ends, some are liable to be renewed automatically for another thirty years on the same terms.

“Agreements” like these are barely disguised land grabs. The herders lose part of their land for little return, with the investor taking possession to build high-end accommodation. The tourist business can then truck in some big animals, and start raking in handsome profits from rich tourists whose expectations of being waited on by bedecked, colourful African “warriors” and women are fulfilled. The waiters and cleaners are of course the rightful landowners.

In this way, self-sufficient, independent, and resilient herders have been turned into a servant sector entirely dependent on an industry which is, in turn, dependent on the whims of tourist fashion (and which has proved particularly unsustainable because of travel curtailments arising from the COVID-19 pandemic).

Another way the NRT has begun to erode pastoralism has been to establish its grip over the regional economy. It has formed a business, buying the livestock of favoured herders (but not that of critics) and selling it on to the food industry. NRT can presumably afford the financial risk because any losses can be offset by tourist profits and conservation grants from wealthy backers like The Nature Conservancy which are in turn subsidised by Western governments. Such economic domination has undermined regional markets and elevated NRT into a key economic driver of northern Kenya – all supposedly for the benefit of the local population.

Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back.

NRT can get away with all this partly because the leases are between a particular investor and a Group Ranch: NRT claims its role is merely as hands-off adviser, and denies liability for any unfairness as it’s not itself a formal party to any of the contracts. It advises the investor certainly, but any claim that it can give advice which is in the best interest of the herders at the same time is clearly not true.

Its annual reports don’t show any audited figures, as NGOs in Kenya are not legally required to produce independently verified accounts in the way they are in Europe or the USA. Requests to see them are rebuffed or ignored; how it sources its funds is vague. It can, in other words, make whatever unsupported claims it likes: the possibilities for creative accounting, to say the least, seem great.

NRT Conservancies

NRT Conservancies

NRT Conservancies

It’s understandable that knowledgeable Kenyans are suspicious of such an opaque NGO gaining effective control over much of northern Kenya and directly impacting the lives of millions of Africans. When a white Kenyan with close links to the former colonial master’s head of state is pulling the strings, such concerns are likely to be amplified, even more so when TNC’s involvement is considered – especially given some conservationists’ stated desire to stop all meat eating (aside from chicken) throughout the continent, for supposedly environmental reasons!

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars. Its headquarters are less than six kilometres from the White House in Washington, and it was headed by investment banker Mark Tercek until 2019. He used to be a managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs until the financial collapse of 2008 when his bank’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis exploded. Together with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs was a major player in the mess which led to job losses for nine million Americans. This was the time that Tercek left banking for conservation, though the switch may not have involved much transformation in his worldview, or been too onerous a sacrifice for that matter: there’s little reason to think he started flying economy class, and his basic TNC salary in 2015 was $765,000. Tercek left TNC in 2019 after a sexual harassment probe into the organisation’s leadership.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars.

It’s easy to see why rich Americans getting control of pastoralists’ land in Kenya, via a local NGO with intimate ties to an old colonial élite which still keeps its army on site, is not wholeheartedly welcomed when herders debate in the shade of their thorn trees. Not being given sight of the contracts they are told they once agreed to naturally raises anxiety. There are a few young men who benefit from the jobs, and who understandably might find these developments more agreeable, but opposition remains high. It can be expressed quietly, with those herders who dislike NRT keeping their voices muted for fear that the authorities are listening out for hostile opinion which they think is seditious. Critics have been threatened, and conservationists who question NRT can find career paths shut off.

Independent researcher, Dr Mordecai Ogada, listens to herders’ grievances about conservancies. Copyright M. Ogada

Independent researcher, Dr Mordecai Ogada, listens to herders’ grievances about conservancies. Copyright M. Ogada

The British army is there in force with various objectives. It’s obviously found a useful training ground, but the official reasons are to combat terrorism, support peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and also to help rangers “protect elephants from poachers”. It’s true that many British taxpayers might well support their army protecting elephants, but it still raises uncomfortable questions about the merging of the roles of soldiers, police, and wildlife rangers – especially given that some of the latter are private militias employed by rich white landowners to guard their very expensive properties and wealthy tourists. The minimum price to stay a few days in one luxurious conservancy, Ol Jogi, just thirty kilometres from the army base, is over $34,000. The conservancy has nevertheless received money from a British charity, Save the Rhino, with some of the funds going to ranger training.

What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation.

Concerns are growing over how valuable this land might be aside from its tourist potential. Northern Kenya was always important geopolitically in the slicing and dicing of Africa. It was a cushion between Britain and its colonial rivals, France and Italy, and it remains a buffer between mainly Christian Kenya and war-torn Somalia, the launch pad for violent incursions by al-Shabab militants. These have been going on for years and can meet with sympathy in Muslim parts of Kenya. There is wealth under the ground too – fossil fuels, minerals, and aquifers. All stand to be more easily and profitably exploited were local African landowners to be undermined or removed. After all, Protected Areas in other parts of Africa are often leased out to oil, gas, minerals or diamond companies. It’s possible that getting rid of people from conservation zones is as much about future profits as it is about the 19th century northern European and American belief which elevates divine Nature above sinning humankind.

Even a cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them (Kalepo, Meibae, Nannapa, Narupa, Naapu, Naibunga Lower, Naibunga Central, Sera, and Biliqo Bulesa), which could affect Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, and Borana. All have, or have had, mining concessions inside their boundaries.

Whatever the reasons behind the growth of the conservancy model, at first sight it’s a win-win for conservationists. They can claim the communities are equal partners, when of course they’re not; yet more of the country can be fenced off into Protected Areas for profit; and the assault on mobile pastoralism – which has long been a key refrain in conservationists’ myopic and ultimately destructive vision of “nature” without humans (except them) – can be fortified.

It’s clever, but as well as its reliance on unsustainable tourism, it embodies another key flaw which may eventually prove its undoing: it doesn’t reckon with the profound relationship many herders have with how they live with and from their animals. They have weathered droughts and conflicts over numerous generations and pastoralists know their way of life is supremely sustainable. Conservancies don’t take into account their resilience and toughness; herders don’t like being pushed around and are prepared to cut fences and risk violence when necessary to protect their livestock and future.

A cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them.

Real solutions, benefiting both people and the environment, demand discarding deep-seated prejudice, which is always the primary obstacle to real change. The stranglehold of wealthy “landowners” must be loosened. Both conservationists and the government should recognise the importance of nomadic pastoralists as valued stewards of the country’s ecosystems, and stop trying to finish with them. They should approach the herders with respect, offering resources only when asked for, which should be passed into the control of locals represented by their own spokespersons. Of course such a new approach would bring complications, especially with growing competition for resources. However, things are complicated now, and they are marching in the wrong direction.

Unless things change, it seems likely that pastoralists will reoccupy their grazing lands, by force if necessary, and so bring to an end the reign of Protected Areas altogether. Many pastoralists are now seeing that there’s less harassment where there’s less tourism. There are already protest killings, where wild animals are slaughtered, not for tusks, horns, meat, or even because they are a danger to livestock or people, but as retaliation against the land grabs which have dogged these Africans since Europeans first turned up and told them to settle down, get “civilised”, and accept their place in the divine and established order – as landless workers and servants.

I am grateful to Dr Mordecai Ogada for leading me to the problem of the conservancies through his book, The Big Conservation Lie, Mbaria & Ogada, 2016, and for commenting on this article.

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Stephen Corry (b. 1951, Malaya) was projects director of Survival International, the global movement supporting indigenous and tribal peoples, from 1972, and has been its director since 1984.

Culture

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.

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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
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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 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”.

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The Politics of Street Names

Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.

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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 FallFaidherbe 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.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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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.

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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.”

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

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.”

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

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.”

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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