On May 25, 2020, an African American man George Floyd, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Rephrase that; he was killed by a racist policeman during an arrest. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”. His three colleagues, stood around, watching the execution.
America exploded in, according to many accounts, it’s most widespread protests in over 50 years. The Black Lives Matter movement soared. In anti-racist rage, statues of figures from America’s slavery era and long racist history were toppled or removed. Companies rushed to clean up their racist past and branding. Apologies were flying all over the place.
Then protests swept other capitals in the world, and there too, especially in Europe, statues of figures from the colonial period, racists, and slavers were spray-painted and also taken down, with one in the UK hurled into a river. More apologies for colonial abuses are flowing in.
When it came to Africa, we did the same thing, with wider demands to rename towns, streets, rivers, lakes, mountains, and schools that were named after European explorers, colonial officials, and missionaries. In Kampala, a campaign that had been simmering for long to get rid of colonial-era street names gathered pace, with a petition garnering over 5,000 signatures. It was promptly presented to the rulers.
This struggle to get rid of colonial-era names has been on-going in Africa since independence, with mixed success. In a few places like Ghana, it has been very successful.
We have to wonder where it will end this time. First, as with the protests that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd revealed, it wasn’t really about him. It was the result of a century of activism and organising against racism and for justice, and a dramatic change in sensibilities, as the multicultural profile of the protestors suggested, that had matured. Floyd’s killing was just the match that lit the fuse.
Anyone who thinks that in Africa all this will end when streets like Denis Pritt are renamed Harry Kumbula or a Colville Road becomes Okot p’Bitek Road, has another thing coming.
In Africa, these sometimes seemingly cosmetic and symbolic quibbles about colonial names, are actually at base a fundamental critique, and in some places a total rejection, of the post-colonial state. And it has many faces, including a reclamation one, which expresses itself in movements demanding the return of looted African art which are in European museums.
In several countries, including Kenya, a couple of the early heroes of independence and founding fathers, are now rejected as collaborators or even colonial puppets. It is a result, sometimes, of facile revisionism, but in many instances an awakening and new consciousness born of a study of true histories, not the half-propaganda of the early victors.
At independence, not everything was neat. Within the colonial state, there was a subset of privileged groups - for example, kingdoms and chieftainships – or elites, either from some ethnic communities, or religions. These groups and individuals were powerful colonial chiefs and agents around countries, leaving their names on small towns, and villages.
In the system of naming things, privileges were conferred on them. Here and there some of them got street names in towns and the capitals, but mostly upcountry schools and dormitories were named after them.
Communities that were further away from the capital, or which resisted colonialism, were not equally privileged. In the last 30 years in particular, these marginalised groups have moved their histories closer to the national political mainstream, able to tell their histories through online platforms like blogs, and social media, sidestepping the mainstream media and schools that, in most of Africa, are still controlled by the dominant groups, or as Kenyans would put it, the “big tribes”.
After we have renamed and banished the colonialist signage, we shall get to the arguments about which of our heroes have been excluded, and whether, for example, any of the founding father and their comrades, the Jomo Kenyattas, the Sekou Toures, and even emperor Haile Selassie whose statue was toppled by Oromo protestors in Ethiopia on Tuesday, should be given a place of honour.
It will not end. The next inevitable step, will be to question whether our countries should stand as they were crafted with their current borders by colonialists.
How can you topple murderous Belgian King Leopold II’s statue, accept an apology for his colonial-era atrocities, and yet seek to maintain his Congo? An attack on slave trade, the racist structure it created as a successor when it ended, and the states around which they organised their temporal power, which is what many of our countries are, are all game.
It is easy to sit in a top floor of a government office in Nairobi or Kampala and think of the solidarity George Floyd global protests as a repudiation of the Donald Trumps of this world. It is. But only in the first act.
The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3