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 eight minutes. All this while, Floyd lay face-down, handcuffed, begging for his life as he repeatedly said: “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin’s 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. Protests swept other capitals and, there too, especially in Europe, statues of figures from the colonial period, racists and slavers were spray-painted and taken down with one in the UK hurled into the harbour. More apologies for colonial abuses are flowing in.
When it came to Africa, we did the same thing, with wider demands to rename all the 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 a long time 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 ongoing 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 sparked off by the killing of 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 was just the match that lit the ready fuse.
Anybody 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, a couple of the early heroes of Independence and Founding Fathers are now rejected as collaborators or even colonial puppets. It is often a result 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. In the system of naming things, privileges were conferred on them. Some of them got street names in towns and the capitals, but mostly upcountry schools and dormitories were named after them.
Communities further away from the capital, or which resisted colonialism, were not as privileged. In the past 30 years, these marginalised groups have moved their histories closer to the national political mainstream, able to tell their histories through online platforms, sidestepping the mainstream media and schools controlled by the dominant “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 Fathers and their comrades — the Jomo Kenyattas, 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 there. 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 maintain his Congo?
An attack on the 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 of the global Floyd protests as a repudiation of the Donald Trumps of this world. It is. But only in the first act.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3