“African anger on the question of colonialism is growing. I have encountered it from Johannesburg to Kinshasa and Nairobi. It is not an atavistic anti-white movement but rather a demand that the former colonial powers acknowledge the facts of the past and quit meddling in the present.”
– Fergal Keane, BBC Africa Editor
From his plinth Stanley points away from the Atlantic coast, in the direction the river boats take on the journey 750 miles east to Kisangani, the ‘Stanleyville’ of Belgian times, the ‘inner station’ of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, begetter of more lurid cliches about Africa than any book title ever.
On the other side of the garden King Leopold sits on his horse facing across the river towards Brazzaville. Behind him is the last of the Belgian colonial kings, Baudouin, stiff and dull in bronze as he was in life, while nearby is a frieze depicting the advance of imperialism – the hardy white pioneers in pith helmets, the Africans labouring to carry their boats across rapids and jungle.
The statues were removed from the city after independence in 1960 and dumped on government land. Then, after the fall of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, they were brought here to rest in the garden of one of his palaces overlooking the river.
Stanley lay for years on his face, the outstretched arm severed from the torso in an unconscious echo of those numberless Congolese whose hands were hacked off for failing to meet the rubber quotas set by their white overseers. Our man, Roger Casement, recorded these horrors in his Congo reports.
I am in Kinshasa because once again trouble is brewing in Congo. It was the first African country of whose existence I was vaguely conscious as a child. Irish troops were sent to Congo in 1960 and nine of them were killed there the following January, the same month I was born.
The Congo represented irrational savagery. That was how it was portrayed, how it is often still portrayed.
It was at the beginning of the Kennedy presidency and the Cold War was at its paranoid height. The CIA plotted to overthrow the country’s first democratically elected President, Patrice Lumumba, and he was duly murdered with the help of Belgian and local assassins.
What followed was the three-decade-long looting spree of Mobutu ending with Rwandan invasion and the rise of the Kabila clan.
The Congo crisis entered the vernacular of the Dublin where I grew up. When members of the Baluba tribe killed nine Irish soldiers at Niemba the word ‘Baluba’ was appropriated as a term to describe violent gougers. The Niemba ambush was a traumatic moment in the life of the Republic. The Congo operation was the first deployment of Irish troops abroad, a singular moment in the emergence of the country on the international stage, a moment of pride and grief.
The Congo slipped out of our foreground but the spasms of violence came and went.
This vast, diverse country became lodged in the collective memory as a story of white colonists being murdered and raped. It was airlifts of Belgian paratroops fighting off the ‘savages’ in daring rescues of missionary priests and nuns.
The chaos created an image of independent Africa that poisons the public perception of the continent to this day.
The excesses of dictators like Mobutu and Idi Amin in Uganda reinforced the narrative. Frequently reductive and sensational journalism reduced our understanding of the continent to black chaos/savagery/misery only mitigated by white saviourdom.
The veteran foreign correspondent Edward Behr – who reported the Congo crisis – titled his autobiography Anyone Here Been Raped And Speaks English?, supposedly after overhearing a television reporter utter these words among a group of rescued Europeans.
The Belgians have yet to come to anything like a full reckoning with their colonial past. Ditto for the rest of the colonial powers. The Irish response to the crimes of colonialism has usually been to congratulate ourselves in the knowledge that “we never conquered anyone”.
Not as a nation, it is true. But Irish regiments enforced the imperial will across the globe and the sons of the Catholic middle class took up positions as colonial administrators far and wide. The empire was a world of possibility for many young Irishmen.
These days we have a renewed debate about the merits of imperialism with one eminent academic recently questioning the ‘bad name’ attached to colonialism saying “that it was high time to question this orthodoxy”.
According to Associate Professor Bruce Gilley, of Portland State University, “Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found.”
The article was withdrawn after a storm of protest. But it highlighted an intellectual movement which seeks to re-cast empire as a progressive stage in the human story. Atrocities were regrettable but, according to this analysis, somehow inevitable. And anyway, set against the depredations of post-colonial leaders, would many citizens of benighted African states not yearn for the firm but just hand of white patriarchy?
This will not do. The racism, exploitation and cruelty that featured so large in the imperial project in Africa is a stain on the western world. The benefits – rule of law, infrastructure, education – were important but too limited.
The Belgians gave up their colony but foreign powers and corporations have been exploiting and manipulating Congo ever since. They are at it still with the willing cooperation of the nation’s corrupt rulers.
African anger on the question of colonialism is growing. I have encountered it from Johannesburg to Kinshasa and Nairobi. It is not an atavistic anti-white movement but rather a demand that the former colonial powers acknowledge the facts of the past and quit meddling in the present.
Here I am not talking about the disingenuous, self-serving condemnations of colonialism that pour forth from the mouths of African leaders eager to shift the blame for their mistakes onto the west. It is from young Africans, from historians and journalists and civil society activists that this call for an honest reckoning is coming. They do not want an imposed narrative or a debate between western academics. They want to be heard. It would be a good thing for the western apologists of empire to listen.
- Fergal Keane is the BBC Africa Editor
- Published in the Irish Independent, 1 April 2018