Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the
Minneapolis Police, a wave of protests in the U.S. and Europe had
Though the initial protest had been on police racism
and brutality in the United States, it gave way to calls for an end to
racism. It also became a judgement on certain historical figures.
Questions that one might have had could include:
- How did we get to this pass?
- What does it mean to be white and to be black when history is put on trial;
- How can this be remedied for the peace of future generations?
This is an emotive topic, but one that generates some interesting
points to ponder. This is important not only for Africans or Europeans
and their role in history. Rather, it has to do with how we confront
our past and account for it.
In this musing, I would like to address two related issues which came
out recently on the role of slave trade and statues:
- This story on slavery and slave
trade does not shed
new light on what had been taking place in Africa for hundreds of
years before colonialism. However, it raises interesting points on the
question of accountability for past misdeeds using today’s
- This opinion piece on the role of
assesses the role of statues in any historical narrative, and the
need to rethink their place in the 21st century. This is in light of
the toppling of Edward Colston’s
in Bristol, United Kingdom.
- This fire did not catch up in Africa regardless of it being the
“sinned against” continent of these past acts of racism.
Could there be any explanation for this?
We are children of survivors, so observes Andrew Mar. What it
means is that for us to be here, it was through the tenacity of our
forefathers to survive: they could do anything as long as they could
Anyway, this is what we still do today.
While history is a record of humankind’s ability to persevere and tame
nature, it is characterised by acts of both kindness and cruelty.
This means that All of us today are a product of a cruel past, a past
that has left scars that will take centuries to heal. Such scars,
though, can not be healed by carrying over the wars of the past.
The problem addressed here has nothing to do with justifying actions
of people long gone, but Rather looking at the role of contemporary
society to judge its past.
We know of our past through recorded history, and statues.
The Black Lives
had been instrumental in leading these protests. One of their targets
had been statues of notorious racists and slave traders.
do statues represent? Are they a celebration of a person’s life or his
or her accomplishments, or his or her misdeeds?
I would like to think they do represent a person’s accomplishments
rather than their whole life or any other misdeed.
Statues can teach us about history, but they do not convey some
immutable truth from the past. Instead, they are symbolic of the
fixed ideas of a specific community regarding its past, as captured
at a particular point in time.
So a statue of Edward
seventeenth-century Bristol philanthropist, for instance, could be
thought of as celebrating his role in developing Bristol. While he
might have traded in slaves, or some things we consider evil, his
community cherished his contributions towards its upliftment.
The same could be said of these people who at some point during these
protests were targets of destruction of their statues:
- Cecil John Rhodes
- Known for his active role in promoting British imperialism in the
19th century, there had been calls for toppling of his
statue. For example, the Rhodes Must Fall
been aimed at reforming education in South Africa through removal
of his statue from university campuses .
- Winston Churchill
- Perhaps the greatest of the British heroes in modern English
history, he is also charged for his racist views and positions. See
for instance this
that shows his dark side, particularly to people who weren’t whites.
But these people are both lauded for what they stood for:
- Rhodes for his promotion of education and opportunities to young
- Churchill for his role in leading resistance against Nazism during
World War II.
Accounting for the sins of the past
It is difficult to justify evils of the past, even if we would
like. At the same time, it is also difficult to hold those gone to
Today’s generations have the benefit of hindsight: with the
creation of human rights, readjustment of values and reassessment
of our past, we have to all admit that we are guilt of what we
charge others for.
So in going through Nwaubani’s great-grandfather’s life, and
his role in slave trade, we are called not to judge him byu
today’s standards. In fact, he would have been honoured with a
statue, for the good he did to his community. But the proiblem
The Igbo do not have a culture of erecting monuments to their
heroes - otherwise one dedicated to him might have stood somewhere
in the Umuahia region today.
After reading the above article, I just thought to myself, “true, we
cannot judge him using today’s standards. If only Africa could lead
the call to this, perhaps there could be a better way to reconcile
race differences than harping on the sins of the past.”
Anyway, this is subject of another day when I will discuss
transitional justice and its implications. Suffice it to say that the
past is a painful territory to visit. It has no saints to speak of in
today’s canons of human rights.
While colonialism is roundly condemned by lots of politicians, what
they forget is that other weaker tribes welcomed it, only because it
helped them become free from local tyrants. Other groups, such as
people with disabilities, twins, girls and minority groups were able to enjoy a basic
right of life itself.
Yet they do not raise these issues against anyone in today’s
society. The reason being that every action should be evaluated
against the rules of its day.
This equally applies to all: if the African strongmen of the past
expect to be honoured in today’s society, then we should also be
prepared to understand the controlling forces of the past even between
Europeans and Africans, Arabs and Africans and tribe against tribe.
This musing of mine can’t win me friends as it goes against stated
positions. However, it is based on a simple fact that history did
something to us which is cruel, but it taught us to value others in a
way we did not do in the past.
Destruction or defacement of statues may not be the solution to
deep-seated prejudices. It only inflames hatred and engenders
suspicion between groups that would have faced their past together to
avoid its mistakes today and in the future. There is need to
appreciate why statues are valued by their communities: they tell a
story about a person’s action to that community which may be
different from what another community knows about him or her.
Thank you for reading this musing on weekend: I hope it will help you
embrace your past and forgive others as you would like them to forgive
you for what your ancestors might have done.