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History, imperialism and endangered Africans

Sankara Kamara

2012-12-19, Issue 611

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Whilst the international community celebrates the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 2012, Sankara Kamara reflects on the dehumanization and outright denial of human rights for Africans through the experiences of enslavement and colonisation

On 10 December 2012, the international community celebrated the 64th anniversary of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’ On the same day in 1948, the phrase ‘International Community,’ assumed a new meaning when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’ By formally making ‘human rights’ international, the world became a place where the dignity of every human being is theoretically recognized.


The purpose of this article is to edify young African minds by discussing an aspect of our history slowly forgotten by some of Africa’s educational systems. From Cape Town in South Africa to Freetown in Sierra Leone, young African minds continue to be engrossed by modernity without necessarily trying to understand what it means to be an African in a world held hostage by imperialism. In the fast-paced world in which we live, it is easy to forget that the African continent has trekked a long way, from the throes of colonial rule to the emergence of ‘independent’ states in the 1960s. Rather than use modernity’s comforts to delve into their history and keep it alive, modern-day Africans are actually losing their history to willful ignorance, one generation at a time. I cannot end this article without letting young Africans know that before the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ in 1948, international law—as understood by Europeans---did NOT recognize the human rights of Africans. The European powers which colonised the African continent, abolished the human rights of Africans by robbing the continent at gunpoint.


Were it not for the Carnation Revolution of 1974, which radically changed Portugal’s foreign policy toward people of color, Lisbon would have continued to oppress its colonised Africans until the end of the twentieth century. Portugal was one of the earliest European powers to arrive in Africa as a coloniser and slave-catcher. Disquietingly enough, Portugal did not grant independence to its African colonies until fairly recently, in 1975, one year after a leftist military coup forced Lisbon to end its costly wars of oppression in Africa. How does a synopsis of colonial rule fit into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The colonisation of Africa was based on the racist belief that Africans do not have human rights. Animated by the racist beliefs of the day, the colonisation of Africa was conducted to destroy the indigenous institutions which kept African societies on an even keel. On top of being exploitative, the colonisation of Africa came along with variants of cruelties that amounted to crimes against humanity. The first amputations of innocent Africans were committed in the Congo, where King Leopold of Belgium killed millions of Africans with genocidal intent. In the jostle to seize African territories and exploit the natural resources they contained, King Leopold of Belgium took over the Congo as virtual ruler, from 1885-1908. A European fraudster living in an era of the imperial brutality approved by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, King Leopold fixed his gaze on the Congo, where he starved, amputated, and mass-murdered millions of Africans.


Alas, King Leopold was not the only mass-murderer with African blood on his hands. While the Belgians literally gored their African subjects to death in the Congo, the Germans were similarly active in Namibia, where the German state committed its first genocide. The Nazi extermination of the Jews was not the first genocide committed by a German state. When the Herero people of Namibia rebelled against colonial rule in 1904, the German government responded with a killer Blitzkrieg, murdering tens of thousands of colonized Africans! Germany wanted the Africans in Namibia to know that resistance against white supremacy would be met with European savagery. A few decades after the German genocide against the Herero people in Namibia, the British Empire showed its fangs in colonial Kenya, where the nationalist Mau Mau movement was targeted for destruction in gulags and torture centers.


In 2004, the-then German Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation, Heidemarie W. Zeul, officially ‘apologized’ for Germany’s killing sprees in Namibia, calling them a ‘genocide.’ Although the German spokeswoman recognized her country’s ‘guilt’ and ‘moral responsibility’ for the slaughter of Namibians, she implicitly refused to respect the human rights of the Africans murdered in that country. Her argument was that today’s Germany cannot be legally responsible for the 1904 genocide in Namibia. According to her twisted logic, there was no international law at the time to protect civilians against colonial brutality. What the German politician was saying, albeit in codes, is that colonial-era Europe legally saw Africans as sub-humans marked for murder without consequences. Almost every modern European state has made this racist argument, often through invented, legal sophisms. In 1992, the late Nigerian tycoon, Chief Mushood Abiola and a group of eminent Africans coalesced around the Organization of African unity (OAU), with the specific aim of holding Europe accountable for crimes against humanity committed in Africa during slavery and colonial rule. Chief Abiola and the group of eminent Africans failed to make headway because international relations—like race-relations in a multicultural country—are dominated by oppressors versus the oppressed. Africans will remain uncompensated because race and power determine who gets what in the pitiless world of capitalism. Cliché-driven but true, the expression ‘History Repeats Itself,’ remains valid in Africa, as the continent tries to chart a new course in the twenty-first century. Apparently forgetful of its tragic, historical encounters with Europe, Africa continues to lay itself bare to the exploitative designs of multinational corporations. All over sub-Saharan Africa, governments are entering into questionable deals with multinational corporations, selling large tracts of land to foreigners who want to re-colonize the continent, this time with official, African approval. The lopsided deals signed by African leaders, continue to give open checks to multinational corporations, who pompously put themselves above the rule of law when dealing with Africans. Lest we forget, the Europeans who enslaved, and later colonized, the African continent are the same actors behind the multinational corporations grabbing lands in Africa today. Capitalism is very powerful, but its predatory tentacles can be resisted by a measure of African unity. If we continue to ignore the historical lessons of the past, the imperialists will re-colonize Africa—economically, that is! Needless to say, the economic re-colonisation of Africa will reduce our political independence to a mere, laughingstock.

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Sankara Kamara is a Sierra Leonean academic living in Atlanta. He has traveled extensively in West Africa, where he once lived and worked as a teacher and journalist.

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