22 December 2015

The unfinished business of total liberation - Africa’s islands

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo

It is generally held that decolonisation of Africa ended with the fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1994. But the truth is that Britain, France, Spain and Portugal continue to colonise a number African islands.

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was categorical in his thinking about the ‘liberation and unification’ of Africa. He left no doubt that the total ‘political and economic’ liberation and unification of Africa included all the islands of Africa in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. To emphasise this and to ensure that posterity does not relinquish, by benign neglect, any territory of Africa, Nkrumah in his books used maps with annotated listings of Africa’s islands to etch in the consciousness of the reader the fact that these islands are integral to the imperative of Africa’s total liberation and unification. To Nkrumah, no African land mass must be under colonisation, trusteeship or be alienated from the cause of African unity.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and its Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa (Liberation Committee), we must wake up to the fact that the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Portugal still hold a sizeable colony of islands in Africa’s territorial waters. It is refreshing, however, to note that some African countries, on their own, are laying claim to some of these ‘overseas possessions’ of these European ‘powers’.

As I write, it is ‘Not Yet Uhuru’ for the following islands: Ascension Island (United Kingdom); Saint Helena Island (United Kingdom); Tristan da Cunha Archipelago (United Kingdom); Bassas de India Atoll (France); Europa Island (France); Glorioso Islands (France); Iles Esparses (France); Juan de Nova Island (France); Mayotte Island (France); Reunion Island (France); Tromelin Island (France); Canary Islands (Spain); Ceuta (Spain) and Madeira (Portugal).

The disputed island territories are Bassas da India, Europa Island & Juan de Nova Island (Claimants: France and Madagascar. France claims sovereignty over these various uninhabited islands, and currently controls and protects them from its military base in nearby Réunion. They are in use as nature reserves and meteorological stations.); Glorioso (Glorieuses) Islands (Claimants: Comoros, France, Madagascar and the Seychelles. A nature reserve which is manned by French military forces; Mayotte (Claimants: Comoros and France. 

Operating as a French overseas collectivity since the 1970s, these islands are geographically part of the Comoros Islands, and just like their neighbours - the Glorioso Islands - they are also claimed by Comoros; Plazas de Soberanía (Claimants: Morocco and Spain. This is a collection of small Spanish-controlled city states and islands in North Africa, which all surround Morocco, and which have a combined total population of just over 140,000); Tromelin Island (Claimants: France, Mauritius and the Seychelles. France claims sovereignty over, and controls, this 1 mile long and mostly flat island, but Mauritius and the Seychelles both dispute the French ownership of this uninhabited isle) See disputed territories.

Nkrumah’s famous pronouncement that ‘...The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent’ also meant that the decolonisation of the African continent is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of Africa’s islands.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s it was etched in our memories that ‘Africa without Madagascar was like a table without a chair; was like a tree without a trunk; was like a hand without fingers’; and such like puns that we would spin out of our heads as we played around in song, dance and games. This was the catechism of total liberation and unification in singsong rhymes which made the task of Africa’s decolonisation our conscious responsibility to prosecute ‘by any means necessary’. The core of this task was and has always been the ‘decolonisation of the mind’ from ‘mental slavery’ with due respect to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Bob Marley.

This is what Nkrumah purposely set out to achieve with the setting up of an ideological institute and the Young Pioneers Movement. I was a proud Young Pioneer and when the army and the police struck on 24 February 1966 to overthrow the Nkrumah regime I had the presence of mind then to mobilise my fellow young pioneers at school to march into town to resist. We therefore remain colonised in mind, body and soul if we can alienate our islands from our collective consciousness while our Heads of State in a summit session duly dissolved the OAU Liberation Committee in June 1994 at Tunis. South Africa was our last settler colony to be liberated but in reality this is not so, as the pun ‘Africa without Madagascar...’ still rings true, with some of our islands still under colonial domination. 

The Heads of State at the summit in Tunis recognised that ‘the mandate given to the Liberation Committee in 1963 has been satisfactorily accomplished’ and therefore decided ‘to formally terminate that mandate’. The ‘mandate’ did not preclude the islands of Cape Verde, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe and Seychelles from becoming independent nation states within the African Union.

The mandate in a nutshell was assisting and expediting the process of decolonization and the elimination of apartheid. This therefore means that in the euphoria of the defeat of the apartheid regime we let slip off our minds the remaining task of the decolonisation of all of Africa’s islands. Battle fatigue and the psychological trap of the feeling that South Africa was the last frontier overpowered our sense of responsibility to these islands and as such we recklessly abandoned these islands to the UK, France, Spain and Portugal.

(Africa's Islands also include the Caribbean territories under the colonial administration of the UK and France, in addition to the U.S. and the Netherlands. All of these maintain colonies in various forms of dependency status in the Caribbean and are populated mainly by peoples of African descent. In this context, the African diaspora should not be omitted from this dialogue. - OTR) 

The question may be asked of what use are these far-flung islands to Africa? The answer lies in why is it that the UK would go to war, far, far away into the deep south of the Atlantic Ocean in order to secure the Falklands Islands (Malvinas) and keep it in UK’s sphere of interest? The rationale here is made unambiguously clear by a White Paper on Overseas Territories issued by the British government on Thursday, June 28, 2012. The document on the Overseas Territories (OT) declared there would be ‘no weakening’ in Britain's resolve to defend the Falkland Islands and other Overseas Territories.

The paper – which sets out a vision for the future of the 14 British Overseas Territories – was signed by the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague, and pledges to continue to ensure the ‘sovereignty over the Territories.’ In the text, the UK vows to guarantee the Overseas Territories citizens’ ‘right of self-determination’ and states the commitment to maintain military presence in order to assure UK’s sovereignty over the South Atlantic territories. Foreign Secretary Hague said: ‘We want OT to be vibrant, flourishing communities that proudly retain British identity’. Here the OT includes St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, all part of Nkrumah’s list of islands of Africa that has yet to be de-colonised. (en.mercopress.com/2012/06/28/) 

The British ‘proudly’ seek to stamp and proudly retain their identity wherever they may be in the world in furtherance of their own self-interest. Nkrumah propagated the concept of the African Personality in order for Africans to proudly retain their identity. In May 1963, the founding fathers of the OAU set up the Liberation Committee to proudly stamp and retain our African identity by freeing the remaining parts of Africa, which were still under colonial and racist domination. Through the sterling work of the Committee the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Afrikaans could not retain their respective identities in continental Africa. The British White Paper – which sets out a vision for the future of the 14 British Overseas Territories - must be a wakeup call for the African Union Commission. It must as a matter of urgency seek a fresh mandate to apply themselves to the business of total decolonisation of all of Africa’s islands. In other words, the African Union commission must set out a vision for the immediate decolonisation, defence and development of our islands and affirm Africa’s sovereignty over these islands. It is our glorious ancestors who left us with the metaphor that: ‘You have something of value if you have land. You have something of value if you have water. Water is life and land is your essence. When you alienate land a bit of you dies.’ 

The African Union commission must act with a sense of urgency. Here it has the benefit of hindsight and South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique should offer themselves as the ‘frontline states’ as Tanzania and Zambia did. The task of decolonisation of these islands must not be left alone to our island nations of Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles and also Morocco. Morocco remains part of Africa despite pulling out of the African Union over the refusal of the member states to recognise Morocco’s surrogate colonisation of Western Sahara for its phosphate and other rich minerals resources to serve the interest of the United States. 

The total decolonisation of Africa’s islands is a task that has to be undertaken and executed and I am personally calling on the African Union Commission to seek the wise counsel of Presidents Kaunda, Nujoma, Chissano and Mbeki and Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria and Speaker Theo-Ben Gurirab of Namibia. I strongly believe they will recommend the urgency of a fresh mandate to decolonise Africa’s Islands. Ambassador Sahnoun was the first Assistant Secretary-General of the OAU with special responsibility for the Liberation Committee. Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, outstanding freedom fighter and diplomat, was a former foreign minister and prime minister. The new mandate and vision to finish the business of decolonisation and total liberation must be anchored on the maxim: ‘African lands in African hands’.

Finally, in the words of Nkrumah: ‘...To us, Africa with its islands is just one Africa. We reject the idea of any kind of partition. From Tangiers or Cairo in the North to Cape Town in the South, from Cape Guardafui in the East to Cape Verde Islands in the West, Africa is one and indivisible.’ (AFRICA MUST UNITE; p. 217).