What started as a commentary is gaining traction with more than 5,000 people petitioning government to decolonise Kampala streets by removing icons of colonial oppressors and replacing them with gallant Ugandan heroes. Prominent lawyer Apollo Makubuya is the brains behind this initiative that reached the speaker Rebecca Kadaga last week.
As Nicholas Bamulanzeki writes, the process is long overdue even though it remains to be seen whether government will act.
On June 25, Makubuya presented the petition to Kadaga signed by 5,200 people calling for the removal of symbols, street names, monuments and other colonial relics in Uganda that represent a nefarious legacy of colonial conquest, occupation, exploitation and impunity.
Makubuya’s team had former principal judge Justice James Ogoola, who serves as chairman Elders Forum of Uganda, Prof Lwanga Lunyigo, a special presidential assistant as well as MPs Stephen Birahwa and Medard Seggona.
The petitioners strongly believe that the continued public display of colonial iconography which glorifies individuals responsible for the brutalization, subjugation and humiliation of colonised peoples in Uganda (and elsewhere) is a slap in the face of the many brave people that fought for the political independence of Africa.
“It is doubly painful for others that continue to fight for the socio-economic independence of the African continent from neo-imperial subjugation and the indignity and injustice that comes with it,” he told the speaker. “Colonial iconography not only offends fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals and groups from cruel inhuman and degrading treatment but reinforces and celebrates a culture of colonial supremacy, domination and impunity. The removal of these ominous vestiges is long overdue.”
The Petitioners are encouraged both by the strong and determined movement in many other parts of the world, especially the USA and the UK, to challenge an order that has been advantaged by racist systems built on the back of slavery, colonialism and racism.
“We have now seen the positive actions of some governments, cities and universities to acknowledge, review and redress a legacy of racism, discrimination and a grim imperialist past.”
Justice Ogoola reflected on October 9, 1962, the day Uganda got its independence. “A number of wonderful things happened and one of them was to lower one flag and raise another, to sing one anthem for the last time and sing a brand new one for the first time, history was being made. But in a sense those two things were a statement and what we are asking here in this petition is another statement, not to rewrite history. The statements that we started on October 9 are still unfinished, we need to join the dots, the history of this country during colonial times is not written on the streets, lakes and mountains; it is written in the archives,” he said.
“So, by removing the street names we are not erasing history because it is in the archives. I am an elder and the role of elders among others is to hand over a baton to the ones coming. We the elders at the lounge still have to hand over a baton. So, me as an elder if I leave a Ternan street here, what do I tell the generation to come what this name means because in Uganda every name has a meaning. Therefore, why should we be carrying names of which we know not the meaning on our streets?”
In this context, and aware that public symbols and icons ought to celebrate virtue and not vice, the petitioners are calling upon government and all relevant local authorities to take urgent measures to remove street names and monuments that celebrate and immortalise colonial subjugators such as Brig Gen Trevor Ternan, Lord Frederick Lugard, Maj GenHenry Colville, Commissioner Harry George Galt and the Kings African Rifles, who were notorious in their inhumane and degrading treatment of the colonized peoples in the Uganda protectorate.
Secondly, they want to store such iconography in the Uganda Museum, with appropriate labelling so that current and future generations can learn about the true stories behind these figures.
The petitioners further want government to make comprehensive policies and laws to streamline the naming or renaming of geographical features, streets and public places by a representative body of eminent Ugandans in a manner that addresses the legacy of colonialism and oppression.
“Such policies should promote deserving national heroes and heroines as well as contribute to national healing, harmony, heritage and the respect for the protection of human rights and dignity,” argues Makubuya.
Meanwhile, the petitioners want government to revisit the school curriculum, content and methodologies on Uganda’s struggle against colonial rule and meaning of independence to ensure that the history of the country is taught in its entirety rather than that which glorifies the colonial order and demeans those that resisted it in any form or were subjugated by it.
“Government should also encourage and support further research and publications into the history of the creation of Uganda and British colonial rule in Uganda,” adds Makubuya. “This would support the work of the United Nations Council for Human rights (OHCHR) in its efforts to seek accountability and redress for victims following decades of colonial oppression and exploitation.”
However, Makubuya argues that it would be neglectful to suggest that removing offending colonial iconography from public display means that decolonisation has been achieved.
“However, we believe it would be an important step in the continuing struggle against decolonisation of mind and matter in Uganda. We are aware that there are many concerns including on the procedures and responsibility for renaming. We believe though that these are surmountable,” he notes.
“Chinua Achebe teaches us that ‘when we are comfortable and inattentive, we run the risk of committing grave injustices absentmindedly’ and that ‘until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’”
On her part, Kadaga promised to follow up the petition to its rightful conclusion in order to correct the wrongs of Ugandan history.
According to Ogoola, time has come to pass on the baton.
“As elders, we want to hand over a logical and rational baton to the next generation. Talking about Jinja, I am always struck when I go to the source of the Nile and I find there a statue of John Speke and it says boldly that he is the one who discovered River Kiira, it is irrational,” he noted.
“That’s why we call for a legal framework on how to name these features. When I started living in Muyenga 20 years ago, my small street was called Muwafu, 10 years later it became Njuki and now it is something else…whoever arrives names it after themselves. We signed agreements with the British but they were visitors and they would go; so, where did they get the authority to name the streets? It is high time we the owners of the house did something about this.”
It was an elated conclusion of the meeting in which everyone expressed hope that the colonial icons will be removed. However, only time will tell whether government has the will to correct the colonial and racial misrepresentations.