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The unfinished business of liberating the African islands

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The unfinished business of liberating the African islands

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the OAU, we must not forget that the UK, France, Spain, and Portugal still hold sizeable colonies 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 so-called “overseas possessions” of the European “powers”, writes Akyaaba Addai-Sebo.

Ghana’s first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, was categorical and total 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, and in 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 an annotated listing 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 UK, France, Spain, and Portugal still hold sizeable colonies of islands in Africa’s territorial waters. It is refreshing, however, to note that some African to some of these “overseas possessions” of the European “powers”.

As I write, it is “Not Yet Uhuru” for the following islands and city states: Ascension Island (UK), Saint Helena Island (UK);

Tristan da Cunha Archipelago (UK), Bassas de India Atoll (France), Europa Island (France), Glorioso Islands (France), Iles Eparses (France), Juan de Nova Island (France), Mayotte Islands (France), Reunion Island (France), Tromelin Island (France), Canary Islands (Spain), Ceuta (Spain), and Madeira (Portugal). Among the above islands, the following are disputed (between the European “powers” and the nearest African countries):

  • 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. They are now a nature reserve manned by French military forces.
  • Mayotte Islands: 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 one-mile-long and mostly flat island, but Mauritius and the Seychelles both dispute the French ownership of this uninhabited isle.

The liberation of the islands

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; or soup without salt; a tree without a trunk; a hand without fingers”. We could spin puns like this 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 Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Bob Marley. This is what Nkrumah purposely set out to achieve with the setting up of an Ideological Institute and a Young Pioneers Movement, both in Ghana.

I was a proud Young Pioneer and when the army and the police struck on 24 February 1966 to overthrow Nkrumah’s government, I had the presence of mind then to mobilise my fellow young pioneers at school to march into town to resist.

We shall therefore remain colonised in mind, body and soul if we are able to alienate our islands from our collective consciousness, especially as our heads of state, in a summit session in Tunis in June 1994, duly dissolved the OAU Liberation Committee – when the islands had not been liberated! South Africa was our last settler colony to be liberated, but in reality this is not so, as the phrase “Africa without Madagascar…” still rings true, with some of our islands still under colonial domination. The heads of states’ 1994 summit in Tunis decided “to formally terminate that mandate”.

The “mandate” did not preclude the islands of Cape Verde, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, São Tomé e Príncipe, and the Seychelles from becoming independent nation states within the African Union. The “mandate”, in a nutshell, was assisting and expediting the process of decolonisation and the elimination of apartheid. This therefore means that in the euphoria of the defeat of the apartheid regime, we let slip from our minds the remaining task of the decolonisation of all 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 them to the UK, France, Spain and Portugal. The question may be asked, what use are these far-flung islands to Africa? The answer lies in why it is that the UK would go to war, far, far away in the deep south of the Atlantic Ocean, in order to secure the Falklands Islands and keep them in the 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 28 June 2012. The paper – which sets out a vision for the future of Britain’s 14 Overseas Territories (OT) – pledges to continue to ensure the “sovereignty over the Territories”, and guarantees the OT citizens the “right of self-determination” and to maintain a military presence in order to assure the UK’s sovereignty. Interestingly, the OT here include St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha – all part of Nkrumah’s list of islands of Africa that have yet to be decolonised. 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 then 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 wake-up call for the African Union which must, as a matter of urgency, seek a fresh mandate for the total decolonisation of all the African islands. In other words, the AU must set out a vision for the immediate decolonisation, defence, and development of our islands and affirm Africa’s sovereignty over them.

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 AU must act with a sense of urgency. 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 OAU over the refusal of the member states to recognise its claim over the Western Sahara.

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 former presidents Kenneth Kaunda, Sam Nujoma, Joaquim Chissano and Thabo 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. Sahnoun was the first assistant secretary-general of the OAU, with special responsibility for the Liberation Committee. Dr Theo-Ben Gurirab, an outstanding freedom fighter and diplomat, was a former foreign minister and prime minister of Namibia. 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.”

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