The colonial naming order was a form of erasure of “old” traditional names and institutions as if colonial rule arrived in a land devoid of people, values or traditions.
By Apollo N Makubuya,
Britain created and controlled the Uganda Protectorate for 68 years. But for intervening forces, it had no plans to let go of the territory until 1975.
Circumstances forced it to hurriedly relinquish the ‘gem’ of the Empire and leave it in the hands of fairly young political actors.
We may never know the complete story of Britain’s rule in Uganda because tonnes of files considered to contain ‘dirty,’ embarrassing or potentially incriminating information were set on fire or thrown into deep oceans under a scheme code-named ‘operation legacy’.
What we know that is that Britain’s exit from Uganda (Brexit of Uganda) not only left behind a messy constitutional and political order, but (it) also a naming order - under a legacy honouring key Aristocrats, agents and benefactors of the colonial enterprise - in the form of towns( Fort Portal), lakes (Albert, Victoria, George and Edward), national parks (Queen Elizabeth), waterfalls (Murchison and Owen falls) and several roads up and down the country. The colonial naming order was a form of erasure of “old” traditional names and institutions as if colonial rule arrived in a land devoid of people, values or traditions.
Because we have been caught up in political and economic crises between 1962 and now, not many of us have had a chance to comprehensively examine how colonialism shaped (and continues to influence) our politics and socio-economy-negatively or positively.
There is an interesting debate on British rule and decolonisation in Uganda on social media. The focus, so far, is on the road signage in Kampala and other towns that bear names of agents of the Empire who installed and perpetuated a colonial hegemony - safeguarding the interests of the Empire at a heavy cost to the colonised.
Some of the more prominent colonial agents honoured with street names in Uganda’s Capital City, Kampala, are Henry Colville, Fredrick Lugard, Ternan, Gerald Portal, The Kings African Rifles (KAR) and Harry Johnston. Each of these carry a history of subjugation, humiliation, exploitation and (in the case of Colville Ternan and Lugard) the massacre of thousands of natives in the advancement of imperial interests.
So some may wonder- what is in a name? Within a historical, cultural and political milieu, I consider that names are powerful tools in defining one’s identity and heritage.
And, given our history, it is shameful that we have maintained and accepted to honor them without examining the effects of their actions on our history many years after independence. Two reasons could explain this reality.
The first being the lack of deep historical knowledge or awareness about these individuals and their dreadful campaign. The other reason being, the apathy that comes with largely congested and dysfunctional cities with a crumbling infrastructure and poor social services.
With the above in context two schools have emerged. Those who belong to the ‘don’t-touch-colonial-street-names’ camp wonder why anyone should be bothered by a few streets bearing nondescript British names such as Dundas or Dewinton.
This camp argues that whatever atrocities were committed by these agents, they still constitute part of Uganda’s history and removing their names off the streets would be erasing that history or, would be an unnecessary and costly, yet superficial, effort at addressing an entrenched colonial legacy.
This camp contends that Amin’s efforts to decolonise Uganda was demagogic and the country shouldn’t spend more time, or money, on this subject. Instead, they advise, Government should build new cities and name the new edifices to be developed there as they please.
The problem with the ‘don’t-touch-colonial-street-names’ camp is the failure to appreciate what the retention or celebration of these names means in real terms. For a start, it suggests a limited or vanished understanding of the atrocious actions of these individuals and their legacy.
It also suggests that the struggle for independence in Uganda was limited to a cosmetic political process, namely, the change of custodians of the colonial state that did not extend to fundamentally changing an essentially undemocratic, authoritarian and oppressive colonial legacy and narrative focused on maintaining enclaves that benefited the West. This is unlike in Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa where the brunt of colonialism was much more severe.
The ‘don’t-touch-colonial-street-names’ camp argues that removing these problematic colonial symbols tantamount to the erasure of history and that, in any case, postcolonial leaders have been equally, if not worse, culpable in the oppression, exploitation and debasing of Africans.
On the other hand, those rooting for the renaming of roads (the touch-and-remove-colonial-street-names camp) argue that the objective of renaming streets would not be erasing history, but rather remove them from their place of honor to other more befitting spaces such as museums and history text books so that the real history of their actions can be revealed.
On the latter point this camp retorts that those two wrongs don’t make a right. And, that in any case, postcolonial rulers should also be held to account for their own deeds.
Instead of celebrating these problematic legacies, it is suggested, by the touch-and-remove-colonial-street-names camp, that we should identify deserving heroes and heroines within and outside Uganda to project a positive, diverse, gendered African heritage and promote them as inspiring beacons of statesmanship, peace, justice, democracy and progress of our nation.
In renaming roads, parks or other national features Uganda will neither be the first nor the last. Many cities in the world including New York, London, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Bristol have taken the route of re-examining and renaming of streets and with considerable success. With the help of historians and other professionals they have audited their history and made changes to suit their cultural, social and political values or aspirations.
Overall, beyond the symbolic changes of street names, the process of decolonization aims at a broader goal. It entails the questioning of the constitutional and political frameworks adopted at independence; the demand for accountability and the end of impunity for colonial misrule, crimes and injustices as well as the need to forge new social and economic relationships through equity in trade, culture, language, travel (visa regimes) and other forms of social interaction which are devoid of colonial hangovers or skewed neocolonial views.
To achieve this goal, we need to understand our history better and to question some of the narratives we have been fed for far too long. Chinua Achebe wrote that until the lion learns to tell its story history will always glorify the hunter.
To make further progress on the journey of rediscovery and decolonization in Uganda names, identity and values mean a lot. I thus strongly support the view that we should advance by ‘touching’ - and removing - the names of the devious colonial actors on our city streets.
The writer is the author of ‘Protection, Patronage or Plunder: British Machinations and (B)Uganda’s Struggle for Independence.’ (2018)