Honoring Anti-Colonialism Fighters: Proud Benin

More and more monuments in West African countries commemorate heroes who fought against colonial powers. The debate about looted art also contributes to the new self-confidence.

A man in uniform with a saxophone

August 1 independence celebrations in Cotonou Photo: Yanick Folly/afp

It almost worked. If French President Emmanuel Macron had traveled to Benin’s economic metropolis Cotonou a few days later, he could have attended the inauguration of several monuments on August 1, the 62nd anniversary of independence. Two are unusually symbolic and show that Benin in particular, but also other countries in the region, are developing a new self-confidence that ties in with the phase before colonization.

Anyone who lands in Cotonou will be greeted directly at Bio Guéra Airport. The warrior, born in 1856, is enthroned on a rearing horse. It has little in common with an equestrian statue like that of Kaiser Wilhelm in Düsseldorf or King Johann in Dresden. Bio Guera – the steel and cast iron statue is ten meters high in total – is dynamic and has a determined expression on its face.

He has been considered a national hero since 1975, having fought against French troops who, after several wars at the end of the 19th century, made the former kingdom of Dahomey – which today covers around 20 percent of Benin’s territory – part of French West Africa. Like 16 other colonies in Africa, it only became independent in 1960.

By honoring the anti-colonialism fighter, Benin’s government under Patrice Talon is making it clear that defending freedom and sovereignty is a “noble concern”. The statue stands for “courage, dignity and integrity”. Also inaugurated is the larger than life, impressive 30 meter high Amazon, which is in the immediate vicinity of the port and the Presidential Palace. The bronze-plated steel structure erected two years ago has been shrouded ever since.

5,000 fighters against the colonialists

She is reminiscent of female soldiers, who were also called Minons – mothers – or Agoodjié in Fon, the language most spoken in southern Benin. Dahomey ruler Tassi Hangbé founded the female army at the beginning of the 18th century, which in the meantime included up to 5,000 fighters. The warriors also fought the French forces at the end.

The Amazon, President Talon emphasized at the inauguration, is the symbol of the “Beninese woman of today and tomorrow” and a sign of patriotism. This fascination has even reached Hollywood. In September comes the filmThe Woman King‘ into cinemas, telling how the women defended the kingdom of Dahomey.

The debate about the return of looted art also contributes to the new self-confidence. For the second time, 26 artefacts are on display in Cotonou, which French troops stole in the second Dahomey War from 1892 to 1894 and which France returned to Benin last year. Franck Ogou, director of the School for African Cultural Heritage (EPA) in the capital Porto Novo, sees this as an important sign: “Today we can all say that Africa is part of world history.”

The continent has long been dismissed as “without history”. The opinions of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that Africa “has no movement or development to show” have persisted for centuries. The works of art from the palaces of the Kingdom of Dahomey refute this. This is made even clearer by the Benin bronzes, which come from the former Kingdom of Benin, which is located in modern-day Nigeria.

Negotiations for the return of the 3,000 to 5,000 art objects stored in numerous museums, universities and collections in Europe and the USA have been unsuccessful for years. It was only when France announced that it would be restituting cultural assets that the talks got dynamic, and all of a sudden it became clear what an immense value the artefacts stolen by British troops in 1897 have.

Valuable bronzes from Nigeria

Nigeria is no longer perceived only as a country where terrorist groups carry out attacks and multinational oil companies are responsible for environmental destruction, but as a Home of extremely valuable bronzes, in which the whole world is interested. Unlike in Benin, however, this does not create a new self-image in Nigeria. On the one hand, this is due to its sheer size. Nigeria, with its 220 million inhabitants, has never managed to create a common identity.

For people from Kano, Maiduguri or Ibadan, the bronzes from Benin City are far away and have little connection to their own history. On the other hand, the everyday problems are overwhelming. Dozens of people are kidnapped every week, and terrorist groups are pushing toward the capital, Abuja. More than 90 million people live below the poverty line. The fact that a new self-confidence is emerging in the francophone countries in particular is also due to sheer frustration.

The main trigger is the severe security crisis in Mali. The French anti-terrorist mission Barkhane was supposed to be a solution, but it failed. Observers say that she often acted on her own initiative and without consulting Malian officials. This in turn has also angered many people in Burkina Faso, where more than 1.9 million people have fled their homes due to the terror.

Old alliances that were believed to be secure have thus had their day, and sovereign states naturally have the right to decide with whom they enter into alliances. In Mali, Russia is now the preferred partner. Elsewhere on the continent, too, Russia is vigorously courting cooperation, much to the annoyance of its former allies. Turkey is also in the starting blocks in many places.

However, this will not be of long-term benefit for the majority of the population, because what is at stake here is primarily geopolitical interests and not the desirable establishment of a functioning democratic state system.

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