Why we should keep our little Askari in Samora Avenue…

18Mar 2016
Richard Mngazija
The Guardian
Missing Link
Why we should keep our little Askari in Samora Avenue…

MOST days I walk past the statue of the Little Askari on the Samora Avenue roundabout and I don’t give the bronze soldier a second thought.

I think nothing of it. It’s there, a constant presence in the city since it was unveiled 90 years ago, and I would think that most of my fellow citizens view it exactly as I do, a piece of city furniture, a curiosity, something where visitors stop to take a selfie occasionally, and that’s about it.

Perhaps those days of innocence are over. Because suddenly statues have come alive. What were once mere monuments, remembrances of almost forgotten times, are now hot political issues.

Indeed the furore about the monuments to that arch architect of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, in South Africa and in Oxford University got me wondering about our Dar’s own dear little askari.

Already the protests have garnered some success. Within three months of launching a campaign to remove Rhodes from his plinth at the University of Cape Town, the statute was taken down.

The protesters thought they had chalked up a notable victory. They argued that Rhodes was a colonialist and racist and that to commemorate him publicly was to endorse his abominable views and actions.

Nor were they satisfied with this single victory. They were fighting not a battle but a war and they opened the next front in England, in its most prestigious seat of learning, in the beating heart of academia, Oxford University.

Now Oxford and Rhodes are inextricably linked. The revenues from Rhodes’ fortune funds scholarships which have sent many students from the old British Empire and now the Commonwealth to study there.

The South African undergraduate leading the battle is himself a Rhodes scholar (or should that be Rogue’s scholar) and benefits from the old freebooter’s loot. This, however, does not embarrass him. Far from it. He wants the statue in Oxford to be removed.

So what has all this hoohah got to do with our statue here in Dar?

Nothing yet, but be prepared, because we live in the age of chaos and when a butterfly flaps its wings in Oxford, a tsunami can ( and will some day) materialise in Dar.

So, in order to prepare you for the coming inevitable conflict, I will pose a set of questions and attempt to answer them.

First : What do you know about the Askari monument?

Nothing?

OK, don’t worry, I will give you an instant teach-in. The monument was unveiled in 1927. It was a memorial to East African soldiers who had fought the Germans during the First World War.

Here’s another question?

Second: How many askaris were killed during the four-year conflict?

No-one really knows. There were possibly a quarter of million casualties but there are accurate figures only for German and British troops (which in itself is quite telling).

Third: Did these soldiers and bearers volunteer to fight? Not at all. They were either pressed or they did so for economic reasons.

Fourth: Was the statue erected because the British felt they needed to mark the sacrifice of the African levies?

In other words could the British have been afflicted by a smidgeon of guilt?

No, I don’t think so. The statue was put up for political reasons, to demonstrate that not only had the British sent the Germans packing, but that this was now their territory.

To emphasise the point they tore down the existing statue on the very site and replaced it with the Askari.

Fifth: And what statue had originally been there? It was of a noted German colonial administrator and soldier, Hermann Von Weissman.

Now has this brief history lesson helped you make up your mind? Are you for or against the Askari statue?

I see you shaking your head. You’re still not sure?

Well, all I can say is that from what I know about our monument and reading about others, statues are not just bronze or stone idols.

They are political. They carry hidden messages. They have a special, underlying power. Why else put them up? And why else knock them down?

In China, taxi drivers place a picture of their long dead leader, Mao, on their dashboards.

In Tiananmen Square his gargantuan portrait dominates the surroundings, and his living statue, his embalmed corpse, is on view in his mausoleum, for the Chinese to pay their respects.

Even though in the world outside China the old dictator is perceived as being a cruel and savage despot, and despite the fact that within China his policies have been sidelined, he still carries enormous political weight in his own country.The day has not yet arrived, nor the political timing, for Mao’s very public face to be officially forgotten.

When the Soviet Union fell, the states of Lenin and Stalin were pulled down and now survive, horizontally, in a graveyard of political relics somewhere in Russia.

The same happened when Saddam was toppled. His statue soon followed and its destruction was seen as a symbol, not so much of at the beginning of a new era but more the end of an old one.

So statues have always been linked to political power. So why then after sixty years of freedom do we still have the Askari? Why don’t we tear it down and replace with one of our own heroes?

Is it because we are too apathetic? We just don’t care?

Or is there something more profound going on, something the iconoclasts baying for the stony blood of Cecil Rhodes have overlooked?

Because taking down a state is not just about removing an abhorrent image. When a statue is removed, tolerance and free speech is destroyed with its disappearance.

Where would be without the Askari in our midst? Well for a start, we would soon forget what little we know about our people’s tragic involvement in the Great War of 1914-18. We would lose the fragile connection we have with our colonial past. And, most important of all, we would be endorsing the right of the few to impose their views on the majority.

So, whether you like the statue or not, whether you support its message or whether you heartily detest colonialism and what it stood for, I feel the statue must stay.

It is part of our past and therefore part of us. History can be, and often is, rewritten. It is part of the spoils of war. But the truth will always out.