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The path to colonial reckoning is through archives, not museums

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15.03.2019

As the French President Emmanuel Macron tours East Africa, he is certain to get a cordial welcome. If everything goes to plan, it will be all smiles and few uncomfortable questions. However, this should not be the case. Macron has called for an international conference on the return of African art and artefacts looted during colonialism. But art and artefacts are not the only things that should be returned.

The colonial archive, the thousands of official records and documents that trace the history of subjugation, oppression and looting of the continent by the European powers is largely resident in Europe. And it is not a history that the Europeans have been eager to reveal, preferring to think of their time as overlords of the continent as something of a benevolent occupation.

Yet, as Howard French noted in the New York Times two decades ago, "In the closing years of this century, though, historians, political scientists and other students of African affairs have begun a searching re-examination of the continent's recent past. Increasingly, they have concluded that many of its most persistent curses - from the plague of ethnic hatred widely known as tribalism to endemic official corruption - have powerful roots that are at least partly traceable to European subjugation and rule."

Yet, a more comprehensive re-examination of this history, especially by the Africans who daily endure its worst legacies, is made difficult by the fact that the documents on which it is inscribed are retained by the architects of the oppression. France, for example, has refused to return Algerian colonial records. "The Algerian government wants to take back their archives. For us, they are not Algerian but French, so it's a big political problem," says Herve Lemoine, head of the National Archives. The only reason........

© Al Jazeera