African Rulers in defence of Sovereignty

A great majority of African rulers, then, did opt for the defence of their sovereignty and independence. It is in the strategies and the tactics that they adopted to achieve this universal objective that they differed. Most African rulers chose the strategy of confrontation, using either diplomatic or military weapons or both. As will be seen below, Samori Ture, and Kabarega of Bunyoro resorted to both weapons while Prempeh I and Mwanga of Buganda relied on diplomacy. Others such as Tofa of Porto Novo (in what is now Benin) chose the strategy of alliance or co-operation, not of collaboration. This question of strategy should be highlighted here because it has been grossly misunderstood hitherto and this has led to the classification of some of the African rulers as collaborators and their action as that of collaboration.

We are opposed to the use of this term collaboration not only because it is inaccurate but also because it is derogatory and Eurocentric. As we have seen above, the fundamental issue at stake between the 1880s and the 1900s as far as the African rulers were concerned, was that of sovereignty, and on this, it was quite clear that nobody was prepared to compromise. Those African rulers who have been mistakenly termed
collaborators were those who thought that the best way of safeguarding their sovereignty or even regaining the sovereignty that they might have lost to some African power previous to the arrival of the Europeans was not to collaborate but rather to ally with the European invaders. A collaborator is surely one who betrays the national cause by colluding with the enemy to pursue the goals and objectives of the enemy rather than the interests of his own nation. But as we have seen, the Africans were all faced with the question of surrendering, retaining or regaining their sovereignty. Those who threw in their lot with the Europeans therefore had their own objective, and it is therefore totally wrong to call them collaborators.

In any case, since the Second World War , the term collaborator has assumed very pejorative connotations and the interesting thing is that some of the historians who use it are aware of this. R . Robinson, for example, stated: ‘It should be stressed that the term [collaborator] is used in no pejorative sense’.13 The question then is if it can be so used, why use it at all, especially in the African case where it is so inaccurate?

Why not use the word ally which is indeed the more appropriate term? Tofa, the king of the Gun kingdom of Porto Novo has always been cited as a typical example of a collaborator. But was he? As Hargreaves has clearly shown, Tofa was facing three different enemies at the time of the arrival of the French – the Yoruba to the north-east, the Fon kings of Dahomey to the north and the British on the coast — and he must have seen the arrival of the French as a god-sent opportunity for him not only to protect his sovereignty but even to make some gains at the expense of his enemies. He naturally chose, therefore, not to collaborate but to ally with the French.

Surely only those historians who are not aware of the problems with which Tofa was confronted at that time, or who deny the African any initiative or an awareness of his own interests, or who see the whole issue from a Eurocentric viewpoint, would describe Tofa as a collaborator. Moreover, the fallacy of this term is further demonstrated by the fact that the socalled collaborators who at some points were prepared to ally with Europeans often later became the opposers or resisters of the Europeans: Wobogo, the king of Mossi, Lat Dior, the Darnel of Gayor, and even the great Samori Ture himself are examples of such rulers. This makes the classification quite absurd.

A. Adu Boahen (Ghana); specialist in West African colonial history; author of numerous publications and articles on African history; Professor and Head of the Department of History, University of Ghana.

Source: General History of Africa VII. [Editor: A. Adu Boahen] Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935. Chapter 1. Africa and the colonial challenge.

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