Britain to give up its last African colony, thanks to the UN

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OLU ALAKE

Did colonialism in Africa end when the colonial powers granted independence? Apparently not, according to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled last week that “the process of decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed” and Britain should relinquish the Chagos Archipelago “as rapidly as possible”. While the Chagos Islands is probably not well known to most Africans, situated some 1,800 km (or 1,100 miles) from the nearest African nations of Seychelles and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, this has been a long-running saga. Back in 1964 while Mauritius was negotiating its independence from the UK, London had entered into secret talks with the USA to acquire the Chagos Archipelago for use as a military base.

The attraction was obvious: the archipelago of over 60 islands remains a very convenient launch site for military air and sea craft. Without disclosing this interest, the UK formally disaggregated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius during the independence negotiations in 1965, paying Mauritius a sum of £3m. Mauritius was finally granted independence in 1968.

Between 1967 and 1973, the UK forcibly removed every one of the over 3 000 occupants of the Islands to the nearest African nations of Seychelles and Mauritius.

Declassified correspondence from the time reveals that this was in accordance with the agreement that the UK had reached with the United States, including assurances that there will be “no indigenous population left on the island except seagulls”. The US promptly built a military base on the largest of the atolls, Diego Garcia, which remains in use till today.The Chagossians have been fighting for their right to return home since their eviction, and Mauritius launched legal proceedings to have the island reinstated as part of its sovereign control. They scored a major victory in 2017, when the United Nations General Assembly voted that the matter be referred to its principal judicial organ, the ICJ, which ruled last week that the UK should relinquish the Chagos Archipelago “as rapidly as possible”. Now desperate to secure trade deals with African countries and India, which retains strong cultural and economic ties with Mauritius, it is unlikely that the UK could afford a lengthy dispute. A negotiated settlement is likely, where the Chagossians could be paid compensation and a gradual return to the other islands in the archipelago, pending a resolution with the US about Diego Garcia. America’s 50- year rent of the island expired in 2015, but Britain has allowed Washington to continue to hold on to Diego Garcia. But who knew that when the Brexit campaigners were voting to ‘take back control of their country’, they were enabling an African island nation half a world away to do exactly that? Another manifestation of the law of unintended consequences. -Quartz