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Africa's forgotten island. (Diego Garcia).

On 9 July, as the glasses clicked and the beautiful speeches flowed in Durban at the launch of the African Union (AU), a part of Africa was being consigned to the "forgotten file". It was not the 39-year-old OAU, but the Chagos Archipelago, the group of islands in the Indian Ocean belonging to Mauritius, which Britain, in a secret deal in 1965, handed over to America for a military base. Since then, thanks to superpower politics, the Chagos Archipelago (and especially the "jewel in the crown", the island of Diego Garcia), has dropped off public conscience. But with America threatening to attack Iraq again, Diego Garcia is bound to play a huge part in what many think would be an "unjust war" against Saddam Hussein.

Few could accuse you of ignorance," says Borgna Brunner of, "for never having heard of Diego Garcia -- much less for not knowing that it is not a person but an island. Along with such obscure, far-flung places as Fogo Island off the west coast of Africa and Pukapuka in the South Pacific, Diego Garcia is not the sort of place to come tripping off the tongue of even the most geographically sophisticated."

Situated in the Indian Ocean midway between Africa and India, the Chagos Archipelago consists of 65 islands (the CIA World Factbook lists 2,300 islands in the archipelago) over an area of 23 square miles. Some US military websites say the archipelago extends over 22,000 square miles; others say 10,000 square miles. But the CIA Factbook is adamant that it covers "60 sq km [23 sq miles]... includes the entire Chagos Archipelago", it says.

So even the Americans cannot agree on the size of the area occupied by the archipelago, which lies 1,200 miles north-east of Mauritius. The largest and southernmost of its islands is Diego Garcia, now one of the most precious jewels in the American defence structure, from where B-2 stealth and B-52 bombers flew last October and November to attack Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

On 17 Dec 1998, America also launched nearly 100 long-range cruise missiles aimed at Iraq from Diego Garcia, which again acted as a critically important refuelling base during the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

Although it lies 3,000 miles south of Iraq (but a bit more closer to Afghanistan), Diego Garcia is very vital to the Americans because it cuts out more than 4,000 miles and nine hours of flying time if the bombers were to fly direct from USA to drop their deadly payloads on Iraq.

The B-52s have an "unrefuelled combat range in excess of 8,800 miles", says the US Air Force, which adds that on some occasions during the 1991 Gulf War, "the B-52s took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisana, launched their cruise missiles on Iraq and returned to Barksdale 35 hours later--the longest nonstop combat mission in the history of the B-52".

Thus, Diego Garcia, in American eyes, is heaven-sent. No wonder, the CIA World Fact-book tries to strip it of its African connections by listing its location as: "Southern Asia, archipelago in the Indian Ocean, about one-half the way from Africa to Indonesia...occupies strategic location in central Indian Ocean; island is site of joint US-UK military facility."

Until November 1965, the Chagos Archipelago was part of Mauritius and administered by the British governor of Mauritius. But in November 1965, as independence talks unfolded between Britain and Mauritius, London sliced off the Chagos from Mauritius and gave it a new name: "British Indian Ocean Territory" (BIOT). Three other islands were added to the BIOT, but all belonged to the Seychelles: Aldabra, Desroches and Farquhar.

On 12 March 1968, Britain finally granted independence to Mauritius without the Chagos Islands. Mauritius protested but to no avail. The UN condemned it, but London's ears were firmly shut.

In June 1976, Britain granted independence to the Seychelles and ceded the islands of Aldabra, Desroches and Farquhar to the Seychelles. Since then the BIOT has comprised only of the six main island groups of the Chagos Archipelago, including what the US Navy describes as the "operationally invaluable" island of Diego Garcia.

"There are times," says Borgna Brunner of, "when the US military considers this 17 square mile atoll of coral and sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean--with no indigenous inhabitants [a lie put about by Britain and America] or natural resources to speak of--one of the most valuable places on earth Located in the Indian Ocean and out of cyclone range, it was ideal for keeping an eye on the Soviet Union." When the Americans expressed interest in the islands, the Chagos dropped off public discourse and scholarship.

This was in spite of the fact that the constitution of Mauritius categorically states that the Chagos Islands are part of Mauritius. Several attempts by Mauritius in the 1960s and also in January 1988 (supported by the OAU and India) to regain sovereignty over the Chagos were rebuffed by Britain and America.

In 1980, the OAU, at its summit in Freetown, Sierra Leone, expressed concern over the Chagos while affirming the territorial integrity of its member states as fundamental to the principles of the organisation. The OAU went on to pass a resolution in Freetown affirming that the Chagos and its prime island, Diego Garcia, were an integral part of Mauritius, and thus of Africa. But apart from that resolution, the OAU did very little else to return the Chagos to African sovereignty.

Why this was so could be gleaned from the authoritarianism that America exerts over the world. Britain leased Diego Garcia and the neighbouring islands to America in a secret deal in 1965. The lease ends in 2016 but it could be extended for another 20 years. Since the deal, Diego Garcia has been known as a "United States Naval Support Facility". The CIA World Pa ct book insists that the islands have (or had) no indigenous inhabitants".

To dress up the lie further, the CIA goes on to say: "Approximately 1,200 former agricultural workers earlier resident in the Chagos Archipelago, often referred to as Chagossians or Ilois, were relocated primarily to Mauritius but also to the Scychelles between 1967 and 1973 around the time of the construction of the UK-US military facilities.

"In 1995, there were approximately 1,700 UK and US military personnel and 1,500 civilian contractors living on the island of Diego Garcia ... There are no industrial or agricultural activities on the islands."

What the CIA does not say is that although Diego Garcia is supposed to be a British territory, there are less than 50 British citizens living there, mainly Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel. The rest of the 1,700 (1995 figure) military personnel on the island are American. Britain does nor even charge America any rent for the use of the islands. The "1,500 civilian contract workers" on the island are hired from Mauritius, Philippines, UK and the US.

The indigenous people of the islands, the Ibis, were uprooted and shipped our as part of the Britain-US deal, and dumped in Mauritius and later the Seychelles, without any proper compensation or support system. The Americans categorically refused to accept any financial responsibility for them.

All this was done while the world slept, "Western power" and manipulation at its best, which explains why the sorry plight of the Chagos Islanders dropped our of public conscience and scholarship. Forgotten was the word. Even the Collins English Dictionary--a veritable mini encyclopaedia--does not list Diego Garcia, yet it does Diego-Suarez, the former name of Antseranana, the former French naval base and port in northern Madagascar.

Even Mauritian government officials and diplomats are very edgy these days (and some do lose their powers of speech) when asked about Diego Gracia. The Mauritian high commission in London, for example, dribbled New African for days when we tried to get the current position of the Mauritian government on the Chagos Islands. In the end, we got nothing.

In 1998, however, John Pilger, the intrepid Australian journalist domiciled in Britain, consecrated the very first chapter of his best-selling book, Hidden Agendas, to Diego Garcia and the long-suffering Ibis people.

His courage to write about a subject deemed "out of bounds" by the so-called free press of the West, gave birth to even more courage in the Ibis people to fight for the return of their homeland. Pilger will deserve a prime place in the pantheon of African Greats if one is ever built, The chapter on Diego Garcia was titled The Terrrorists. This is what he wrote:

"Diego Garcia is a British colony in the Indian Ocean, from which American bombers patrol the Middie East. There are few places as important to American military planners as this refuelling base between two continents. Who lives there?" During President Clinton's attack on Iraq in 1996, a BBC commentator referred to the island as "uninhabited" and gave no hint of its past. This was understandable, as the true story of Diego Garcia is instructive of times past and of the times we now live in.

Diego Garcia is part of the Chagos Archipelago, which ought to have been granted independence from Britain in 1965 along with Mauritius. However, at the insistence of the United States, the government of Harold Wilson told the Mauritians they could have their freedom only if they gave up the island.

Ignoring a United Nations resolution that called on the British "to take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity", the British government did just that, and in the process formed a new colony, the British Indian Overseas Territories. The reason and its hidden agenda soon became clear.

In high secrecy, the [British] Foreign Office leased the island to Washington for 50 years, with the option of a 20-year extension.

The British prefer to deny this now, referring to a "joint defence arrangement". This is sophistry; today Diego Garcia serves as an American refuelling base and an American nuclear weapons dump. In 1991, President George Bush [Snr] used the island as a base from which to carpet-bomb Iraq.

In the same year, the [British] Foreign Office told an aggrieved Mauritian government that the island's sovereignty was "no longer negotiable".

Until 1965, the Ilois people were indigenous to Diego Garcia. With the militarisation of their island, they were given a status rather like that of Australia's Aborigines in the 19th century: they were deemed nor to exist.

Between 1965 and 1973, they were "removed" from their homes, loaded on to ships and planes and dumped in Mauritius.

In 1972, the American Defence Department assured Congress that "the islands are virtually uninhabited and the erection of the base will cause no indigenous political problems".

When asked about the whereabouts of the native population, a British Ministry of Defence official lied: "There is nothing in our files about inhabitants or about an evacuation."

A Minority Rights Group study, which received almost no publicity when it was published in 1985, concluded that Britain expelled the native population "without any workable re-settlement scheme; left them in poverty; gave them a tiny amount of compensation and later offered more on condition that the islanders renounced their rights ever to return home".

The Ilois were allowed to take with them minimum personal possessions, packed into a small crate". Most ended up in the slums of the Mauritian capital, leading wretched, disaffected lives; [the] number of [those] who have since died from starvation and disease is unknown.

The terror violated Articles 9 and 13 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "no one should be subjected to arbitrary exile" and "everybody has the right to return to his country".

The Labour foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, told the US secretary of state, Dean Rusk: "The question of detaching bits of territory from colonies that were advancing towards self-government requires careful handling." He later boasted to a cabinet colleague: "I think we have much to gain by proceeding with this project in association with the Americans." No one caused a fuss. The islanders had no voice in London. "Britain's treatment of the Ibis people," wrote John Madeley, author of the Minority Rights Group report, "stands in eloquent and stark contrast with the way the people of the Falkland Islands were treated in 1982.

"The invasion of the Falklands were furiously resisted by British forces travelling 8,000 miles at a cost of more than a thousand million pounds and many British and Argentinian lives. Diego Garcia was handed over without its inhabitants--far from being defended--even being consulted before being removed."

While there was silence in the media on the British atrocity in Diego Garcia, there was resounding condemnation of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Both were British territories; the difference was between a brown-skinned indigenous nation and white settlers.

The Financial Times called the Falklands invasion an "illegal and immoral means to make good territorial claims", as well as an "outrage" that should not be allowed to "pass over the wishes of the Falkland islanders".

Diego Garcia is a microcosm of empire and of the Cold War, old and new. The unchanging nature of the 500-year Western imperial crusade is exemplified in the suffering of the forgotten Ilois people, whose story has been consigned to oblivion, routinely, by the reporters and historians of power.

Echoing Prime Minister [Margaret] Thatcher, The Daily Telegraph said that "the wishes of the [Falkland] islanders were paramount", that "these islanders" must not be "betrayed" and that "principle dictates" that the British and American governments could not possibly "be indifferent to the imposition of foreign rule on people who have no desire for it".

To my knowledge, the shocking derail has been recorded by no one, with the honourable exception of Mark Curtis. This is hardly surprising, as much of mainstream Western scholarship has taken humanity out of the study of nations, congealing it with jargon and reducing it to an esotericism called "international relations", the chess game of Western power.

Such orthodoxy, observed Richard Falk, professor of international relations at Princeton and a distinguished dissenter, "which is so widely accepted among political scientists as to be virtually unchallengeable in academic journals, regards law and morality as irrelevant to the identification of rational policy".

Thus, Western foreign policy is formulated almost exclusively "through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen [with] positive images of Western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence".

In contemporary hisroriography, a similar discipline applies. In serious journalism, the "self-righteous, one-way moral screen" is such a rime-honoured tradition that the most important terrorists are rarely seen." At times, orthodox opinion finds respectability and violence a difficult union to celebrate. "We must recognise," wrote Michael Stohl, in Current Perspectives on International Terrorism, "that by convention--and it must be emphasised ONLY by convention--great power use and the threat of the use of force is normally described as coercive diplomary and nor as a form of terrorism", though it involves "the threat and often the use of violence for what would be described as terroristic purposes were it not great powers who were pursuing the very same tactic." (By "great power", he meant exclusively WESTERN power).

And so, thanks to the "coercive diplomacy" of "Western power" (the same power that has imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for not giving its people "enough" democracy), the ibis have no homeland to return to.

Since Pilger's book was published, a lot of material on Diego Garcia and the other islands has been published on the Internet.

The Ilois themselves have also since won a historic victory in the British high court (on 3 November 2000), invalidating the British ordinance of 1971 that forbade them from returning to their homeland.

Although the court upheld the special military status of Diego Garcia, America is still nor happy that the Ilois could return to the other islands in the archipelago which have no military presence, some lying more than 130 miles away from Diego Garcia.

Since the court victory, Washington has been using its overwhelming (if not overweening) global power to frustrate their return.

(Hidden Agendas, by John Pilger was published in 1998 by Vintage, part of the Random House Group. London. [pounds sterling]8.99 paperback. 687 pages including index. We urge every New African reader to get a copy).
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Author:Boateng, Osei
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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