Paul Voulet should be a household name.
Not the kind that has statues and plaques constructed in his honour. Or the kind that has roads, buildings and organisations named after him.
But the kind that reminds you of everything much of the global south has suffered – and continues to suffer- at the hands of the west or those acting on their behalf, past or present.
If you’re not convinced by this distinction then you’re right not to be. From Colston to Leopold, and Columbus to Churchill, western nations have rarely passed on opportunities to canonise men who have brought destruction elsewhere in the name of western ambition and expansion. Typically, the men who are posthumously awarded statues, plaques and more in their honour…are the perpetrators of some of the worst chapters in human history. With legacies that are viewed very differently by most within our community.
So why then don’t we know about Voulet?
In 1898, Paul Voulet was sent to unite French territories in West Africa, cementing French control in the region beginning in Dakar, Senegal through to Chad and Niger. The region was to be brought under French “protection”. Leading an army of over 400 men, Voulet would eventually go rogue, refusing orders from Paris and embarking on a trail of horrific atrocities now traceable along the route of Niger’s principal highway.
On his rampage, his army murdered between 7,000 and 15,000 Fulani herdsmen in the southern town of Birni-N’Konni, enslaved some 800 women and looted several villages along the way. His invasion is responsible for the creation of modern day Niger.
Despite the carnage Voulet left in his wake, this history, plus its contemporary ramifications, is little known or highlighted beyond the region. Today, Niger is ranked the second least developed country according to the United Nations (UN) Human Development Index
“It’s part of the denialist history of the Western world. In America it’s very hard for them to hide exactly what they did, because the descendants of the victims still live amongst them”, explains Femi Nylander, Director of African Apocalypse, a documentary which aims to unearth the full extent of this wrongdoing through the eyes and insights of local communities.
Femi and Director Rob Lemkin spent 5 weeks travelling across Niger tracing the route Paul Voulet would have taken after he’d made his way from Senegal and Chad to the west African country. The journey is narrated by Femi himself, as he makes sense of this painful colonial history and how it relates to his own identity, as a British-born African. But the story ultimately belongs to the Nigeriens, many of whom share their stories along the way.
‘Noone has come to tell our story before’
Several of the most notable scenes of the documentary show just how longlasting an impact Voulet’s rampage has had on Nigeriens young and old.
We see schoolgirls weep at the thought of what their ancestors are likely to have suffered. We witness their anger too. And countless people across several towns share a surprising truth. They’ve never been asked about Voulet, or this monumental chapter in their history before. No one beyond local griots had taken it upon themselves to keep record of this history.
Let that sink in. A man who committed atrocities that have left such wide-scale inherited trauma amongst the descendants of his victims has been allowed to rest in peace – the communities he ravaged, not so much.
One of the Nigeriens interviewed in the documentary, Maliki Yahouza, explains how Voulet’s legacy impacts their lives to this day. His legacy is the reason countless Nigeriens have to leave their hometowns in search of better opportunities overseas or in neighbouring countries. “He found us rich and left us poor,” the sultan of the town of Birni-N’Konni states.
Today, Voulet’s remains still sit in May Jirgui, a town just off the main Niger highway. His presence is an unwanted reminder of this painful chapter for those who live there and whose families have done for centuries. At one point the town’s mayor best sums up local feelings at Voulet’s lingering presence, suggesting the filmmakers dig Voulet up and take him back to Europe with them. He still remains.
France’s silence on the matter is in keeping with its refusal to rectify colonial wrongs to this day. Macron continues to avoid directly confronting this history and the inevitable calls for reparations it brings with it. It was only during Macron’s bid to get elected that he admitted that colonialism was “a crime against humanity’.
The people of Niger feel the same. The sultan of Birni-N’Konni, the site of Voulet’s largest massacre told Femi, “It’s a crime that remains unacknowledged and unpunished…If he had perpetrated this massacre today, he would have been taken to the international criminal court at The Hague.”
Yet, the closest France has come to any kind of reckoning with its colonial past is a report commissioned last year on the memory of the colonisation of Algeria and the Algerian war – and a promise to create a commission off the back of it. Not even an official apology seems likely, especially as the nation continues to benefit from other questionable practices in the region.
And this is why African Apocalypse is so important – the more we know of the full extent and devastation caused by these nations and their colonial impact, and the greater the platform given to hear directly from those who live under its shadow, the greater the case for something to be done about it.
African Apocalypse will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer in late May. If you’d like to watch African Apocalypse before then, head to their site: https://africanapocalypsefilm.com/watch/