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It’s 2018 and Britain is fighting to keep its last African colony

REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN)
Chagos Islanders demand the right to return to their archipelago, from where they were forcibly removed in the 1960s and '70s to make way for an American airbase.
  • Kemi Lijadu
By Kemi Lijadu

Africa Intern/Special Projects Researcher

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Most look back to the period between the 1940s and 1970s as the epoch of battles for statehood, self-determination and decolonization. Yet in 2018, the African island nation of Mauritius and Britain are embroiled in a modern day struggle for sovereignty over the Chagos Islands—the last remaining African colony of the old British Empire.

Chagos is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean south of the Maldives. The sovereignty of Chagos is disputed between the Britain and Mauritius. The British excised the archipelago from Mauritian territory three years ahead of Mauritius’ independence.

This meant that whilst Mauritius obtained independence in 1968, the islands remained under British control. The Chagos had been part of Mauritius and home to Chagossians before the entire population of around 2,000 people was forcibly removed by the British government and the US to make way for a strategic US military base.

This was described in a leaked British diplomatic cable as the removal of “some few Tarzans and Man Fridays”. Since 1971, only the atoll of Diego Garcia is inhabited and solely by military and civilian contracted personnel.

Turtle Cove on Diego Garcia, largest island in the Chagos archipelago

This month the International Court of Justice (ICJ) began the three-day public hearing on the fate of the Chagos Islands. Whilst the court judgement is yet to be written, the ICJ is typically slow in reaching a verdict, the hearing had 22 nations take part in its proceedings.

On Britain’s side stands three countries, Australia, Israel and the United States.

Mauritius’ side outnumbered its opponents, with the support of 17 countries: Argentina, Belize, Botswana, Brazil, Cyprus, Germany, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Marshall Islands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand, Vanuatu and Zambia. The African Union also made an oral pleading on behalf of Mauritius.

The ICJ took on the case after the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of a Mauritius backed resolution to seek a legal opinion from the court. Though the ICJ’s verdict will carry weight, it is not legally binding.

An immigration order preventing Chagossians from going back was issued in 1971. Since then for years Chagossians have lobbied unsuccessfully for the right to return. In fact, some Chagossians face deportation from the same country that forcibly removed them.

Britain’s solicitor general Robert Buckland told Reuters his country accepted the removal of the Chagossians and their treatment thereafter “was shameful and wrong”, but that a 1982 payment of £4 million ($5.2 million) and land worth £1 million worth to Mauritius had provided resolution.

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