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Reparations for Slavery?

Are all the issues being considered?


Reparations to Africa
When the African World Reparation and Repatriation Truth Commission (AWEETC) met for the first time in Accra in 1999 they issued a declaration that called for $777 trillion over five years as reparation for enslaving Africans during the colonization of the continent. The money was to come from "those nations of Western Europe and the Americas and institutions who participated and benefited from the slave trade and colonialism."

The commissions co-chairman, Dr Harmet Maulana, stated that "Africa deserves compensation and we demand it now", and that all of Africa's "woes" could be traced to the "damage" the slave trade caused.

No mention was made of the Islamic slave trade (which continues today) or the role played by African chiefs in organizing slaves for trade. It was assumed that everyone agreed that the people who had been wronged were still resident in Africa, rather than the descendants of those shipped to the west.

The thoughts of many Africans were summed up by Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, in his article1 in West African Review -- in essence it was only the trans-Atlantic slave trade that caused depredation and devastation to Africa. The long history of enslavement carried out by African societies and by Islam can be ignored. He suggests that claims that Africans enslaved each other is just a misinterpretation of words -- that, for example, the Yoruban word eru does not mean "slave" but "servant" -- and that "never did Africans practiced [sic] a debasement of humanity as slavery was".

Despite a great wealth of historical evidence that the slave trade existed in West, North and East Africa to supply the ever expanding Islamic empire for centuries before the arrival of European traders, Na’Allah suggests that "the conditions Europeans created for the Atlantic Slave Trade was [in] the importation of chains, padlocks, guns and various crude gadgets to Africa, and the obvious demonstration of their uses to the Africans."

Reparations in the US
Meanwhile there is there equally thorny issue of reparations for the descendants of those shipped to the Americas, or at least those African-Americans who see the opportunity for lawsuits.

From 2000 onwards there have been a handful of cases brought against private institutions and corporations that were historically involved in slavery. Several were consolidated in 2002 to demand restitution from 20 assorted companies, including banks, insurance-, textile-, railroad- and tobacco-companies. The lawsuit was dismissed by district court. An appeal in 2006 left the plaintiffs with the option of resubmitting the lawsuit it they were able to provide proof that state law in 1850s was violated by importing slaves, that there was a basis for reparation created at the time of importation, and that the statute of limitations had not been exceeded.

Apart from the 'Slavery Era Disclosure Law', passed by California back in 2000, little has actually been achieved. JP Morgan Chase, for example, is one of the few companies to come forward an apologize for its role in the trans-Atlantic trade.

Ignoring Modern-day Slavery in Africa
How is it that other occasions of slavery can be ignored, and more significantly, how can Africa not act on modern day cases of slavery?

There is a constant flow of reports of slavery in Sudan. Although the cause of this particular practice is mired in the on-going civil war and further muddied by links to the international terrorist Osama Bin Laden, the human tragedy is denied by the Sudanese government, and is either dismissed as unimportant (or worse, as a myth of Western reporting) by other African states.

In West Africa too there is a continuing practice of child slavery. Reports in the last few years suggest that children in countries such as Benin, Burkina, Togo, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast are being sold for domestic and commercial labor and sexual exploitation. Even in West Africa's power house, Nigeria, girls are being smuggled through Britain to the rest of Europe where they are sold to prostitution rings. Slavery in Mauritania continues despite repeated efforts by the government to outlaw the phenomenon.

Until Africa acknowledges all aspects of its history, and acts against the on-going enslavement of its people, how can any call for historical reparation be taken seriously?

1 'Thoughts on the Atlantic Slave Trade: the Roles of Africans and the Issue of Apology for Slavery', West Africa Review, Vol 1.2a, March 2000.

Revised from an article first published as 'Reparations for Slavery?' on 9 April 2001.

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