Monday, 26 October 2020

Reparations to Africa


Reparations to Africa

The Black Lives Matter movement includes calls for reparations to African-Americans for enslavement. Many people ask whether reparations should also be paid to the continent of Africa for the slave trade.,

The last time there was much discussion of reparations to Africa was during the UN World Conference on Racism, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.  Unfortunately, that conference was overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks on the US only a few days after it ended.

Types of reparations

A United Nations document discusses the different aspect of reparations. One aspect is apology for harms committed in the past.

Several Western countries have expressed regret for their participation in the slave trade. For example, at the Durban Conference a Dutch government minister expressed “deep remorse” for the slave trade and enslavement.  But these countries usually avoid direct apologies that might entail legal liability.

Another aspect of reparations is removal of offensive monuments. In Bristol, England in June 2020, activists tore down a monument to a “founder” of that city, Edward Colston. Colston had been a prominent slave-trader

Western museums that own precious African artifacts are facing calls to return them to Africa. Some activists would like the British Museum to return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. su

Other museums present Africans and African societies in ways that that may be racist. Belgium’s Africa Museum has been accused of this.

Teaching the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade could be part of the reparative process. Both within Africa and in former slave-trading countries, people need to learn this history.

But the slave trade was not limited to the trans-Atlantic trade.  Arabs also took slaves from Africa. Historian Paul Lovejoy estimates that about 14 million people were taken from Africa in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and about 10 million in the Arab trade. An accurate history would  have to include the Arab trade.

Nor could history teachers ignore slave-trading by Africans. The Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani was shocked to learn that her great-grandfather was a slave trader, selling slaves to Cuba and Brazil after the trade was abolished by the US and Great Britain. When her great-grandfather died, six slaves were buried alive with him. 

Financial Reparations

Often we think of reparations as financial. One problem is which former slave trading and slave-holding nations might owe financial reparations to Africa. Approximately a quarter million enslaved Africans disembarked in the US between 1626 and 1875. 5.1 million disembarked in Brazil between 1401 and 1875. Does Brazil, a middle-income country, owe financial reparations to Africa?  

Similarly, do Arab countries and African slave-traders owe reparations for their part in the slave trade? The distinguished philosopher Anthony Appiah is of mixed Ashanti (Ghanaian) and British ancestry. Both his British and Ashanti ancestors traded in slaves.,trade%2C%20or%20some% Do the Ashanti owe reparations to other ethnic groups within Ghana from whom they took slaves?

If only rich Western countries are responsible to pay financial reparations, to what entity should they pay them?  Perhaps each Western county should try to determine the countries where the bulk of its slaves originated (e.g. Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal or Angola). They could then compensate those countries.

Nevertheless, Westerners might ask why they should pay reparations to Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in the mid-19th century. Some scholars and activists argue that Western countries should pay reparations because without the slave trade, Africa would be much more developed today.  On the other hand, Africa might simply have remained a continent of agriculturalists and nomadic herders, with some groups growing rich from internal slavery.

Most of sub-Saharan Africa was colonized in the late 19th century, but most African countries have been independent for between 45 and 60 years. Many of their governments have been extremely abusive. Many African political leaders have suppressed democracy, exploited their own citizens, and engaged in massive corruption.

Critics could argue that Africa’s continued underdevelopment is a consequence of these leaders’ actions.

Critics could also argue that Western countries have already compensated for the slave trade via foreign aid. Much foreign aid was misused or stolen by corrupt governments. Whether reparations or aid, the same problems of mismanagement, lack of transparency, and corruption emerge. There is no guarantee that financial reparations for the slave trade would reach the people most in need of it.

Distributive Justice

Rather than sorting out who is responsible for Africa’s underdevelopment since the slave-trading days, perhaps we should focus on distributive justice rather than reparative. 

Distributive justice does not mean re-distribution, taking money from rich nations or individuals and distributing it to poor. It means that the goods everyone needs everywhere in the world—food, housing, health care, education, and social security—should be distributed to them in an equitable way.  These are international-recognized human rights, protected by the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

As the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights argues, everyone is entitled to an international order in which all their human rights are protected. Whether or not a Western country engaged in the slave trade, it should to try to ensure that Africans enjoy their human rights. Whether or not an African is a descendant of a slave owner, she should try to help ensure her co-nationals’ human rights. And all African governments are responsible to protect the human rights of all their citizens.







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