A movement is growing across Africa and diaspora demanding reparations for the impacts of slavery and colonialism

Slavers bringing captives on board a slave ship on Africa’s west coast. Image by Joseph Swain from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

The wounds of slavery, colonialism, and their enduring legacies remain unhealed in Africa. Now a growing movement is building across the continent and diaspora demanding reparations and justice for these historical crimes.

In September 2023, Ghana’s President Akuf0-Addo addressed the United Nations General Debate, 78th Session, declaring,

It is time to openly acknowledge that much of Europe and the United States has been built from the vast wealth harvested from the sweat, tears, blood, and horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, and the centuries of colonial exploitation. Maybe, we should also admit that it cannot be easy to build confident and prosperous societies from nations that, for centuries, have had their natural resources looted and their people traded as commodities. For centuries, the world has been unwilling and unable to confront the realities of the consequences of the slave trade.

But, he said, gradually this is changing, and the time had come to bring the topic of reparations to the forefront:

Granted, the current generations are not the ones that engaged in the slave trade, but the grant in human enterprise will stay sponsored and deliberate in its benefits, which are clearly interwoven with the present-day economic architecture of the nations that designed and executed it. Reparations must be paid for the slave trade.

A month later, the Advancing Justice: Reparations & Racial Healing Summit, funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Equitable Recovery Initiative, was convened in Accra. According to a report by Africa Feeds, President Akufo-Addo reiterated his call for reparations, citing examples of reparations granted to Native Americans, Japanese-American families, and Jewish people who suffered during World War II. He said, “Native Americans have received and continue to receive reparations; Japanese-American families, who were incarcerated in internment camps in America during World War II, received reparations. Jewish people, six million of whom perished in the concentration camps of Hitlerite Germany, received reparations, including homeland grants and support.”

A New York Times article highlighted the outcomes of some of these reparations and drew lessons that could be learned from them.  

The Pan-African Conference on Reparations was held jointly in Accra, Ghana, on November 14, by the African Union (AU) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations. The conference members advocated for reparations for injustices committed against Africans during the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, segregation, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and neo-liberalism. Representatives from African nations, civil society groups, and the African diaspora gathered to discuss constructive solutions, leading to the establishment of a global fund to support the campaign and the drafting of a proclamation, as reported by the Guardian.

Countries in the Caribbean region, profoundly impacted by the transatlantic slave trade, have long been advocating for reparations.

The CARICOM (Caribbean Community and Common Market) Reparations Commission, under the leadership of Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, has been at the forefront of this movement, seeking redress beyond mere financial compensation. Their campaign emphasizes the importance of actions such as providing support for education and healthcare initiatives in the Caribbean.

Professor Beckles, a longstanding proponent of reparations, proposes the establishment of a facility by Britain akin to the Jewish Reparation Fund. His perspective underscores that reparatory justice is not about handouts, but, more significantly, about fostering a collaborative development partnership between Britain and the Caribbean.

In response to the advocacy by the CARICOM Reparations Commission, an historic agreement for slavery reparations was signed between the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies. However, the commission maintains that more action is needed. The Caribbean’s case for reparations was discussed at length during a live-streamed interview with Sir Hilary at the Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain, Trinidad in October 2020. The commission’s campaign has highlighted the lasting effects of the the translantic slave trade and the effects this inhumane system continues to have beyond the psychological harm of its descendants, to include economic, cultural, demographic, political and ecological repercussions. This argument resonates with many Caribbean citizens, evident when King Charles’ coronation sparked minimal interest (other than what his position would be on reparations) and the visit to the region of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and his wife, Catherine, proved controversial.

The Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, with its poignant “gate of no return,” stands as a haunting reminder of the transatlantic slave trade, where millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery over 400 years ago.

Acknowledging the historical role of both African sellers and Western buyers in the slave trade, Ondiro Oganda, a Kenyan media presenter, explained:

The politics of Africans selling does come into play; one could argue that as a moral obligation, buyers had the choice to refuse participation. However, the reality is that many willingly engaged. While acknowledging responsibility and accountability for the actions of the few Africans who engaged in these transactions, we cannot ignore the historical fact that Africans were forcibly shipped from the continent to become slaves.

She added that:

… our resources have been continually extracted from the continent, often in deals where we might be manipulated or blindsided, ultimately benefiting and contributing to the growth of Western economies.

At least 12 million Africans were forcibly transported between the 15th and 19th centuries, with millions dying in raids, during transportation, or in inhumane conditions on slave ships.

The effects of this devastating history and extractive colonial institutions continue to limit socioeconomic progress in Africa today. Reparations aim to acknowledge the wrongs done, compensate for the losses, and dismantle unjust systems to enable healing and advancement. Here is a documentary on the transatlantic slave trade:

During the conference, the deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Monique Nsanzabaganwa said that the demand for reparations “is not an attempt to rewrite history or continue the cycle of victimization”:

It’s a call to recognize the undeniable truth and rewrite the wrongs that have gone unpunished for far too long and continue to thrive presently.

In addition to the push for reparations, there is also a call for the return of artefacts taken from African countries during colonial rule. President Akufo-Addo said this is a major concern:

We must call for the return of African cultural properties that were illegally and shamelessly transported from the continent. This reconnection of the present and the past will also help to build new relations with the international community especially that of Europe, which was principally responsible for the original theft of the cultural properties.

While some Western countries, including Germany and France, have admitted wrongs committed during the colonial era and started returning stolen artefacts to Africa, others have been slow to act. In May last year, Germany agreed to pay Namibia €1.1 bn (USD 1.2 bn) as reparation for the genocide committed during its colonial-era occupation.

While Ghana is rallying the rest of the continent to call for reparations, recent protests are noteworthy as they have also highlighted domestic challenges. Last month, several Ghanaians gathered outside Jubilee House, the presidential palace in Accra, for a peaceful protest against the economic crisis in their country. The high cost of living and skyrocketing inflation, reaching approximately 42.19 percent and debt to GDP ratio of over 80 percent, have fueled tensions in the country. 

As a result, in commenting on President Akufo-Addo’s call for reparations for colonialization and slavery, news reporter Ondiro Oganda emphasized that African leaders must not only champion the continent’s cause on the international stage but also be attentive to the challenges faced by their people at home.

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