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Reparations for whom?

When African slavery was finally abolished, British, French, Spanish, Danish, South American and American slave owners received reparations. In effect, the act of issuing reparations to slave owners was a validation of the right for people to own property in the form of human beings. The slave owners, and not the slaves, became the cosseted beneficiaries of the public purse. But even before the slaves were freed, the practice of giving compensation to slave owners receiving compensation had existed. For instance, slave owners received compensation from the public purse when slaves ran away, when they died while working in the lead mines of Virginia, when they were executed for crimes, participated in slave rebellions, or joined the British side in the War of American Independence.

The French lost Haiti when the Igbo ex-slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture, took charge of the only successful slave rebellion in modern history, and France was forced in 1793 to emancipate the African slaves. Under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former general of Toussaint, Haiti gained its Independence in 1804. But France severely punished Haiti, by insisting, under the threat of military invasion, involving a fleet of 14 warships assembled on 17th April 1825 in the bay of Port-au-Prince, that it paid France huge levies for its loss of Haiti. This amounted to 150 million gold francs — France’s annual budget in 1825. Thirteen years later, this was renegotiated to 90 million. The “debt” was not repaid fully until 1893. France also went further by forcing the former slaves to pay compensation to their ex-slave owners. All of this the French insisted had to be accomplished in exchange for the new nation of Haiti to be officially recognised as the first Black independent nation in the Americas.

When Britain compensated its 46,000 citizens who had owned slaves, it spent more than £20 million to placate them. That sum, which represented 40 percent of the British government’s total expenditure in 1834, is today’s equivalent of around £23 billion. And it remains the largest ever compensation paid in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009.

Throughout this saga of who got what and how much, it is pertinent to note that the former slaves received nothing. In fact, the slave owners believed that they had a right to these reparations, because they had been “kind” to free their slaves. But when the newly freed slaves in America demanded compensation, which they called “freedom dues”, and even sued the estates of their former owners for work which they said had gone unpaid for centuries, or demanded that they be given land to cultivate, their attempts at seeking justice virtually came to nought.

In December 1941, during the hostilities of the Second World War, the US declared war against Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor, a US naval base. In August 1945, America dropped two nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs killed between 120,000 and 226,000 people, who were mostly civilians. Between 1942 and 1945, the American government interred in isolated camps thousands of Japanese then living in America. Many of the 117,000 to 120,000 interred were American citizens. The reason given for this action was that the American government could not trust these Japanese, as it was at war with Japan. But although Germany and Italy were also at war with the US, no Germans or Italians living in America were hauled off to internment camps, or relocation centres, within the US. In 1988, the US Congress passed a law mandating that each Japanese person who had been interred was to be paid $20,000 in reparations. It also recognised that “a grave injustice was done” to Japanese Americans; and that the American government’s actions had been based on “race prejudice, hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. So, Japanese Americans were paid reparations for just three years spent in these camps. The camps were equipped with schools, canteens, libraries, hospitals, post offices, ironing and laundry areas, administrative offices, warehouses and buildings for religious services.

On the other hand, the African Americans whose free labour built the US for centuries, and who had never asked to be taken to America, or voluntarily emigrated there, to this day in the first quarter of the 21st century have received nothing. They gained not a dime from oppressors who for generations had taken away the sovereignty of their bodies. They gained nothing for the loss of their identities, names, languages, belief systems, kinship relations, foods, culture and social norms. They were even forcibly separated from their children, and for centuries treated as sexual objects and beasts of burden; and at best today as tokens.

What is certainly lost to many who refuse to come to terms with the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which after 400 years is like a cancer which, if not eliminated, will consume its hosts, is that the people whom the Europeans met living within the various empires, kingdoms, confederacies and city states of Africa were not savages. What is also rarely admitted is that they possessed skills which the Europeans recognised were needed to develop their colonial enterprises. The Africans they took away were knowledgeable in advanced agricultural practices, metallurgy, shipbuilding and navigation. They were also young, healthy, fecund and intelligent (because if this were not so they would not be of any use), and were subsequently assessed in the Americas as the most valuable form of property.

Nor were Africans new to the Europeans either. From 711 AD to 1492, much of Spain had been conquered and controlled by the Moors. Spain, as the first European nation to colonise the Americas, therefore, took to their acts of colonisation an underlying colour prejudice borne from centuries of Moorish domination. European prejudices had always been built on Class and Religion, and never on Race. Racism was incubated from the sole desire to colonise and dominate. It became a convenient crutch that has lasted to this day.

Unsurprisingly, it was the Spanish who went to great trouble to minutely classify mixed race persons. Thus, the child of an African, or a person of Aboriginal ancestry (native Indian), with a white person was categorised as: mulatto (half African or Aboriginal ancestry); quadroon (quarter African); octoroon, terceron or mustee (one-eighth African) and hexadecaroon, quintroon or mustefino (one-sixteenth African). Subsequently, the French created their own classifications which went as far as measuring and identifying individuals whose ancestry was 1/64 Black! The Americans totally ignored these circumspect distinctions; and one drop of African blood automatically made a person Black.
Recent news reports have indicated that two major British firms, the insurance market, Lloyd’s of London, and the pub chain and brewer, Greene King, would like to make reparations, because of their founders’ involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Greene King’s chief executive, Nick Mackenzie, explained that the firm will “make a substantial investment to benefit the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community and support race diversity in its business”. On the other hand, Lloyd’s of London promised to “invest in positive programmes to attract, retain and develop black and minority talent.” It also said it would “provide financial support to charities and organisations promoting opportunity and inclusion for black and minority ethnic groups”. Lloyds further indicated it would “provide education and research, as well as reviewing its organisational artefacts to ensure that they are explicitly non-racist”.

One of Greene King’s founders, Benjamin Greene, had at least 231 slaves and was given the equivalent of £500,000 at today’s current rate, when he gave up his rights to plantations in Montserrat and St. Kitts. In the case of Lloyd’s, Simon Frazer, one of its notable founder-subscriber members, had 162 slaves. He obtained reparations, which in today’s equivalent currency would be around £400,000. Frazer owned a plantation in Dominica and either he or his son owned another in present-day Guyana.

Neither Lloyd’s of London nor Greene King said how much money they planned to donate to Black and minority charities, or for investments in related schemes. Although they have publicly acknowledged their companies’ role in the dehumanisation of Africans, exploiting and vastly benefitting from their labour, their real concern ought to have been addressed directly to the descendants of the African slaves and not to anyone else. The term “minority” in Britain includes Black British, or African-Caribbean and Black African. It also includes Asian British — Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Ugandan, Kenyan, Tanzanian Indian and Caribbean Indian. Other minorities are Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Chinese, and Roma.

Of all these minority groups, only those of African-Caribbean origin are the descendants of the enslaved Africans. Moreover, reparations must be a carefully thought out and executed process and not degenerate into tokenism. It should not only be about money, but about structurally redressing the centuries old imbalances in health, education, economic, employment and social opportunities, the criminal justice system and the pernicious concept of race. Naturally, these initiatives will go nowhere until a radical change occurs in teaching slave and colonial history, and a tectonic shift takes place in the mindset of those who are currently a part of the architecture of oppression. And closure must come to calls for Black people to leave America and Europe and go “back” to Africa, because the only response to that is “WE are here because YOU were there.”

Surprisingly, heading the list of those who believe they deserve reparations from the former slave-owning nations of the Americas and Europe are Africans living on the continent. They insist that reparations must be paid only to them. Among the continent’s reparations champions was the late undeclared winner of Nigeria’s 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. Abiola was a billionaire businessman, philanthropist and a graduate of the University of Glasgow. He was also a chartered accountant. His election was the only free and fair election ever to be conducted in Nigeria; and he was voted for by a wide spectrum of ethnic, religious and social groups in Nigeria.

M.K.O. Abiola in 1992 headed a powerful lobby insisting that America and Europe must pay Africa reparations for their enslavement of Africans, and the huge fortunes made from harvesting and stealing Africa’s natural resources. Despite Abiola’s demise, his adherents in this cause are no less purposeful than he today. Conversely, there are other Africans who, like Donald Duke, a former governor of Nigeria’s Cross River State, argue that they are not ashamed of what happened centuries ago, because they were not personally involved. Duke contends that Africans should play no role in the debate concerning reparations as its focus is on “maltreatment and injustice in the United States – not Africa”.

My position, strictly based on principle and the overriding need for historical injustices to be remedied, has always been that the only people who deserve to be paid reparations are the descendants of the African slaves. After all, ALL the white slave owners were unjustly paid huge sums of money in reparations when the slaves were freed. However, those Continental Africans insisting that reparations are to be paid to them are not only delusional but opportunistic. As for the others who regard “maltreatment and injustice” as having nothing to do with Africa, they are equally delusional. Africans were the willing collaborators of the Arab and Fulani middlemen and white slavers for centuries in this abominable trade. They were also paid for the human cargo they sold. It does not matter if they were paid a pittance in the form of trivial and nonsensical items that could neither be invested, nor are visible and existent today, unlike what their white collaborators gained, and from which they still benefit today. You cannot be paid TWICE.

It is a fact that both Africa’s vast human and natural resources had been plundered, harvested and traded off to foreigners, who primarily benefited from them. But this would not have been possible without the active cooperation of Africans – the ancestors of people like Abiola and Duke. Just a few names will suffice here. These include the old Oyo and Benin Empires, the former Kingdom of Arochukwu, as well as other major Igbo slave trading ports located in the Bight of Biafra or Bonny and Calabar. These are all in Nigeria. And, in the case of the Bight of Biafra, this includes not only that region of Nigeria, but areas in states such as Camaroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Then there are the ex-Fante and Ashanti Confederacies of Ghana; the old kingdoms of Dahomey, Koya, Khasso, Kayes and Kaabu, which are now respectively the Benin Republic, Liberia, Senegal, Mali, Gambia, and Senegal again. Not to be omitted is the old Kong Empire, which now consists of Côte d’Ivoire and Burkino Faso, as well as the ancient Imamates of Futa Jallon and Futa Tora, to be found in Guinea-Bissau and a part of Senegal.

When the commercialisation of slavery began, the Arabs and Europeans were targeting established kingdoms and empires that had become weak and corrupt through war and internal strife. These people, however, knew that Africa was a wealthy and advanced continent in many areas of development and education. The obas and princes of the Benin Empire had travelled to the royal courts of Portugal and even to Brazil, and were conversant with the conditions the slaves would meet on the other side of the Atlantic. What is crucial to understand, though, is that Africa derived no gain from its interaction with Europe and America and becoming a partner in the trade of human beings. The reverse is the case. Many of the wars that were waged on the continent were initiated for the sole purpose of obtaining supplies of slaves; and were often deliberately fomented by the Europeans. Meanwhile, the coastal states that were primarily engaged in the trade fell into rack and ruin with their obas, emirs, and rulers eventually reduced to being ceremonial minions. Most historians agree that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade damaged Africa so badly that it left the continent demographically unbalanced, under-developed, and hence vulnerable to its subsequent division and colonisation by the European powers. One obvious result of this was that small and inconsequential Belgium managed to seize and claim the Congo, which is the size of Western Europe. The present Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the richest countries in the world, even today; though paradoxically, one of the poorest, being rated lowest on the UN Human Development Index. This is why understanding the pendulum of history is not only important, but imperative.

History does not repeat itself. Rather, the mistakes of history are repeated. Today, the errors made centuries ago by Africa’s political and military elite are again being repeated in the 21st century. Today’s collaborators of China, the latest interloper, are Africans — no one else. Many African governments are benefiting from this destructive one-sided partnership, but this is mainly at the level of the corrupt politicians within these governments. And, unfortunately, Africa is bereft of strong, democratic institutions and an informed, patriotic populace that could hold corrupt leaders to account, and effectively rid themselves of them. There are also other powerful accomplices aside the politicians within the system, such as military personnel, various security operatives like the police, bureaucrats, traditional rulers, community leaders and other agents within the citizenry. All this may seem eerily familiar to the people of Belize and other CARICOM nations, as well as the Latino people of Central and South America. No doubt, the virus in the DNAs of their politicians and agents, in killing the people’s destinies, selling their land, encouraging the pollution and destruction of the entire ecosystem, raffling national resources, in fact the entire country, for a mess of individual pottage, and becoming hostages to EVIL, is as destructive and remorseless as any pandemic.
What is happening today on the African continent, and directly in plain sight, is an uncanny repetition of much of what happened to Africa over 400 centuries ago. African human enslavement is profoundly economic, political, educational, psychological, cultural, social and juridical. At the same time, the continent’s natural resources are still only for the benefit of rapacious foreigners and mindless African collaborators. The latter are the natural, physical and spiritual reincarnations of their cruel ancestors, who were the pre-colonial political, military and social elites. One day, I am sure they will lay all the blame on the Chinese, as well as every interloper preceding the Chinese; and apportion no guilt to themselves. And, on another day, they will agitate for reparations to be paid to them for acts they willingly and gladly participated in.

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