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Africa revives push for colonial-era reparations

August 4, 2022

For years, Africa's push for reparations from European nations for colonial-era wrongs has been piecemeal. Now the continent wants to consolidate ongoing campaigns.

People simulate a slavery scene as part of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Ivory Coast
Ghana was one of the points of departure for many of those enslaved in West Africa Image: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

In a joint initiative, African countries are renewing their efforts to obtain reparations from European countries for the transatlantic slave trade and other colonial-era wrongs committed centuries ago.

The slave trade — which affected millions of Africans — was the largest forced migration in history and one of the most inhumane.

Over 400 years, Africans were transported to many areas of the world, yet no reparations have as yet been paid. The process is proving much slower than many Africans expected.

Reparations 'long overdue'

This week Ghana's president, Nana Akufo-Addo, revived the push for slavery and colonial retribution. 

"No amount of money can restore the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade — and its consequences — which has spanned many centuries, but nevertheless, it is now time to revive and intensify the discussions about reparation for Africa," Akufo-Addo said at a summit on reparations and racial healing in Accra, Ghana.

Ghana was one of the points of departure for many of those enslaved in West Africa and, for the Ghanaian leader, the time for reparations for colonial crimes and slavery is "long overdue."

Africa deserves formal apology

In recent years some European nations that played key roles in colonial crimes and the slave trade have hesitantly tendered an apology for their actions.

President Akufo-Addo said, "The entire continent of Africa deserves a formal apology from European nations that were involved in the slave trade, the crimes and damage it has caused to the population, psyche, image of the African the world over."

Participants at this week's summit agreed to pool their strategic efforts to ensure Africans get the needed compensation and justice due them for the devastating effects of the transatlantic slave trade on the continent. 

The African Union — which has often been criticized for doing very little to ensure that reparations happen and swiftly — is pushing back.

John Ikubaje, who works at the AU Commission, told DW that the continental organization deserves a bit of credit instead for the key role it has played in recent reparation negotiation successes by some African countries and the return of stolen artifacts.

"The issues of reparative justice did not start today, it started long time ago and the African Union has been doing a lot in this regard," he said.

Ikubaje continued: "Reparation has been one of the focus [of the African Union] and you know actually what is happening on the continent in recent time, in terms of return of artifacts, they are not unconnected with the African Union declarations in terms of the themes of the year."

Sengbe Pieh: A slave returning

Very little progress

This year Germany agreed to pay Namibia €1.1 billion ($1.3 billion) in reparation for genocide committed during its colonial-era occupation of the country.

That was after the European nation returned skulls of people murdered during the Namibian genocide a century ago. Tens of thousands of Namibians were slaughtered between 1904 and 1908.

At the time Germany had colonized the Southern African nation and was responding to an anti-colonial uprising. The victims were indigenous Namibians from the Herero and Nama people.

A ceremony was performed at a church service in Berlin in August 2018 to hand over the remains to the descendants of the Herero tribe.

Berlin was accused of taking too long to formally apologize for the massacre. For years it had refused to accept responsibility and apologize. In 2016, Germany finally said it was prepared in principle to apologize.

Germany also returned some stolen artifacts to Nigeria last month, while Belgium returned the remains of Democratic Republic of Congo's independence hero — Patrice Lumumba — to the family for proper burial.

The search for a king's remains

Rwanda is now making a case for the return of the body of their former King Yuhi Musinga who was exiled in 1931 to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo where he died.

His body was never seen nor returned to Rwanda for burial and Rwanda has accused the former colonial masters of having taken the king's remains to Belgium.

King Yuhi Musinga was deposed for refusing to collaborate with the Belgians. He also refused to be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

Following negotiations between the two countries, some artifacts have been returned to Rwanda by Belgium. But now Rwanda has asked Belgium to return the remains of the king.

Andre Ntagwabira, a researcher at Rwanda cultural heritage academy told DW that it is sad that no one knows where the king's remains are.

Namibia: The price of the genocide

"As a researcher of Rwanda cultural heritage academy, I have had the privilege to conduct and work with researchers, curators and conservators from Belgium museums and other scientific institutions which have partnerships with Rwanda cultural heritage academy," Ntagwabira said. 

"Among those I asked, they all checked in their museum's collections and none has found King Musinga's body."

For blogger Kelly Rwamapera, the onus is on Belgium to produce the king's remains.

"Of course, one has to blame this on the Belgians, the colonizers, because they are the ones who banished him. They knew where he was and he died, so they had all his information. They should be knowing where his body is," Rwamapera told DW.

"Because when one says they have the body, it's true they really have the body. All evidence points to them."

Consolidating and solidifying the struggle

John Ikubaje from the AU's secretariat, the African Union Commission, said that "these are developments the African Union is working on and will continue to work with different stakeholders that are working along that line" to get justice for Africa.

He said beyond the return of artifacts, compensation and apologies for past crimes, the AU's current structures and major policy programs are to ensure that Africa doesn't remain subservient to the West moving forward.

But some activists say retribution will mean the pulling down of existing global structures that continue to keep Africa beneath the rest of the world.

Professor Horace Campbell, a renowned peace and justice scholar based in the United States, told DW that structures and systems that promote racial capitalism must be disbanded.

"We need a new structure that treats all Africans — and all humans — as human beings; there should be no hierarchy of human beings," he said.

According to Campbell, "the European Union, the European development bank, the European Investment Bank, the German government itself has to retreat from ... theories that separate Europeans from other human beings in the world."

Examining Germany's brutal history in Namibia

'Legacy of enslavament'

For years compensation campaigns for colonial-era crimes have been piecemeal.

British playwright, Esther Armah, who heads the Armah Institute of Emotional Justice, told DW the continent of Africa must push harder on all fronts and avoid any loose ends in campaigning for reparations and social justice.

"So we need to fight harder, do more, engage together, but we also must remember that part of the legacy of enslavement is how we see each other and how we treat each other as global black people," Armah said.

For her, social healing is also key to compensating for the damages caused centuries ago.

"Africa needs emotional justice because we have to do our emotional work, which is about severing how whiteness sees us, and that impacting how we see each other," she said.

'Hope keeps us alive'

The African Union is now assuming a key role in formulating a continental framework and strategy that would guide the process of achieving anticipated reparatory justice for historical injustices moving forward.

Makmid Kamara from the Africa Transitional Justice Legacy Fund said this posture and strategy from the continental body should lead to many gains in the shortest possible time.

"The only person that should not be optimistic is the person that is dead," Kamara told DW.

"Hope is what keeps us alive, and like you mentioned the Namibia example, people have been engaging, people have been campaigning, some people have dedicated their lives to this call. So we are hopeful and determined to continue this campaign for reparative justice and healing."

Some European nations have only apologized for the past crimes, but continue to be hesitant in paying monies as reparations. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before Africa gets what it really yearns for.

Alex Ngarambe in Kigali, Rwanda contributed to this article.

Edited by Keith Walker

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