This is the second of a series by Clive Samvura on the case for reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism. Clive discusses how African States can bring a collective action and finality to their just claims for reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism, and more importantly how much is due.
The case for reparations and compensation has now become a question of morality and ethics.
MORAL forces need to permeate the area of today’s international law. The law among states is largely defined by changing humanitarian ideals and is supposed to recognise that their influence must be considered to properly evaluate the potential for African reparations. By evaluating the legal avenues and pitfalls for African reparations, we need to advance the reparations discussion toward a permanent solution that is acceptable to all. Compensation for the oppressed is not the objective; nor is absolution for the oppressors. The real goal should be a lasting peace, devoid of both feelings of victimization and of undue blame. Humanity must find a way to put the issues of slavery and colonialism to rest. Only by understanding the moral forces behind the dynamic concept of international human rights can a resolution that does not inspire future resentment be found.
Self-determination for Africa
The perception of the reparations issue is fundamentally different for Africans than for African Americans. While slavery is the family history that defines the African-American community, it is for many Africans an abstraction of the past, overshadowed by Africa’s later struggles against European colonialism. Although the African reparations movement necessarily includes many of the same claims of oppression and unjust enrichment as the African American perspective regarding slavery, the African view also focuses on the lingering economic effects of colonialism.
Unfortunately, at this moment in time, the African reparation movement seems to only be concentrating on debt forgiveness. From my own point of view, this is where we lose the plot as Africans, the debt we have accumulated over a few decades is not going to compensate over 400 years of slavery followed by almost a 100 years of colonialism. We need to take $777 trillion dollars as the starting point; we should not limit this to debt forgiveness but try to push for a figure which suits the crime. The African Americans on the other hand seem to be focusing on the educational and social reforms sought in the United States.Advertisement
The economic position of modern Africa has continued to decline in the latter half of the twentieth century. This rapid descent of per capita income is due to the combined effects of explosive population growth, a decline in agricultural production, and a stagnant or almost non-existent industrial sector. Africa’s poor agricultural and industrial performance is linked to a structural dependence on the West.
European countries manipulate individual African states into producing the specific commodities desired in Europe to the detriment of the overall African economy. For instance, one country may be encouraged to concentrate on exporting a particular mineral to the point of depletion, while another is geared towards producing a particular cash crop such as coffee, cotton or tobacco. The net result is that the African state is forced to import all of its other basic materials from Europe. Remember that colonialism of Africa in particular set up four economic zones namely the peasant zone, settler zone, concession zone, and mining/industrial zone.
Most of West Africa formed the peasant zone; it came to be associated with one or two primary agricultural exports. As such, Senegal primarily exported groundnuts and palm oil; Nigeria exported palm oil; the Gold Coast became famous for cocoa and Mali for cotton; and the Ivory Coast’s principal export was coffee. The settler zone was located in east and southern Africa; Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Rhodesia and parts of the Belgian Congo proved most conducive to European settlers to establish new communities. In these areas, white settlers confiscated the most fertile lands from African farmers and formed enormous white-owned farms and plantations.
Kenya became known for its coffee and tea plantations, Rhodesia became a major producer and exporter of tobacco. The concession zone was found primarily in the Congo Free State/Belgian Congo and Liberia. In their pursuit of economic development, Liberia leased almost the entire country to Firestone in 1925. Firestone ran huge rubber plantations in Liberia. In the Congo Free State, Belgium’s King Leopold II turned the colony into his private enterprise. Africa, as we all know, is extremely rich in mineral resources. In areas where large deposits of minerals were found, the colonial governments encouraged the exploitation of such minerals.
The mining and industrial zone was located primarily in South Africa, Angola, southern Congo (Katanga province), and Northern Rhodesia. There, huge depositories of gold, diamonds, and copper as well as other natural resources led to immense mining operations controlled by European companies. De Beers, founded by Cecil Rhodes, is one such company that emerged and expanded in colonial Africa and should be one of the first companies directly liable for colonialism. These zones have largely stayed intact till today and as Africans we need to dismantle these economic systems to escape the cycle of poverty and industrialise if we want true economic prosperity.
The total debt of Africa (estimated at $200 billion), is largely the result of African dependence on the West for processed food, machinery, and technology; things which could easily be processed and manufactured in Africa. Additionally, the massive debt gives Europe and the United States a disproportionate influence over the internal affairs of the African states. The West uses the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to force the African states to develop along a prescribed economic model as a condition to borrowing additional money. This internal meddling by the West inspires many of the deepest feelings of humiliation, frustration, and anger among African states.
African states also attribute their continued underdevelopment to the desire by Europe and the United States to install African leaders who are easy to manipulate. The result is what many Africans call “Africa’s leadership crisis.” Many Africans are disillusioned after decades of coups, corruption, abuses of power and human rights, and blind acceptance of advice from the West. The installation of weak or incompetent leaders complements a policy of balkanization that promotes regional conflict and keeps African states susceptible to foreign influence. European powers intentionally prolong conflicts in Africa by providing arms, personnel, technical assistance, and financial support to achieve their own national agendas. Beyond the destabilizing effects of extended disputes, armed conflicts are also a tremendous drain on the limited resources of Africa.
Africa spends eight billion dollars annually on its militaries. There are approximately 16 countries involved in some type of civil conflict at the moment that have produced over 6.5 million refugees and 17 million displaced Africans. Those with selective amnesia deliberately forget that the country boundaries which now exist in Africa did not exist prior to colonialism. So why are we surprised that most civil wars are between ethnic groups who would have fallen under different states in pre-colonial Africa? Could you put the English, Germans and French in a single country under the same flag and not expect a civil war? Highly unlikely! The perpetual civil wars in Africa are one of the untold stories of the most devastating and permanent impacts of colonialism. States cannot revert back to pre-colonial boundaries now, as most of these post-colonial states are now well integrated.
A case in point is the Democratic Republic of Congo and the civil war there, where the 11 provinces that make up the DRC should be independent countries in themselves. Most African states have been undermined or overturned with such frequency that there are very few truly legitimate regimes or institutions to stabilize the region. The only solution I could propose is to move in the opposite direction and try to forge regional blocs (SADC, COMESA etc) with a common currency and monetary policies, to remove trade barriers and integrate our markets, with the end objective of eventually merging into a “United States of Africa”. I’ll leave that topic for another article.
Apparently the West is not at all responsible for the conditions of Africa. They contend that “many of the Asian and African colonies progressed very rapidly during colonial rule, much more so than the independent countries in the same area.” But Africa is not Asia. To start with, Asians did not experience colonialism per say, they experienced imperialism. Asia did not have their main labour force, i.e. young men of a working age kidnapped and shipped off to the USA over a period of 400 years to work as slaves. Asia did not have any natural resources so the emphasis of imperialism in Asia was to extend trade mainly with China. So this cannot be used as a logical comparison with Africa’s colonialism. Asia, in general, had the support of economic powerhouses like Japan and China which anchored and helped their economic growth.
Another argument being made is that the debt owed by African states represents resources that have been supplied to them, often supplemented with outright grants or aid. Difficulties of servicing these debts do not reflect external exploitation or unfavourable terms of trade. They are the result of wasteful use of the capital supplied, or inappropriate monetary and fiscal policies. The principal assumption behind the idea of Western responsibility for Third World poverty is that the prosperity of individuals and societies (in the West) generally reflects exploitation of others (in Africa). Whilst this may be true to a certain extent the question should be asked – how much of this is debt, and how much of it is interest. Why was this money lent if there was very little possibility of paying it back? Was that the objective? And most importantly where did this money come from in the first place? How is it that all these European countries have vaults full of gold bullion yet have never had a gold mine in their entire history?
Please read part 3 and 4 of my instalment where I explore further legal arguments which can be brought before the UN to resolve the issue of reparations and compensation for slavery and colonialism.
Clive Samvura who can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org