THE REPARATIONS DEBATE: ISSUES AND IDEAS©
The papers in this issue are edited transcripts
of oral presentations given at the Walter Rodney International Conference
held at Binghamton University, State University of New York, Binghamton,
on November 6-8, 1998. Professor Ali A. Mazrui, Ambassador Dudley
Thomas, Q.C., Professor Jacob Ade Ajayi, and Professor Ricardo Laremont
were participants on a panel devoted to the topic of reparations.
Similar presentations to those printed here were made at a Round Table
of the African Studies Association held in Chicago, Illinois, October
29-November 1, 1998. Todd Leedy of the ASQ Editorial Committee provides
Over the last fifty years, the accepted definition
of reparations has undergone a significant transformation. Prior to
the horrors made evident at the end of World War II, reparations existed
as an international political device through which nation states could
extract money from one another for behavior outside acceptable limits.
Political and military power determined the nature and direction of
such reparation payments between nation states. Reparations for the
harm inflicted on a race or class of people have gradually become more
accepted in both national and international legal systems. Germany will
have paid over 100 billion DM to Israel by 2005. The United States government
has paid over $1 billion to those Japanese Americans it illegally interned
between 1941-1945. These and other examples indicate that nation states
may now be held liable for damages caused to a particular race or class
of people. In the midst of heightened visibilty for such cases in recent
years, the Organization of African Unity adopted the Abuja Declaration
in 1993, committing the OAU to seek reparations for the Atlantic slave
On what basis are these claims being made? The most
obvious deleterious effects of the Atlantic slave trade occurred in
those areas frequently raided for captives. Many areas became depopulated,
often resulting in the resurgence of natural environments previously
carefully managed for productive and health reasons. Other areas encountered
overpopulation as people sought safety and protection from the trade.
This could also generate substantial, long term environmental effects.
Such situations were often cited by early apologists for the trade who
argued that it played an important role in alleviating population pressures.
Communities that survived despite continued raiding found themselves
facing shortages of the agricultural labor and/or artisans crucial to
Patrick Manning's complex simulation model calculates
Africa's population in 1850 to be roughly half of what it should have
been given a moderate 5% growth rate over the previous 150 years. Joseph
Miller's study of the Angolan trade concludes that probably as many
slaves died in capture or transport to the coast as were eventually
transported. A similar number of people simply fled to other regions.
For the Angolan zone alone, this amounts to a worst case scenario of
100,000 - 120,00 dead or displaced persons annually. Scholars such as
David Eltis or John Thornton, however, have used their own calculations
to suggest that the entire Atlantic trade (not simply the trade in slaves)
constituted such a small percentage of Africa's economy that shifts
in the nature of the slave trade would have had only a minimal impact.
Thornton also contends that African participants long remained able
to control the extent of their involvement and usually maintained an
upper hand in their relations with European traders.
More subtle and harder to quantify are those forms
of enslavement based on dependency and negotiation rather than capture.
Most African societies had various types of dependent relationships.
These systems of clientship or pawning rested upon the perceived benefits
for the parties involved. The crux of Paul Lovejoy's argument is simply
that these systems of dependency were inevitably altered by the growth
of the Atlantic slave trade. The dramatically expanded demands of the
Atlantic trade transformed existing systems of dependent relations such
that more people were funneled into the slave market. Elites who accepted
pawns or clients to secure a debt began to alter the negotiated terms
of dependency, seeking access to commodities available only in exchange
for people. Weaker members of society found their options for improving
or securing their social status increasingly constrained.
So, arguably, it was not simply that Africa suffered
a loss of crucial labor power with the subsequent economic, demographic
and environmental results, but also that the politics of local rule
became more violent and expropriative than anything previously experienced.
Slavery in many areas of Africa actually increased following the end
of the Atlantic trade as slave prices dropped and commodity prices rose.
Labor bottlenecks in the production of newly viable goods were frequently
solved through the appropriation of unfree labor. Dependent relationships
which had previously benefitted both parties now came to resemble those
forms of chattel slavery so familiar to Europeans. This increasing similarity,
coupled with violence which continued even after the Atlantic trade
had been outlawed, ironically provided one of the key points used to
rationalize the onset of European colonial conquest.
The authors featured in this issue of the African
Studies Quarterly fundamentally agree on the overwhelmingly negative
impact of the Atlantic slave trade. The central question of Ricardo
Laremont's essay therefore is not to debate the extent of damages caused
by the Atlantic trade, but rather to examine the various options available
for gaining some form of reparations. Pursuing legal action through
the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide would depend
on the litigants consenting to the jurisdiction of the Court. However,
creating a UN tribunal modeled on those at Nuremburg and Tokyo would
allow responsible states to be charged with crimes against humanity.
Another avenue would seem to be tackling the responsible states individually
through local political action. In this instance, pressure for a legislative
solution may have more impact than any legal action. Japanese Americans
only obtained reparations from the political process after 10 years
of fruitless litigation.
Ali Mazrui has another option in mind. He makes
it clear that reparations are due to Africa not merely to rectify the
Atlantic slave trade, but also to address the damages incurred under
colonial and neo-colonial systems. The consequences of Europe's historical
imperatives in the development of Africa are perhaps best known through
the work of Walter Rodney. Interestingly, Mazrui argues that reparations
should be paid not for the negative impact of Europe upon Africa, but
rather for Africa's positive impact upon Europe, i.e. how Africa developed
Europe. Without the slaveship, there would be no spaceship. Thus reparations
should be undertaken not as attonement for previous wrongdoing, but
as just rewards for long term contributions to the modern world. In
addition to bilateral development aid, interim reparations would take
the form of institutional capacity building, expanding democratization
and strengthening global coalitions. These goals define reparations
in terms of the continent's long imbalanced relationship with Europe,
moving beyond the level of individuals or states.
Ambassador Dudley Thompson provides a moving call
for reparations, dismissing previous efforts as meaningless and ineffective.
Thompson cites historical precedents to prove that other "debts"
have already been paid (in the cases of Germany, Canada, Australia,
New Zealand and the United States). He examines historical distortions
to illustrate that this debt remains outstanding, despite claims to
the contrary. What matters, though, is not the guilt but the responsibility
of the nations involved. An admission of guilt is only the first step
towards assuming responsibility. Placing responsibility at the nation
state level would logically result in reparations at a similar level.
Thompson calls for an "African Marshall Plan" wherein full
monetary compensation is achieved through capital transfer or debt cancellation.
Only after escaping from the foreign financial stranglehold can African
states be regarded as independent.
The Abuja Declaration came about as Africa faced
increasing political and economic marginalization. It is clear from
the text that reparations are not simply an issue revolving around the
Atlantic slave trade. All the discussions of reparations presented here
move beyond slavery to engage contemporary issues of power and development.
Reparations thus become a broader attempt to redress the historical
relationship between Africa and Europe. Whether the OAU follows political
or legal strategies, admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility
will remain difficult to achieve. Asserting that only western nations
involved in the trade should pay neglects the existing evidence for
African involvement in slave raiding, trade and ownership. Furthermore,
such an approach risks subsuming African agency under the looming structure
of expanding European capitalism, denying that Africans had a direct
and crucial role in shaping their own history. In addition to assigning
responsibility, the main difficulty facing the reparations movement
will be to determine the number and nature of the beneficiaries. Who
will actually be paid and by whom? Determining individual reparations
recipients will remain an unwieldy task, while payments to states or
governments may never find their way to the damaged. The enormity of
clarifying these legal and political questions has so far tended to
prevent the reparations issue from entering mainstream political discourse
in either Europe or the United States. Until those fighting for reparations
overcome such basic logistical issues, even the most heartfelt appeals
will likely fall on unresponsive ears. For as Mazrui states, "at
the moment the flesh is weak and the spirit is not even willing."