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AFRICA VERSUS THE WEST IN THE COURT OF REPARATIONS©
When Alex Haley's Roots was first
serialized on Nigerian television in the 1970's, I was too young to
appreciate it beyond seeing it as the story of slave trade. On the one
side were the whitemen on a savage mission of capturing as many slaves
as possible to work their ever expanding plantations. On the other side
were the "innocent, peaceful and primitive" Africans unaware
of other civilizations. The whitemen came and changed this scenario.
They were "rapacious, brutal and callous". Africa lost many
generations of young people, perhaps its most important resource. The
result has been a retardation, in some cases a total stagnation, of
the hitherto advancing African civilizations.
Chief Africa: Your lordship, I pray this court to grant the sum of 800 billion U.S. dollars as reparation for the over four hundred years of slavery and slave trading. This is based on a conservative calculation of the lives lost, families separated, civilizations destroyed and other innumerable distortions that affected the lives of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora.
Defence Counsel: Chief, can you be more specific? Can you give us the exact number of lives lost, civilizations destroyed, families separated? Can you also tell us how many whitemen came to Africa to carry away millions of Africans?
Chief Africa: I cannot give you the exact number but certainly many lives were lost. Many whitemen came, but not as many as the slaves they carried away.
Defence Counsel: Does this mean only a few whitemen carried away millions of Africans as slaves? Could this have been done without the active connivance of Africans, influential ones for that matter?
Chief Africa: Certainly, there were African collaborators. Those were bad Africans.
Defence Counsel: Can you identify the Africans who collaborated with the whitemen?
Chief Africa: No, my lord, but history documents the names of key whitemen who were slave traders.
Defence Counsel: Don't you thinks the whitemen who 'carried' the slaves were bad whitemen?
Chief Africa: There are bad people in every society, my lord.
Defence Counsel: Since you know the slave traders, why don't you ask them or their descendants for reparation?
Chief Africa: We do not because we hold their entire race culpable in this crime. All whitemen are directly or vicariously liable because they all benefited from the slave trade.
Defence Counsel: If that is the case, should we not hold the entire black race equally culpable for the participation of a few "bad Africans"? You have also alleged that the whitemen disrupted a thriving civilization, comparable to those of the West. If indeed Africa had thriving civilizations, it would have been impossible for a handful of Europeans to subjugate millions of Africans as slaves (4). As a matter of fact, we did Africa a favour by carrying some of you away as slaves and beginning to civilize you.
Chief Africa: My lord, I must object. This is a pejorative statement. Africans were certainly deceived and brain washed.
Judge: I'd like to agree with you, but you earlier said Africans were very wise. How was it they were deceived so easily?
Chief Africa: My lord, rum, umbrellas, mirrors and gun powder did the trick.
Judge: Objection overruled.
Defence Counsel: Have you also thought of asking the present generation of Africans whose forefathers supported and connived with the slave traders for reparation?
Chief Africa: My lord, that is an unfair thing to do. I have explained that the Africans who connived were deceived.
Defence Counsel: Chief Africa, have you asked the Arabs for reparation for the slaves they also carried away from East Africa? Or are you saying the Arabs were more humane in their slave trading activities and that Arab slave trade is more tolerable than western slave trade?
Chief Africa: My lord, we intend this to be the first step. Soon we shall turn to the Arabs.
Defence Counsel: Is it not true, Chief Africa, that your attempt to get reparations is not the result of any slave trade, but simply a way to escape the present economic situation Africans have put themselves in?
Chief Africa: This is not true, my lord. I agree, however, that the current economic situation has reminded us of the need for reparations.
Defence Counsel: May I ask what Africans have achieved in the almost one hundred and fifty years since slave trade officially ended?
Chief Africa: This is a misleading question. You people have not really left us alone. You have colonized us directly and indirectly.
Defence Counsel: Perhaps, but many African states have been ruling themselves for upward of thirty years.
Chief Africa: Yes, but you people stimulate crises and wars in order to divide and rule the continent indirectly. In any case, the West never wanted to leave the continent; we forced you to against your wish. You are still bitter about that. Are you not?
Defence Counsel: Your economies are in shambles, plagued by political instability. Your leaders are rapacious, despotic and greedy. Anarchy, deprivation, tribalism, corruption all thrive on the continent. Do you expect us to pay reparation for all these internal issues? What about the millions of dollars spent helping feed millions in Angola, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia? What about the thousands taken in as refugees in Europe and America?
Chief Africa: This is only paying back what was stolen from us.
Defence Counsel: I put it to you, Chief Africa, that your demand for reparations lacks merit.
Chief Africa: Your lordship, the defence counsel is unfair and biased.
Judge: I have listened to both
the petitioner and the respondent. I shall adjourn to consider my judgment.
I have considered with great attention to details the submissions of both Chief Africa and the defence counsel, trying to fathom the basis of the demand of Chief Africa for reparations. Is the demand for reparations really a legal issue?
My conclusion is that, indeed, it must
be both legal and moral, with emphasis on the moral aspect. I acknowledge
the fact that it is hairsplitting to draw a clear cut line of distinction
between law and morality, nevertheless, both aim at the same goal --
justice and social harmony (5). For the sake of social justice, I shall
take the question of reparation as both a legal and moral issue. First,
some legal points must be raised.
Secondly, the arguments for reparations
cannot compel us to visit the sins of the father on the son. The law
does not permit the son to stand for the offence committed by the father.
It would amount to a miscarriage of justice for reparation to be paid
by a generation which has not directly participated in the slave trade.
I also fail to see how the generation which actually suffered during
the unfortunate era of slave trade will benefit from reparations. How
can we treat the issue of reparations like an inheritance to be passed
from father to son?
I must also comment on the relative ease
at which millions of Africans were carried away by a few whitemen. I
am surprised that such mundane things as rum, umbrella and gun powder
could have led a people astray. Gun powder for what? Perhaps to help
Africans destroy each other, as their history is replete with inter-tribal
wars even before the slave trade. Some of these wars were waged with
the singular aim of plundering. Furthermore, I would have thought those
Africans whose grandparents connived with the slave traders would have
been arraigned before a court of law and punished if found guilty. If
this suggestion sounds naive, then the demand for reparations appears
equally misplaced. Should charity not begin at home?
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Alex Haley's Roots was first aired on Nigerian television in the 1970's. It suddenly reappeared on screen in 1992 at a time when late Chief M. K. O. Abiola was championing reparations. A coincidence?
2. I refer to the Ayittey Vs Mengara et al on SORAC discussion forum.
3. Dr. F. N. Ndubuisi refers to my hypothetical courtroom situation as kangaroo. Although hypothetical, the litigation is neither spurious nor bereft of logic and equity as he claims. See F. N. Ndubuisi 'Ethical issues in Reparation' The Guardian 18 October, 1992.
4. This argument was earlier developed by Professor Peter Bodunrin See P. O. Bodunrin 'The Question of African Philosophy' in H. O. Oruka (ed.), Sage Philosophy (London: E. J. Brill. 1991).
5. See R. M. Dias, Jurisprudence (London: Butterworths 1976) pp. 130-135.
6. See the case of Adesanya V The President of Nigeria (1981) 2NCLR p. 358. Also see Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya v. Professor Ishaya Audu (1981) 3 NCLR p. 529.
7. See J. I. Omoregbe, Ethics: A Systematic and Historical Study. (Lagos: Joja Educational Research Publishers Ltd., 1991), p. 33.
8. I owe the use of this term to Professor Ayittey.
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