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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
‘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
Despite the fact that slavery is prohibited worldwide, modern forms of the sinister practice persist. More than 40 million people still toil in debt bondage in Asia, forced labor in the Gulf states, or as child workers in agriculture in Africa or Latin America.
Sold, threatened, exploited
Human trafficking is big business, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Sectors such as construction or mining exploit almost exclusively men, while victims of forced prostitution and exploitation in private households tend to be women. But something they all have in common: they are coerced into working through threats, the use of violence, or fraud. Most cases go unreported.
When children are enslaved
Because of poverty parents may sell their children as labor. That’s often the case in Lake Volta, Ghana, where children are forced to work for fishermen. Parents are told their children will get to do an apprenticeship. But in reality, they’re kept as slaves in appalling conditions. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) there are around 10 million child slaves worldwide.
One in five girls is wed before she turns 18, according to the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF. Not all of these marriages are forced arrangements. But every year millions of underage girls are forced into marriage before the age of 15. In many cases they’re taken out of school and essentially live as unpaid laborers in their spouse’s home. Many report physical and sexual abuse in the marriage.
All over the world, girls are exploited as house slaves — by their own family or by strangers. Poverty-stricken families may be promised that their children will get the chance to go to school. But once they’re taken, these girls are locked inside the house and forced to work 12-14 hours a day. Many also suffer sexual abuse. The number of unreported cases is high — even in industrialized nations.
Millions held in debt bondage
Under this form of slavery, victims are forced to work to pay off a debt. Often the debts continue to pile up, even if the whole family toils for 10 hours a day at the brickworks, or in their owner’s quarries, fields or mines. Often the debts are also inherited by children. The ILO estimates there are around 30 million people working as debt slaves, most of them in India and Pakistan.
Nowhere to turn
Illegal migrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation, regardless of where in the world they are. They often have nowhere to claim rights, usually cannot speak the local language, and don’t know where they can turn for help. It’s not clear how many illegal migrants work in agriculture in Europe alone. But many live in abysmal conditions as they slave away for well below the minimum wage.
Born into slavery
The descendants of African slaves in Mauritania are called “Haratin.” Although slavery is officially banned in the northwestern African country, people are still inherited or sold as property there. An estimated 600,000 women, men and children in Mauritania are currently exploited as domestic workers or in the agriculture sector. That’s one-fifth of the population.
Author: Helle Jeppesen, Natalie Muller
THE GAMBIA: MIGRANTS, SLAVERY AND HOPES FOR DEMOCRACY
Back in The Gambia
On April 4, 169 Gambian migrants returned home voluntarily. They had left The Gambia, in many cases more than a year ago, with the intention of reaching Europe. Their journey was cut short in Libya, where many were arrested and detained, often under dire conditions.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Gambians have reported that they were subjected to torture and lack of food while in detenion in Libya. Some have described the emergence of a “slave market,” with captors demanding they call their families to ask for money in return for their release.
Rescued and returned
With the help of the IOM and the Gambian government, some Gambians were able to walk free from Libyan detention centers. The returnees arrived at the airport in Banjul, the capital of this small West African country, and queued to obtain emergency passports and a small amount of money to get them home.
Had they made it onto a trafficker’s boat, as was their intention, they would have faced a perilous journey across the Mediterranean – most likely in an overcrowded rubber boat. More than 5,000 people are estimated to have drowned during such journeys in 2016.
Democracy in The Gambia
In December 2016, long-term ruler Yahya Jammeh was ousted by opposition candidate Adama Barrow (pictured). Jammeh resisted, but eventually fled after West African troops threatened to remove him by force. This was seen as the beginning of The Gambia’s transition to democracy. Peaceful, multi-party parliamentary elections followed in April 2017.
No right of asylum?
Gambian migrants who have made it to Europe are now facing the threat of deportation. Gambians currently make up the third-largest group of African refugees in Germany, but if The Gambia is designated a “country of safe origin,” their applications for asylum might be rejected.
Step by step
There are high hopes for the future of a democratic The Gambia. However, the country’s authoritarian past – including reports of prison torture and the detention of opposition figures – still needs to be addressed. The EU has pledged 75 million euros to support Gambia’s return to democracy and boost the economy.
Author: Rachel Stewart
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