The colonisation of Africa lasted just over 70 years in most parts of the continent. Within the context of historical timeframes, 70 years is an extremely short period, yet as Walter Rodney wrote in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), “it is precisely in those years that, in other parts of the world, the rate of change was greater than ever before.” Under the guise of developing Africa, by bringing social order and economic modernisation, colonial regimes intensified the exploitation of Africa, in levels never encountered before in colonial history, to provide the resources for developing capitalist Europe. Africa’s development was “blunted, halted, and turned back.”
The inordinate effect of colonialism on Africa’s development trajectory and destiny, stems primarily from the loss of power. Colonialism occupied, subordinated, and imposed its will on African societies and destroyed its power to decide and defend its interests. “When one society finds itself forced to relinquish power entirely to another society,” Walter Rodney wrote, “that in itself is a form of underdevelopment.”
The short colonial era was different from the centuries of pre-colonial slave trade because even though the trade was imbalanced and disadvantageous, Africans still retained some semblance of social, political, and economic control. Colonialism imposed alien social and political institutions and culture across diverse African governance systems, and usurped Africa’s power to free economic production and commerce. Africa, during the colonial era, ceased to exist as a socio-cultural, political, and economic entity.
The Tunisian, Albert Memmi, went further in diagnosing the pathology of colonialism: “The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.”
Once Africa’s cultural, social, political, and economic systems were infected by the pathology of colonialism, Africa was removed from history, only mentioned passively as subordinate to European history. Africans ceased to be makers of history. Foreign overlords, like puppet players, with amusement, toyed with the fabric and destiny of African states, sometimes quite dramatically.
It is no surprise that the golden age of European growth and transformation ran parallel with the extreme extraction of human and material resources from the African continent. It is not a coincidence, Gareth Austin wrote, that “most of Sub-Saharan Africa was colonized at a time when the industrialization of Europe was creating or expanding markets for various commodities that could profitably be produced in Africa.”
There is no need to further justify reparations for Africans. The big question is: How much?
That Europe appropriated and stole Africa’s material resources or executed one of the most barbaric and inhumane occupations in recorded history, is not in question; neither is the idea that Africans deserve social and economic justice. There is no need to further justify reparations for Africans. The big question is: “How much?”
What is the value of human life? In as much as we’d like to belabour over the question of “how much”, this difficulty was nonexistent among slave traders. Every slave on the market had a value. Slave traders had no trouble pricing human beings, neither were the abolition-era economists who calculated and approved compensation to slave owners following the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 in Britain. A total of 46,000 slave owners were awarded what in modern terms amounts to £16 to £17 billion. Freed slaves received zero compensation.
Following the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 in Britain, a total of 46,000 slave owners were awarded what in modern terms amounts to £16 to £17 billion
In the United States, New Orleans, a decade before the US Civil War, slaves were paraded on auction blocks in chains. In those auctions, an African man in good health sold for over $1,200, and a girl of nine or 10 fetched $1,400: prices based on the man’s health and strength, and the girl’s ability to bear children for resale. The value can be calculated.
The movement for reparations was hot in the early 1990s. Different scholars, recognising the worldwide crusade for reparations by black people, offered what they believed were realistic approaches, particularly the need to formalise the process. In 1992, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), a group emerged to draft a formal request for reparations. The group, the “Eminent Persons”, was led by Chief Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, a wealthy Nigerian businessman and championed by the renowned globally respected scholar, Prof. Ali Mazrui. They brought together an eclectic mix of political leaders, historians, economists, and cultural personalities.
For Mazrui, reparations meant empowering Africans and African states to bridge the gap between Africa and the rest of the world, in terms of development. This argument went beyond looking at reparations solely as monetary compensation but included conditionalities such as reduced support for African tyrants, increased support for democratisation, inclusion of African states in the decision-making structures of international organisations and cancelling debt.
For the monetary aspect, the Group devised the Middle Passage Plan, borrowing heavily from the thinking and structure of the Marshall Plan that guided America’s transfer of $13 billion (at the time) to rebuild Europe in the post-World War II period. In an analysis on Quartz Africa, Lynsey Chutel recounts that the Middle Passage Plan called for skills transfer to Africans through student scholarships, power transfer via voting rights in international organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Transfer, and the United Nations Security Council. The plan also estimated that 40 percent of Africa’s underdevelopment can be attributed to colonialism; however, the Group of Eminent persons avoided calculating the economic value of human loss due to slave trade and enslavement, for fear trivialising the sacrifices African slaves endured for hundreds of years.
40 percent of Africa’s underdevelopment can be attributed to colonialism
This responsibility was shifted to the Truth Commission in Accra, who in 1999, calculated the value to $777 trillion, excluding interest. However, criticisms over the lack of clarity over this figure, informed the work of other researchers, who in 2000, estimated the cost of reparations at $100 trillion using a methodology that assigned the value of every person lost to slavery at 75,000. The calculations were published in the Journal of Black Studies.
While these attempts at arriving at a ballpark figure are laudable, history shows that the framing of the request is what determines how much can be awarded. How much is paid is a question of who you ask, where you ask, and how much you ask for. There are historical cases that can offer a guideline.
In 1988, in the United States, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that included provisions to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The Act offered a formal apology to the Japanese and authorised the payment of $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The legislation was a win for a decade-long campaign by Japanese Americans, who, in celebration noted that the campaign wasn’t so much about compensating those who had already suffered, but more about the next generation of Americans, citing that it was rooted in the Japanese “kodomo to tame ni”, which means “for the sake of the children.”
In 2003, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) began working with the Mau Mau War Veteran’s Association to bring a lawsuit against the United Kingdom. The British colonial regime was accused or executing, torturing, and maiming 90,000 Kenyans and detaining 160,000 in appalling conditions during the Mau Mar revolt against British rule in Kenya in the 1950s. 10 years later in 2013, the UK government recognised the injustices mete on Kenyans and issued an apology: “The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration… The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and they marred Kenya’s progress towards independence.” The 5,228 victims were awarded a payment totalling to £19.9m following an agreement with the lawyers representing the Mau Mau War Veteran’s Association.
In 2021, Germany in recognising the early 20th century genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, agreed to pay Namibia €1.1bn (£940m) over a 30 year period. The German Minister, Heiko Maas, stated that, “our aim was and is to find a joint path to genuine reconciliation in remembrance of the victims” … “That includes our naming the events of the German colonial era in today’s Namibia, and particularly the atrocities between 1904 and 1908, unsparingly and without euphemisms.” However, while the text of the joint declaration called the atrocities committed by German troops a “genocide,” it omitted the words “reparations” or “compensation,” borne out of the fear that including such truthful language could set a legal precedent for similar claims from other countries.
The trend, therefore, as can be seen from these cases, is a departure of the argument for reparations for all Africans, to a precedent that ties reparations to specific atrocities committed by colonial regimes. Following the examples of the Kenyan and Namibian cases, campaigners in Africa, in addition with making general calls and arguments for reparations, ought to put together evidence for specific atrocities and sue former colonial masters for financial restitution until historical reparations become an international norm.