Reparations: The New Battle Lines

by Tokunbo Awoshakin

A 5-day long international petition event in support of reparation for black descendants of slaves taken from Africa officially kicked off in Capitol Heights, Maryland, USA, on August 21. Another event started August 31 in Durban, South Africa. This will also focus on reparation and will have delegates in attendance from every part of the world. Tagged the World Conference Against Racism, the conference is termed the most important conference on race in this millenium. Significant among the issues in discussion is an apology for descendants of Africans taken away as slaves.

All of a sudden, the issue of reparation for slavery has become a hot topic. It is as if the world has just woken up from a deep slumber to say – “Hey! Whatever happened to the demand for reparation?” For Nigerians here that got wind of the debate the reparation issue was generating in the Bush Administration, it brought back almost vivid images of the active days of late M.K.O. Abiola

The fire of reparation is alive and burning. The fire has reached the U.S Congress and the White House. Two resolutions are presently before the American Congress just as the Bush Administration is under fire over the American president’s reluctance to send official delegates to the South-African conference if issues of reparation and talk of apology remain on the agenda.

There is, however, no killing this fire. It is spreading and fast too. Take the petition drive event for instance; it was aimed at getting 50,000 signature from every state of America as conclusive evidence that America, whether president Bush believes it or not, is ready to make amends for the wrong and injury upon an entire race of people.

The petition is to be presented, first, to the U.S. Congress, then to the whole world at the Durban conference and eventually at the World Reparation march slated for September 15 2003. The march, which is proposed to hold in America, is expected to feature participants from all nations of Black Africa.

This American effort to revive reparation is the brainchild of Dr Saharra L Bledsoe. As a result of this movement, two resolutions are currently before the Congress, namely House resolution 40 introduced by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, calling on America to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the country and thirteen American colonies between 1619-1865, and make amends.

The second is House resolution 356, which demands an apology from the American government. This is a concurrent bill that was first moved in June 2000 by Representative Tony Hall of Ohio.

The problem, however, is that the present administration in America does not want to hear of reparation or apology for slavery. Reacting to the issue and the seeming reluctance of president Bush to give the matter a fair hearing as apparent in his position on the Durban South African conference, government officials say it will be diversionary.

Ari Fleischer, the White-House press secretary has this to say on the matter: “President Bush does not want to engage in issues facing backwards on reparation. It may serve to drive nations apart as opposed to bringing people together to confront the current problems that the world faces dealing with racism”.

Proponents of the revival of racism and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, however, think otherwise. They argue that just as the Jews and the Japanese got some kind of reparation, Africans also deserve it. Coming together and discussing it, they contend, is the first step.

The thrust of the pro-reparation argument is that there is the need to first establish that crimes had been committed and perpetuated against descendants of Africans just as the Japanese people did by the evidence of their life in the Hemitent camp during world war II which got them millions in compensation from the American government in 1988. They point to the Book, The Debt: What America owes the Blacks by Randall Robinson of Transafrica and say we need to get the world involved in this.

There has also been the expression of disappointment in the seeming non-involvement of Africans from the region of Africa where most of the “victims” of slavery came from. Nigeria, Sierra-Leone, Ghana and other West-African nations are believed to be the major slave “cachment areas”.

Proponents of reparation look back at the recent past and readily recall the effort of the late Nigerian businessman and politician, Chief Moshood Abiola. Now they ask you as a Nigerian journalist practicing in America, especially since you are a Yoruba, whether, there is still any consciousness of the reparation struggle in your country. You sigh!

The fact that Nigerians have always been the arrowheads of the reparation call make the question somehow poignant. Historically speaking, the reparation movement was started in the late sixties and early seventies by a Nigerian.

The man that started it all, Dr Imari Obadele, who is now a professor of political science at the Praine-View A&M University, at that time formed the “Republic Of New Africa” and demanded for $400billion as compensation for “slavery damage”.

In 1988,Dr Obadele and others formed the “National Coalition of Blacks for Reparation in America”. This movement was very active and it was at this point that late M.K.O Abiola is believed to have got involved. The movement was into all sorts of things in the bid to make reparation a reality. They did litigation, published a newsletter and organised conferences and seminars.

Of course by that time the amount of money which was being demanded had risen to $10trillion. This amount is now considered not only inadequate but also not commensurate to the humiliation of slavery. The big deal now is not only to get monetary compensation – which will eventually be messy, but more importantly to get America and the world to re-examine the effect of slavery and it’s lingering aftermath.

Back to the question of whether the consciousness is still alive in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, I throw it back to people back home. If we are to go by historical accounts, if we are to reflect on some of the motifs and art-works in Badagry, and those in Bonny and Calabar; If we are to give a second reading to plays by late Ola Rotimi and books by Ekpo Eyo and reflect on how original artworks from Benin, Ife, Owo and other places found their way to western museums, should we not be involved in the struggle to get the culprits to apologise and make amends?

All over the world, it is “payback time”. Presidents, Army generals and others that committed political and war crimes are being brought to book. The next step is reparation for descendants of African slaves. It is time to make amends for the wrong and injury that was inflicted upon an entire race of people. This is one one the issues on the agenda of the Durban World Conference. It is not too late for the Nigerian House of Representative to discuss the issue of reparation, given the unsavoury treatment given to our ancestors taken away as slaves.

*This piece was first published in The Anchor Newspaper of Nigeria.

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