Nigerian activists have called on the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, to support the payment of reparations to Africa. The call is at odds with a comment from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who said at the opening of the conference that it will suffice for Europe and America to apologize for slavery and colonialism.
The African World Reparations and Truth Commission, on the eve of the opening of the Durban conference, asked western countries and institutions that benefited from slavery and colonialism to pay Africa almost $800 trillion. "The money would help Africa deal with some of the enormous problems caused by slavery and colonialism," said Hamet Maulana, the co-chairman of the commission.
Nigeria is one the countries heading the reparations campaign at the Durban conference. As the most populous African country, its citizens accounted for a large percentage of the more than 12 million black slaves in Europe and the Americas.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told delegates that Africa should be satisfied with an apology instead of insisting on reparations. He said this would help erase the bitterness and anger in the hearts of descendants of slaves. He says monetary compensation could actually hurt the dignity of Africans and may also lead to divisions between Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora.
But many Nigerian scholars and activists do not agree. One of them, Professor Julius Ihonvbere, says President Obasanjo may have been badly advised on the issue of reparations. "Given Nigeria's strategic location in Africa and in the world, it is not our duty to make case for those who perpetrated or the descendants of those who perpetrated the crimes against Africa," argued Prof. Ihonvbere.
"Second, is the fact that if the Jews could be compensated by Germany, and if Japanese citizens who were detained or interred in America following the Pearl Harbor attack could be compensated, this is how we sell ourselves very cheap. This is a continent of over 800 million people who were brutalized, abused, debased, marginalized and harassed, massacred - treated like nothing by Europeans and the result of that behavior is being enjoyed by millions of Europeans and Americans today. For us to be making a case to them that they don't have to pay I think is a very misplaced political and ideological position," he said.
Professor Ihonvbere, a constitutional law specialist, says reparations would not necessarily have to take the form of cash. He suggested debt relief as one alternative and said there are other possibilities as well. "It might be in terms of developing a Marshall plan to support democracy, human rights, and environmental protection and supporting our institutions, which have been ravaged by a collusion of our misguided élites and foreign imperialist interests. The critical point now is for all the progressive forces in Africa not to allow some of our leaders to derail the debate. We must push it to the end where it is taking up as a global battle and some reparation paid to Africa. We can negotiate the terms, the content and the value but it should be an issue as part of the global debate for us all to address," said the professor.
Activist Comfort Ijika-Ogunye says the issue of reparations cannot be pushed aside. She says the fact that some African leaders sold their own people into slavery should not be used as an argument against reparations. She says what they got in return for betraying their people, was very little compared to the gains of the slave owners. "How do you measure in economic terms the quantum of benefit that accrued to African chiefs and the quantum of benefit that Europe and America got from the vents of Slavery? What did our African collaborators get for the able men and women who were sold into slavery centuries ago - mirrors figurines? Some of them just got fanciful clothes. That's the best they got. And that is why we submit, I personally submit, that reparations should be paid to black people for the evils of slavery and colonialism."
Many other Nigerian scholars and activists are also hoping the conference on racism will adopt a resolution calling for reparations. But they say if not, they will continue to press their demands. They say reparations could help to heal some of the wounds of slavery.