Reparations for Slavery? Are all the issues being considered?

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There is a growing movement in Africa for Europe and America to pay compensation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Afrikan World Repatriation and Reparation Truth Commission (AWRRTC) is more than ready to blame all of Africa’s “woes” on the “damage” this trade caused. Dr. Harmet Maulana, the commission’s co-chairman, has stated that “Africa deserves compensation and we demand it now.” Of course this must be considered as part of a larger picture, with Africa demanding a greater voice in international politics and a greater say in the distribution of overseas aid across the continent.

Maulana compares the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was brought to an end roughly two centuries ago, to the problems caused by warfare during World War II and the more recent Gulf War. Victims of these wars have received compensation, so then should Africa. Even the once moderate leader of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, has added his voice to this campaign.

Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah’s article for the West African Review is a good example of modern Africa’s approach to the history of slavery. In essence only the trans-Atlantic slave trade has caused depredation and devastation. The long history of enslavement carried out by African societies and by Islam can be ignored. He suggests that claims that Africans enslaved each other is just a misinterpretation of words — that for example the Yoruban word eru does not mean “slave” but “servant” — and that “never did African practiced a debasement of humanity as slavery was.”

Despite a great wealth of historical evidence that the slave trade existed in West, North and East Africa to supply the ever expanding Islamic empire for centuries before the arrival of European traders, it is suggested that “the conditions Europeans created for the Atlantic Slave Trade was the importation of chains, padlocks, guns and various crude gadgets to Africa, and the obvious demonstration of their uses to the Africans.”

Also worthy of note is the suggestion that Africans may only have forced each other into slavery because they were driven to it by the great demand for slaves in the West — it is odd to suggest that suppliers have no control over a product when demand is high.

How is it that other occasions of slavery can be ignored, and more significantly, how can Africa not act on modern day cases of slavery?

There has been a constant flow of reports of slavery in Sudan. Although the cause of this particular practice is mired in the on-going civil war and further muddied by links to the international terrorist Osama Bin Laden, the human tragedy is denied by the Sudanese government, and is either dismissed as unimportant (or worse, as a myth of Western reporting) by other African states.

A Reuters report in January this year remarked that:

“The United Nations says thousands of children and women have been abducted into captivity and forced labor in Sudan, with victims subject to frequent physical and sexual abuse.”

The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Susan Rice, visited the region in November 2000 to highlight the problem:

“Part of why I am here is to show the world that despite what the government in Khartoum says, despite what some of our partners in the European Union may want to pretend… slavery exists, and it has to be acknowledged and it has to be addressed.”

In West Africa too there is a continuing practice of child slavery. Reports in the last few years suggest that children in countries such as Benin, Burkina, Togo, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast are being sold for “domestic and commercial labor and sexual exploitation.” A BBC report notes that “in one instance the Benin authorities found 400 children aboard a boat anchored in Cotono harbour, itself an historic slaving market.”

Recent exposes have revealed an even more (for the West) disturbing racket of Nigerian girls being smuggled through Britain to the rest of Europe where they are sold to prostitution rings.

Until Africa acknowledges all aspects of its history, and acts against the on-going enslavement of its people, how can it expect to have a voice in international politics that is taken seriously?

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