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NIAS Africa Weekly #89 | Africa’s debate on colonial reparations

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa: The debate on colonial reparations
Sneha Surendran

On 1 November, King Charles III conveyed his “greatest sorrow and deepest regret” for the “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence” committed on the Kenyans during their struggle for independence against colonial rule. He made the comments during a state visit to Kenya.

On 1 November, Germany’s President Frank Walter-Steinmeier expressed shame for the pain inflicted by his country on Tanzanians during the latter’s anti-colonial uprisings, stating: “I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your ancestors here.”

On 16 November, delegates attending the Accra Reparation Conference in Ghana decided to set up a Global Reparation Fund to persuade former colonial states to contribute compensation for the enslavement of millions of Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ghana’s President Nana Addo Akufo-Addo called out Britain and another European state who benefitted at the expense of Africans, stating that: “It is time for Africa — whose sons and daughters had their freedoms controlled and sold into slavery — to also receive reparations.”

Recently, the call for colonial reparations has grown louder in Africa. The advocates of reparations argue that the enduring impact of colonisation on countries and communities necessitates a response from former colonial masters to address the historical injustice. Through reparation, they expect- acknowledgement, redressal and closure. It includes a formal apology, the institution of “truth and reconciliation” commissions to investigate the impact of colonialism, financial compensation to the victims and socio-economic programs to address the inequalities that have resulted from past atrocities and discriminatory policies.

Background to the reparation calls in Africa
The clamour for reparations stems from the popular sentiments demanding colonial powers to take accountability and rectify the atrocities they have committed within Africa and other colonies. The transatlantic slave trade between the 16th to 19th centuries resulted in over 12 million Africans being transported to the Americas to work as slaves. Enslaved people were forced to work in sugar and tobacco plantations, mines and households. They were also subjected to extreme physical, mental and sexual violence and dehumanisation. The extraction of natural resources and the breakdown of local economic structures destroyed local markets. The imposition of foreign languages and religions impacted the social fabric of the colonised people, eroding their identity, culture and way of life. 

The effects of colonialism continue to linger in the form of economic disparities and geopolitical power imbalances. The economies of the colonised states had been finetuned to act as export markets, leaving them with limited industrial infrastructure. Social hierarchies imposed by the colonial powers had by then been ingrained into society. 

Responses to the call for reparations
In 2001, South Africa hosted a UN-led World Conference Against Racism. It was here that the push for colonial reparation gained traction. Subsequent responses have been mixed.

Former colonies have remained steadfast in their demand for reparations. In 2013, for the first time in its history, Britain agreed to compensate over 5000 Kenyans who were tortured by the colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. During his recent visit, King Charles III refrained from apologising for the Mau Mau genocide in Kenya upsetting the community. 

In 2014, CARICOM put forth the 10-Point Plan for Reparatory Justice which asserted that European nations had implicitly participated in the trade of Africans, the genocide of indigenous communities and in the creation of “legal, financial and fiscal policies” leading to the enslavement of Africans. The proposal unanimously called for the colonisers to issue a formal apology, set up a repatriation program for displaced people and invest in development programs and cultural initiatives.

Germany, in 2021, formally acknowledged their role in committing genocide during their occupation of Namibia. They also announced compensation worth over EURO 1.1 billion. 

Despite innumerable calls, Britain has refused to officially apologise for the crimes it committed in its capacity as a coloniser. It has also refused to commit to reparatory justice. When questioned regarding the same, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded with an outright “No,” stating that the focus should be on “understanding our history and all its parts, not running away from it...” and that “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward.” These statements are contradictory. A formal apology can carry legal implications. It can be construed as an admission of guilt. Consequently, former colonising powers use the term “expressing regret” to sidestep the acknowledgement of past wrongs and the need for atonement.

The UN has largely been unable to establish a legal mandate that is binding on all its members. Given that the UN consists of both the perpetrators and victim nations of the colonial era, finding consensus on the issue of reparations is difficult. As a result, the UN’s actions have been largely limited to drawing global attention to the problem of reparations, facilitating dialogues and conferences and providing unbiased assistance relevant to addressing postcolonial issues such as international law, human rights and international peace and security. Numerous resolutions that align with reparations have also been passed by the UN. For instance, the “Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States” indicates in Article 16 that colonialism has impeded development and that all states that practised colonialism are responsible for the restitution and full compensation for the exploitation, depletion and damage of natural resources in postcolonial states. 

However, while these resolutions exist, these are recommendations that ultimately fall to the discretion of individual states. This has led to ignorance on the part of former colonial states. 

Why are reparations opposed?
The main argument against reparations has been that individuals and governments responsible for colonial-era atrocities are no longer in positions of power and those who directly experienced colonialism have passed away. This was how, in January 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that there would be “no repentance nor apologies” for France’s colonising of Algeria. Moreover, certain authorities advocating for reparations have a track record of engaging in human rights violations, corruption cases and misappropriation of public funds. Their involvement undermines the credibility of the reparations, raising doubts about the genuine allocation of funds to the rightful recipients and for the intended purposes. Another argument is that compensation to victim communities and countries is the perpetuation of their victimhood status. The reparations debate points out that the economic instability and poverty in these regions stem from the actions of these so-called "benefactors" during centuries of colonial exploitation and that this poverty is not natural but was manufactured.

15 November - 21 November
Anu Maria Joseph and Narmatha S

Two rebel groups to fight alongside SAF in the ongoing Civil War. 
On 17 November, Rebel leader Gibril Ibrahim the leader of JEM told the BBC that they would fight with the Sudan Armed Forces(SAF) against the paramilitary force of Rapid Support Force (RSF). This decision came after RSF started to gain many areas of Darfur and SAF’s military base. He added that he couldn’t bear seeing his people buried alive. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Movement ( SLM) together fought in previous civil wars and the first genocide in 2003 in Darfur. Now both rebel groups join SAF after seven months of consideration. (“Sudan civil war: Darfur's Jem rebels join army fight against RSF,” BBC, 17 November 2023)

Communal clashes kill 32 people in Abyei village
On 20 November, BBC Africa reported that at least 37 people were killed in a gunmen attack in the village of Abyei. One of the UN peacekeepers was also killed during the attack. The attack comes alongside ongoing communal hostilities in the village over land and resources. The village of Abyei is an oil and resources-rich region that lies on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. It is considered to belong to both countries after a peace agreement that was signed in 2005. The previous week, the UN Security Council extended its mandate of the peacekeeping mission in the region for one more year. (“UN peacekeeper among 32 killed in Sudan clashes,” BBC, 20 November 2023

Parliament approves police deployment in Haiti
On 17 November, the Kenyan parliament approved the plan to deploy 1,000 police officers to Haiti to quell the gang violence. In September, the deployment plan was approved by the UN Security Council. However, Thirdway Alliance, an opposition party, legally challenged the plan citing it as unconstitutional and that only the military could be deployed outside the country. In October, Kenya’s High Court extended the blocking order on the deployment, reiterating that the deployment could not take place until the ruling in January. Members of the parliament who supported the plan stated that the country is part of the global community and could not ignore requests from other countries. They also asserted Kenya’s history of peacekeeping missions in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. (“Kenya's parliament backs Haiti mission despite court case,” BBC, 17 November 2023)

Death toll due to floods rises to a dozen
On 20 November, BBC Africa reported that according to the Kenyan government, the death toll due to the heavy rains and floods has risen to ten. The Coast regional police commissioner Rhoda Onyancha stated that more than 20,000 families have been affected by the floods in the counties of Mombasa, Kilfi, Kwale and Tana River. The World Meteorological Organization reported that the heavy rains that are affecting the East African countries including Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon. (“Kenya flood toll rises as recovery of bodies continues,” BBC, 20 November 2023)

Parliament passes bill limiting oil imports through Kenya
On 14 November, Uganda’s parliament passed a bill permitting the state-owned oil company, Uganda National Oil Company (Unoc) to supply oil to the domestic market. Uganda imports 90 per cent of its oil through Kenya’s Mombasa port. According to Uganda’s Minister of Energy, Ruth Nankabirwa, the bill will limit the import of oil through Kenya as it “exposed Uganda to occasional supply vulnerabilities where Ugandan oil marketing companies were considered secondary whenever there were supply disruptions.” Members of the parliament who supported the bill asserted that it would reduce the fuel cost and the “fuel cartels that arbitrarily influence fuel pricing.” (“Uganda MPs approve ending oil imports through Kenya,” BBC, 15 November 2023)

The UNSC adopts a resolution to extend ATMIS 
On 15 November, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to extend the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) for a period of six months. It will expire on June 30, 2024. Resolution 2710 gives authority for the AU member states to deploy up to 17,626 uniformed personnel to aid ATMIS until 31 December. The phase 2 drawdown adds an additional 3000 personnel as requested by the Somalian government. The resolution further authorises 14,626 personnel from 1 January 2024 to 30 June 2024 to complete the phase 3 drawdown of 4000 personnel for ATMIS. (Somalia: Votes on the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) and on the Renewal of the Sanctions Regime, Security Council Report, 15 November 2023)

Calls on ICC to issue arrest warrant on Netanyahu
On 20 November, the South African government called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for war crimes in Gaza. Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni stated that the ICC’s failure to issue arrest warrants would mean a “total failure” in global governance. South Africa, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros and Djibouti referred to the ICC for an investigation of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Gaza. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel clashes were reported in the city of Cape Town. In response to the clashes, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that the Israel-Gaza conflict should not “deepen divisions” within South African society. Ramaphosa’s government and African National Congress (ANC) had expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Ramaphosa stated: "Support for the Palestinian struggle cannot be equated with antisemitism.” (“Israel-Gaza conflict should not divide SA - Ramaphosa; SA calls on ICC to issue arrest warrant for Netanyahu,” BBC, 20 November 2023)

President Nana Akufo-Addo’s push for colonial reparations
On 15 November, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo urged African and Caribbean countries to demand reparations for the atrocities during colonialism and slavery. He described the assertion as “a valid demand for justice.” The comments were made during the reparations conference held in Ghana’s capital Accra. The conference was attended by leaders of African and Caribbean countries. Akufo-Addo stated: "No amount of money can restore the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences. But surely, this is a matter that the world must confront and can no longer ignore.” In September, during the UN General Assembly Akufo-Addo had commented that “no amount of money would ever make up for the horrors, but it would make the point that evil was perpetrated.” The conference aims to a unified voice to assist African countries that are seeking reparations. (“Ghana's President Akufo-Addo in fresh push for reparations,” BBC, 15 November 2023)

Joseph Boakai secures a majority in the run-off elections
On 18 November, the Election Commission of Liberia announced that Joseph Boakai secured a majority of 50.89 per cent votes against George Weah who secured 49.11 per cent during the run-off elections. The commission stated that they have announced the results from 99.58% of the polling stations. The run-off elections were conducted after Boakai and Weah failed to secure a majority of over 50 per cent of the vote during the initial round of elections. Following the announcement, the incumbent President Weah expressed congratulations to Boakai stating: "The Liberian people have spoken and we have heard their voice.” He asserted that the close competition “reveals a deep division within our country" and called on Liberians to "work together to find common ground... unity is paramount for mama Liberia.” (“Liberia election results: President George Weah calls Joseph Boakai to congratulate him,” BBC, 18 November 2023)

Army recaptures rebel stronghold Kidal
On 15 November, BBC Africa reported on Mali’s army seizing Kidal, a town in northern Mali which has been under the control of the Tuareg rebels for a decade. The junta stated that the recapturing of the town did not mean the mission was complete. The Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP), an alliance of Tuareg armed groups, stated that they left Kidal “for strategic reasons” and that the “fight continues.” In 2015, an agreement was signed between the Tuareg rebels and the Malian government where many of the rebels were incorporated into the army. However, recently the rebels started remerging after French troops withdrew their troops amid a failure in addressing insurgency and the junta turned to the Russian paramilitary group, Wagner, for assistance. (“Mali army seizes key rebel northern stronghold Kidal,” BBC, 15 November 2023)

About the authors
Sneha Surendran is a Postgraduate Scholar at OP Jindal University, Haryana. Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS. Narmatha S is a Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Madras.

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