The fight for reparations

The push for repair emanates from movements with a rich and varied history. Priya Lukka explores where we’ve come from and what could be ahead.
Activists demonstrate at a London reparations protest organized by Africans Rising UK on 6 October 2021. SANGIULIANO/SHUTTERSTOCK
Activists demonstrate at a London protest organized by Africans Rising UK on 6 October 2021. SANGIULIANO/SHUTTERSTOCK

The fight for reparations is not new. One of the earliest examples of organizing for this in the UK was the ‘Sons of Africa’, a late 18th century political group led by African activists who campaigned to end Transatlantic slavery. Britain had a huge role in the transportation of between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century.

The Sons of Africa was led by Ottobah Cugoano. Born in present day Ghana in 1757, Cugoano was kidnapped by a slave trader as a child and ‘sold’ into slavery on a plantation in Granada. Later he was ‘purchased’ by a merchant and taken to England. It was here he was set free – not an outcome that many enslaved people ever saw. Cugoano went on to campaign for the abolition of slavery, including through a series of ground-breaking public letters to British newspapers.

Movements for reparations have a rich, diverse and global history, including within the anti-colonial struggle on the African continent in the 1900s. This was known as the pan-African movement, seen in countries like Ghana which wanted to chart their own trajectories but were held back by the structure of global economic governance after the Second World War.

Pan-Africanists were opposed to outside influence on Africa and its economic exploitation. Many also demonstrated a political resistance against entrenched colonial power and violence. Remembering the importance of these struggles is important for understanding that today’s divisions along racial lines are no accident. Reparations begin, therefore, as ‘a way of acknowledging historic wrongs and accounting for them’.

More than money

The struggle continues in many contexts today. In the US, where most scholarly work on the racial divide has taken place, African American activists are demanding financial reparations to be paid directly to the descendants of enslaved Africans. Calls for a national apology for slavery have been made frequently by groups such as N’COBRA – the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.

Others, like the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), want reparations for the ongoing legacies of slavery which have produced wide socioeconomic and political disparities in the present-day US. The 400 richest billionaires have more total wealth than all 10 million Black American households combined. Reparations would be used to redress these disparities in areas like housing, healthcare and education. In 2019 these demands resulted in the HR 40 bill being proposed in the US House of Representatives. If passed, it would establish a federal commission to develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.

Some groups have gone further than calls for an apology or redressing some of the outward manifestations of institutionalized racism. In his seminal article ‘The Case for Reparations’, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates argues: ‘What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices – more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.’ In 1968 the Black nationalist organization Republic of New Afrika sought $300 billion, and land, from the federal government to establish this new Black-majority nation.

There is much to learn from how different movements are developing their calls for action. At its 2020 conference, the Green Party of England and Wales passed a motion based on a proposal pioneered by the Stop the Maangamizi Campaign. It called on the UK government to establish a Commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice and commit to atonement and reparative justice for Afrikan enslavement (reclaiming the spelling using a ‘k’ rather than a ‘c’ as imposed by European colonizers).

We won’t get the shake-up we need without dismantling the systems underpinning our economic and justice processes

Maangamizi is the Swahili term for Afrikan Holocaust and the continuum of chattel, colonial and neocolonial enslavement. The Stop the Maangamzi Campaign is calling for an end to the genocide and ecocide of African people. The specifics of this campaign include proposals for community capacity-building and the restoration of Afrikan sovereignty, as set out in the Pempamsiempango – the plan for reparations and planet repairs.

What reparationists are seeking is repair for the atrocities of slavery and colonialism, as well as ‘seeing the quest for reparations as part of a continuum of unbroken struggle for liberation and restitution in the present’, explains Esther Stanford-Xosei, co-founder of the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe and Director of the Maangamizi Educational Trust.

The Abuja Proclamation, borne out of the first Pan-African Conference on Reparations, held in Nigeria in 1993, called on the international community to recognize the ‘unique and unprecedented moral debt owed to the African people’ for enslavement and the colonization of Africa. This debt is not just about financial wealth or commodities. Enslaved and colonized peoples have also been displaced from their land and their cultures and this can have a multi-generational impact.

The idea of customary land tenure was coined by European powers who sought to re-draw pre-colonial land divisions in their conquests. As part of a divide-and-conquer strategy, European colonialists assigned land not to individuals or families but to their chosen leaders, who in turn granted land rights to local groups. To maintain an imperial grip on power, inequalities were solidified.

Colonialism and reparations fact spread from new Internationalist's issue 545

Who leads the process?

A central principle of reparations is that the process should be led and defined by victim communities. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a set of principles and guidance on the right to reparations for victims of human rights violations, stating that these should include restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.

That means understanding how harm has been caused in the first place. This can be done through consultations and evidence hearings, such as the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War, which helped to establish the process for Holocaust reparations paid to Jewish survivors of the Nazi regime.

It is essential that impacted communities are involved in reparations processes. In 2021, Germany also went some way in recognizing and apologizing for its role in the Ovaherero and Nama genocide that took place during its colonization of Namibia between 1884 and 1919, pledging $1.2 billion towards existing aid programmes, but without using the term ‘reparations’ or ‘compensation’.

Consequently, the Ovaherero and Nama people have taken their case to Namibia’s high court, in frustration at the lack of their direct involvement: ‘We were not involved at any stage. The government set the agenda, it discussed what it discussed and never disclosed it until we saw a joint declaration last year,’ said Mutjinde Ktjiua, Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero.

There have also been cases where compensation has been awarded to perpetrators instead of a fuller process of repair. In 1825, 21 years after enslaved Haitian rebels secured victory against the French colonial authorities, Haiti was forced to pay France for the loss of its colony, as a condition of independence. The sum demanded by France – the equivalent of $21 billion today – was paid over a period of more than 100 years, with the final payment made in 1947. This placed financial strain on the newly created republic of Haiti and continues to have consequences to this day. In 2020, economist Thomas Piketty argued that France actually owes Haiti at least $28 billion as reparations.

Dismantling the system

Reparations are more than an expenditure-based approach to redistribution. They can also offer a powerful diagnostic of how the world order is upheld by maintaining divides. Nowhere is this neocolonial power more evident than in thinking about how the global economy came to be the way it is. Global macroeconomic policy continues to be made through elite mechanisms, in which many countries are unable to actively influence the policy direction of their countries, and are reduced once again to participating in these global structures on a limited basis.

The economist Ndongo Sylla talks about the lack of sovereignty that lies at the heart of the world economy. Remedy would mean that former colonized countries would gain more control over the mechanisms of their own economies, such as being able to opt out of currency pegging to the US dollar or the French franc – as is the case for many countries in Francophone Africa – and trading in their own currencies. It would also mean ending the reliance on development loans and designing tax regimes that ensure that transnationals pay their fair share of tax in the countries where they operate.

The Asian Peoples Movement for Debt and Development is calling for reparations in the form of debt cancellation for all countries currently facing a climate crisis, as well as an end to supporting development needs through further debt-creating finance.

But there is currently little political will nationally and internationally for reparations at the level where it could make a difference. We won’t get the shake-up we need without dismantling the systems underpinning our economic and justice processes, which means examining both the harm they cause and what their repair and re-envisioning would mean.

At the heart of the neoliberal system, the imperialist structures that have created global inequalities remain. Injustice manifests in different ways, as the many global examples of reparations struggles show us. Rupturing the power structures as we know them to enable repair, restitution and remedy begins with support for the work already taking place.