Ghanaian President Stirs Controversy Over Slave Trade Reparations

Ghanaian President John Kufuor at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, Nigeria on Nov. 29, 2006. (Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP-Getty Images)

March 25, 2007 marked the second centenary of the passage by the British Parliament of legislation outlawing the mass enslavement of black Africans for commercial profit throughout the British Empire.

Across the British Commonwealth — the loose alliance of former colonies of the British Crown — ceremonies were held to commemorate the tragic plight of the 10 million Africans forcibly transported to the Americas and elsewhere to provide unpaid labor on plantations, in factories, and private households.

It was at one such event, held on March 26, that the Ghanaian president, an Oxford trained lawyer and former businessman, waded into the boiling controversy about whether reparations are owed for the appalling tricentennial trade in Africans, and if so by who, to whom and on what terms.

The occasion, billed as a sort of two-in-one event because the second centenary coincides with the Golden Anniversary of Ghana's independence from Great Britain as the first sub-Saharan colony to achieve the feat (Liberia, which became a republic about 100 years earlier, did so under rather unconventional circumstances), was under the auspices of the British Council, a public agency tasked with organizing Ghana's 50th Anniversary celebrations, and the traditional rulers of the coastal region where it was held. Both slavery and colonialism were thus in the spotlight.

President John Agyekum Kufuor, standing in a castle built by the Portuguese and used in part to facilitate slavery, and partly to sustain commerce, advised that the quest to honor the memory of those whose lives were literally sacrificed in the course of the horrific episode, should not degenerate into divisiveness, bitterness and rancor amongst races, peoples and nations. His comment however that Africans should similarly question their conscience about the role they played in allowing slavery to flourish drew the ire of some black activists.

President Kufuor, according to the Ghana News Agency, was responding to the gathering pace of the campaign to force Western governments, particularly the British and American states, to make financial amends for their legal liability in having allowed slavery to persist unchecked until the campaign of militant past slaves, church protesters and certain figures of the late 18th century enlightenment forced them to remove the statutory cover under which the merchants in human lives plied their trade.

His comments brought into the limelight the divisions within and between African elites on the continent and abroad about the suitability of reparations as a means of helping bring closure to the cruel chapter of human history marked by the slave trade.

The arguments for and against reparations were cast into sharp relief in 2001 when the American journalist and founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, David Horowitz, circulated an advertisement attacking the logic behind reparations across a number of college publications in the United States. The controversial flier, in a manner bizarrely reminiscent of Martin Luther's theses, seemed deliberately calculated to induce a reformation-like event within the mainstream discussion about the moral guilt surrounding America's (and by implication the Caucasian world's) responsibility for the slave trade. But it was swiftly attacked for alleged inconsistencies and flaws of logic.

Yet the central question it resurrected continues to reverberate across numerous debates both in Africa and abroad, as was evident in President Kufuor's comments.

The thorniest issue of whether black participants in the trade, such as the rulers of Dahomey who allegedly grew rich because of the practice, the minuscule number of black slave owners in the ante-bellum southern United States, and the Arab merchants who continually raided the coasts and hinterlands of Africa in search of slaves should all be roped in to share the liability for reparations keeps recurring under different headings. Reparations campaigners of course argue that this is non sequitur.

As Dorothy Lewis, the co-chairperson of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), posits, reparations are about wealth more than about debt. Thus the principle is to ensure that those who most visibly benefited from it recognize the role the slave trade has played in undermining the economic status of some while elevating others. It is less a moral blame issue as it is one of social remedy. At any rate no litigation could proceed from a moral proposition alone. And in that sense, whereas the Arab merchants and black chiefs who benefited from the trade lack historical estates to show for it, the British and American governments as legal entities have maintained a legal continuum and a social presence. For that reason, argue many reparations activists, a class lawsuit stands some chance of success if things should come to that.

It doesn't essentially matter, therefore, that there are no precedents in this area, or that past instances like the post-Holocaust settlements involved living survivors of pogroms or their immediate kin. The process is not strictly confined to legal liability for injury and fatality, but is more akin to more recent events such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Sierra Leone and South Africa.

To quote columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the National Alliance for Positive Action: "The U.S. government, not long-dead Southern planters, bear the blame for slavery. It encoded it in the Constitution in Article I. This designated a black slave as three-fifths of a person for tax and political representation purposes. It protected and nourished it in Article IV by mandating that all escaped slaves found anywhere in the nation be returned to their masters."

Hutchinson's argument thus sets slavery apart from other repugnant historical episodes such as the Roman enslavement of parts of the British population and Genghis Khan's murderous harvest of the plains by pitching claimants of a still existing polity — black Africans — against an equally historically stable respondent.

But this supposed clarity doesn't make the issue any less complicated. The real motivation behind President Kufuor's concern, according to a number of Europe-based Ghanaian intellectuals, is not how to establish liability for slavery, but rather with the actual process of reparations itself. Some feel that taking money as "compensation" for the wrongs suffered by a past generation in this instance might actually amount to a double betrayal.

"How can we profit from their suffering?" was how it was put. There was also some cynicism about whether the best way to affirm the gravity of the issue is to let the "guilty party" to pay for propitiation, as it were to "wash their hands off the matter." And still further, concerns have been raised about how any process can be robust enough to withstand inevitable disputes about transparency, accountability and representation.

Blacks are spread all over the world, in different countries and across multiple cultures. What system can be put in place to ensure that whoever administers any reparations fund, in the words of one critic of the reparations-based approach to seeking redress for the slavery episode: "has a clear mandate from black humanity and will exercise that mandate to the benefit and for the dignity of blacks everywhere from Maputo to Rio?"

This may all be academic, however, as the reparations movement is still relatively young. In the course of time, maybe the determination as to which black Africans actually benefit and in what way, and whether whites, Asians and Arabs will be excluded from community projects funded by reparations money, will arrive through some consensus of some sort.

But if President J.A. Kufuor of Ghana had his way, sorrow rather than money will be the currency reparations are made in, across the board and throughout the globe.

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