The fight for reparations dominated the discussions at this year’s annual slavery remembrance events in the city of Liverpool, and included a call for the formation of a group of countries to be known as the “United Nations of Africa” to jointly take the reparations struggle forward.
We are not asking for what is not ours. We are asking for what Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, America and the others owe us”, says Dorothy Kuya, an anti-slavery advocate. An African-American activist added: “After the [Second World] War, the Jews demanded reparations and got it! It is time for ours!”
These are some of the ideas coming through loud and clear from people of African descent spread all over the world. Under the aegis of the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery cum Black History Month in the city of Liverpool, a city which became a city on the back of the African Slave Trade, advocates met on 23 August 2011 and explored many facets of slavery – from organised brutalities to exploitation, to racism, and to the other sins committed against Africans during the 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade.
In considering the many things that occupied the minds of the slavers, one stands out like a sore thumb – a quote attributed to Queen Victoria: “If Africans were real human beings, then it would be wrong to trade in them”! In 1999, UNESCO declared 23 August as the “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition”, and since then the debate on reparations and remembrance activities has been growing.
But now many activists say remembrance is not enough. “It is time for us to go beyond gathering to remind Britain and others of their shameful past. We must take the road to reparations,” said an African-American who attended the events in Liverpool.
A chilling presentation of graphic images of criminality and cruelty during the slave trade was shown by the US-based organisation, Dread Scott. It was preceded by another presentation by a historian who dwelt on the humiliating experience of DRCongo under King Leopold II, and the spectacular resistance of slaves in Haiti which culmi-nated in the defeat of the Spanish, and the French under Napoleon Bonaparte.
Many people attending the Liverpool events agreed that the success or failure of what Africa stands to achieve in reparation lies hugely with Africans; and unless Africans in the Diaspora did away with complacency and spoke with one voice, the fight for reparation would come to naught. “For instance,” one speaker said, “when Tony Blair was invited to an international conference on slavery hosted by South Africa, he delegated one of us [an African], Baroness Amos, to attend in his stead. And this is what Amos told the gathering: ‘Britain cannot pay reparations because the trade was legal at the time under review’.”
Dorothy Kuya, who was one of the forces that got the city of Liverpool to apologise for its part in the infamous trade, conceded that Africans too are to blame, because they got paid for the slaves. One speaker, however, switched the topic a bit: Noting that all the pressure has been on the former European and American slaving powers to pay reparations, he asked: “What about the millions of African slaves taken by the Arabs during the time of Julius Caesar?” It is not certain how far the reparation advocates can go with their campaign, including the call for a coalition of countries to be known as the “United Nations of Af-rica”, to jointly take the reparations struggle forward. In an exclusive interview with New African, the mayor of Liverpool, Frank Prendergast, said “reparation should mean finding ways to end human suffering and the exploitation among the African people, which still persists”. Last year, the UK’s race and equality minister, Andrew Stunell, admitted before a hushed gathering that: “Freedom is a gift from God … and it is a crime to take it away from someone. The new [UK] coalition government is highly committed against slavery.”
However, in a later interview with New African, Stunell appeared to backpeddle: “We don’t believe that reparation is a way of tackling the issue of the slave trade,” he said.
“Rather, Britain has been working closely with other nations and international institutions to tackle the effect of modern day slavery that has seen people being shipped to Europe from the impoverished countries of the world, most of them from Africa, for the sex trade, cheap labour, and the like.” Following the lectures, and the interfaith church services, and memorial processions, the traditional African libation and invocation ceremony (marked by the breaking and sharing of cola-nuts and the pouring of dry gin) was performed.
The community leaders, led by the chairman of the event, Chief Angus Chukwuemeka, invoked the spirits of the African ancestors, as Dr George Etugo declared in Igbo: “Madu abughi ewu” (A human being is not a goat)!
Visitors then threw roses into the sea near the International Slavery Museum and the Merseyside Maritime Museum in remembrance of the “ancestors who were dumped into the sea in an undignified manner, and in unmarked graves in Liverpool and in other parts of the world”.
It is a testament to the healing process that today both the descendants of the offenders and offended can share the same platform, or face one another over tea and coffee, and deliberate on the spirit of forgiveness.
As someone quipped: “The spirits of our forefathers are beginning to forgive, because for the first time in the history of the annual event in Liverpool, it did not rain this year.” It is a debatable point.