Lansana Fofana, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS - Rome), October 24, 2008
The first West African conference of the African Socialist International has ended in Freetown, with delegates calling for reparations to be paid to Africans for 400 years of slavery.
A presentation by Ismail Rashid, a Sierra Leonean professor of African History at New York’s Vassar College, captured the mood when he insisted that it is long overdue for the West to pay for the “heinous crimes committed against Africans for our enslavement and dehumanisation.”
“Asking for reparations is no favour demanded from the west,” the radical pan-Africanist exploded. “It is our right because through slavery, the West stole our labour, dignity and resources. It is repayment for our labour, our looted human resources.”
The meeting brought together African socialists from around the continent, Europe and the United States to discuss this and other themes, against the background of the current financial crisis facing western economies.
“Reparations may come in the form of technology transfer and financial resources because slavery destroyed Africa’s early potential for growth and industrial advancement,” Rashid added.
The issue of reparations has long been a subject of debate in intellectual circles around the continent and participants at the Freetown meeting agreed that the effects of slavery still hamper Africa’s growth.
Luwezi Kinshasha, a Congolese delegate at the conference, argued that “neo-colonialism is a by-product of slavery.”
“Western Europe enslaved Africans for 400 years, shipping out our people as human commodities to work on plantations in the west and help develop Europe. The trend continues even after independence, with the West propping up surrogate regimes which seek to promote their interests,” Kinshasha says.
He adds that only socialism will unite the mass of African people to take control of their destinies and move forward. According to him, African workers and masses should take power because this is the only way the continent’s resources will be properly utilised for the benefit of the African people.
As general secretary of the African Socialist International, an outgrowth of the African Peoples Socialist Party founded in the United States in the 1970s during the struggle for Black Power, Kinshasha told IPS the conference aimed at uniting and mobilising Africans to step up the campaign for reparations.
“This conference is a starting point. We must organize and unite the African people so that our call for reparations will be heeded by the West,” the Congolese activist laments.
“There’s been more talking in the past. We need to move a step forward and really engage the West in our quest for reparations,” he says, adding: “Even before that, we must demand that the West first openly accept guilt for slavery by apologizing to Africans and then move on to settle for reparations.”
A local pressure group, the Pan African Union (PANAFU) which also took part in the conference, says it has been exploring the subject of reparations and has a working committee charged with the responsibility of coordinating with similar organisations on the continent to push forward the fight for reparations.
Abdul Rashid, an activist belonging to the group, said PANAFU has been campaigning for reparations for more than a decade and that the Freetown conference adds impetus to the cause.
“The conference is timely. We need to organise such meetings across the continent, on periodic basis, so as to create awareness among the African people that reparations have to be paid by the west, a right of the African people and a moral obligation of the west,” Rashid told IPS. A practical way to push forward the campaign for reparation, he says, would be the setting up of an all African committee that would engage the West aggressively, through dialogue, to extract reparations.
Cherinoh Alpha Bah, the regional organizer of the African Socialist International, says a number of European companies and industries benefited from the slave trade and that these must be forced to pay back to Africa.
“Some companies and industries which helped Europe’s development no doubt benefited tremendously from the slave trade and some of their profits must go to Africa as reparations. Also, looted artifacts from Africa must be returned because these rightly belong to the African people,” Bah maintains.
Ismail Rashid, whose presentation was mainly on the trans- Atlantic slave trade and reparations, gave a historical background of slavery, highlighting the apparent collaboration of Africans as a reason why the trade flourished in the first place.
“It was the collaboration of Africans that helped fuel the trade and this collusion is still happening today as we see neo-colonial regimes on the continent directly serving the interests of their western masters,” Rashid opines, adding that this is today manifested in the continent’s debt burden and unjust trade policies.
He laments the fact that little is taught about African history in schools and higher institutions of learning on the continent and urged Africans to remember the horrors of enslavement, the dispersal of African people as commodities and their systematic exploitation and dehumanization.
This dehumanization, Rashid insists, still continues in the form of the prevalence of racism and the loss of self identity and confidence. He concludes that it was the resistance of the African people that helped end slavery and colonialism and urges that such resistance must continue if neo-colonialism, an offshoot of both despicable systems, is to be defeated.
Sierra Leone was a fitting venue for the conference because it was a major slave trading outpost, according to the conference organisers. The government here, through its ministry of tourism and culture, has pledged to preserve the historic Bunce Island slave fortress, off the coast of Freetown, from where thousands of Africans were taken into slavery, as well as other relics of the trade. It has also set up a Relics and Monuments Commission, charged with the responsibility of identifying other slave outposts that had long been neglected and made unattractive to tourists.
A statue of Sengbe Pieh, slave name was Joseph Cinque, the leader of the Amistad slave revolt off the coast of the United States, has been placed at a prominent round-about in west Freetown and is daily visited by ordinary passers-by as well as tourists.
Last year, the country celebrated the bi-centenary of the abolition of slavery and the founding of Freetown as home for freed or liberated slaves. Activists say they would put pressure on the government to add voice to the call for reparations, but this is yet to happen.