Opinion » Columnists
Author`s name Ольга Савка

Repatriation First, Before Reparations

"If you ever need anything, please don't hesitate to ask someone else first" - Nirvana, "Milk It"
One has been following with keen interest the on-going debate regarding the issue of reparations being sought by mainly African countries from their Western counterparts over what many see as the injustices committed by the latter on the former through the triple evils of enslavement, colonization and racism. There is certainly no doubt that the 400 years of slavery followed by another 100 years or so of colonization and apartheid constitute a very serious crime against humanity as defined by the Charter of the Nuremberg tribunal. It is also clear that the current buoyant economies of most of the developed world benefited immensely from the cheap and, most would argue, free labor provided by our forbears who inadvertently found their way into those countries centuries back as slaves, as well as from our vast material resources plundered by these same nations during the colonial era.

One is not in any way trying to condone or justify the barbaric trade in humans of the slavery era, the wanton exploitation of our human and material resources during colonialism, or indeed the very obvious brutality of the apartheid era, all of which are usually cited as legal justification for the current demand for reparations. The issue at stake here is the fact that the unfortunate victims of slavery were actually sold, like commodities, into it by their own kith and kin, the clan or tribal chiefs of their era. In other words, these individuals were sold in exchange for money by the same leaders that were supposed to provide them with protection and in a trade that was seen (even by our local chiefs who participated in it) as fairly legal at the time it happened, no matter how barbaric or horrific we might want to consider it at the moment.

In their efforts at convincing the world on the need to offer some form of reparations for the injustices suffered by the continent, especially during the period of slavery and colonization, African leaders have always tended to use the example of the millions of dollars in reparations being paid by the Germans to Israel annually for the atrocities suffered by the Jews under the Nazi oppression of the Holocaust era. There are indeed other examples, like the reparations Koreans received from the Japanese for the cruelties meted out to them during World War II as well as the compensation paid by the Japanese to British prisoners of war for the harsh treatment they received in POW camps, just to mention a few. Reparations campaigners strongly believe that they will have no problem regarding evidence on which to base their claims for compensation, as plenty of it already exists in the form of letters, parliamentary bills, debates, bills of sales, etc, in addition to uncovered documentary evidence giving details of the slaves’ countries of origin, the destinations they were taken to and the new names given to them. They have also fully documented the compensation paid by the British Government to slave owners when slavery was finally abolished around 1838.

One of the main problems that we all cannot run away from, however, remains the issue of how the reparations proceeds meant to help the African people residing within Africa and those in the African Diaspora to continue with their development, which has been hampered by slavery and colonization, will be applied. This is against the backdrop of our current experiences whereby our leaders have been known to loot and stash away the meager resources meant for the development of their individual countries in personal accounts which, ironically, are domiciled in banks located in the same countries we are demanding compensation from.

Throughout history, it is indeed clearly evident that at every point in time, the developed nations have always found a willing tool in our leaders on different eras who have continuously tended to collaborate with them in one way or the other to commit the various atrocities we are now accusing them of. As a result, the two appear to have formed a lethal partnership designed to achieve the total subjugation of the continent. While it is true that slavery existed at a point in time in the history of the black race, the Europeans and others who shipped slaves to Europe and the Americas are as guilty of it as the local chiefs and slave merchants of the time who aided their activity by providing them with the human "commodity" and at a price they duly paid. Conversely, whereas we may be justified in whatever level of condemnation we might chose to mete out to our famed looters in Africa (e.g. the late Mobutu Sese Seko, Jean Bedel Bokassa, General Abacha, etc.), we must also reserve the same or even worse treatment for the foreign banks in the United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland, and such other countries that willingly and knowingly provide them with safe havens for their illegal loot even in situations where was is evidently clear to everyone that the funds were indeed stolen. We are often quick in condemning such financial institutions as the World Bank and IMF, as well as other multilateral lending agencies like the Paris and London Clubs, for our huge level of foreign debt, but we conveniently ignore or forget the ignominious roles played by our own leaders (who, ironically, are the same people demanding reparations!) in our current predicament.

These range from utilizing the funds to finance such white elephant projects as the decades-old but yet-to-be-commissioned Ajaokuta Steel Project in Nigeria, or the cathedral built by late President Houphouet Boigny of Cote d'Ivoire in his native village (which the Vatican reportedly pleaded with him to scale down so that it would not be bigger than St. Paul's Cathedral in Rome), just to mention a few. These are projects that, either by design or accident, have not generated any returns that could be applied towards repaying the loans expended in financing them. Most of those projects that were duly executed with the loans are not well maintained, and therefore are not in a position to generate their desired economic benefits. As a result, the unserviced interest element on these loans keeps mounting and getting re-capitalized, thus adding to the unpaid principal on which additional interest charges are again computed. In situations where the leaders' own unjust policies result in avoidable conflicts, these same "developed" countries are always willing to offer their "assistance" in the form of arms, which our leaders gladly utilize their meager resources in purchasing to aid the killing and destruction of their own population. In most other instances, the loans extended for specific purposes are either partially or completely diverted into personal accounts, which are often domiciled in those same countries from which the facilities were secured, thereby inadvertently helping in subsidizing their already developed economies. This ensures that whereas our own struggling economies are saddled with the pains of paying exorbitant rates on the loans, the same funds get recycled, through our leaders, back into the banking system of the lending countries in the form of low-interest-yielding deposit and current accounts, thus providing them with a healthy net interest margin albeit at our own expense. This, one might argue, constitutes another variant of the roundtripping (albeit not foreign exchange-related), which our Central Banks are battling hard to arrest locally. As a result, whilst the developed economies are enjoying a win-win situation (a classic case of "heads they win, tails we lose!") through both interest charges on the loans and float income on deposits and current account balances, our hapless citizens continue to bear the brunt of an ever-declining quality of life occasioned by reduced spending on health care, education, water and electricity supply, agriculture, security and infrastructural development as the funds that would ordinarily finance these important sectors are increasingly being committed to the servicing of the loans.

This seemingly unending vicious cycle, which resulted in decayed infrastructure over the years, coupled with the very high level of corruption prevalent on the continent, has greatly impinged on Africa's development and contributed significantly in making it rather difficult to attract the much sought-after foreign direct investment. As a result, rather than see our leaders' foreign junketing yield the desired results in the form of investment capital flow in key areas of the economy, what we are most likely going to witness is an increased level of human capital flight or economic migration in the form of brain drain (e.g. doctors and other professionals emigrating to eke out a living in the US, Europe and the Middle East) and talent drain (whereby athletes and soccer players like Gloria Alozie, Wilson Kepketer, Emmanuel Olisadebe and Gerald Asamoah elect to dump their own countries of birth and compete for European countries). Even in the few situations where we are lucky to see these investments flowing in, they will most likely be in such sectors like the tobacco industry that will, in the end, only result in the shortening of the life span of our citizenry, who will be dying young through the harmful effects of increased smoking.

It is clearly evident that, justifiable as it may seem, a campaign as complicated as that for the payment of reparations will take a long time to be actualized. Although the campaign is almost as old as slavery itself, the formal relaunch of the reparations movement occurred at the 1st International Conference on Reparations held in Lagos in December 1990. This was followed by the setting up of the Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) by the then-OAU in June 1992 to help in solving difficulties and resolving other gray areas associated with the claim for reparations, which was to be achieved through the use of technical advisers. The 2nd Conference was held in Abuja in 1993 and called for the setting up of national reparations committees throughout Africa and the Diaspora. All this point to the fact that a very long and arduous journey indeed awaits us especially with the sudden and regrettable softening of their stand by people who should ordinarily be at the forefront of this campaign like Nigeria's President Obasanjo did during his last visit to Barbados.

While we are waiting for the reparations effort to bear fruit, therefore, I am of the strong view that the African leaders pushing this agenda could help their respective economies by striving to repatriate the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been looted out of the continent over the years and are currently residing in individual foreign accounts abroad. This could be achieved by convincing the owners of such funds, some of whom are reputed to own choice properties in exotic locations in virtually all the European capitals and the famous Caribbean holiday destinations, plantations in South America and golf courses in Europe, amongst many others, to bring back these funds and invest same locally. In my opinion, it is much easier and indeed cheaper to convince these people to invest their stolen wealth in their respective countries, for instance, than the current approach, which saw President Obasanjo spending days equivalent to a full calendar year out of his first three in office in search of the elusive foreign direct investment, with very little results to show for his efforts. A moratorium on prosecution could be extended to all those who could create jobs locally by channeling such funds back into their respective nations' economies within a specified period of time, failure to abide by which should result in both prosecution and the forceful confiscation and repatriation of those funds in the same manner the Abacha loot is being treated at the moment. Countries where such funds are domiciled could be impressed upon to support and assist in this process by helping to identify and repatriate such funds at the expiration of the agreed deadline in exchange for certain concessions to be mutually agreed upon, like a softening of the stance on reparations, for instance. Such repatriated funds will, in my view, go a long way toward jump-starting the virtually comatose economies of the various countries on the continent pending the time when the issue of payment of reparations becomes a reality.

Abdullahi Usman