Non-Reformist Reparations for Africa

Justin Podur

The arguments against
reparations for Africa are in the details: How can you possibly measure, and
repay, for millions and millions of shattered lives over centuries? When a
figure is settled on, and paid, is it all over? Can there be adequate
compensation for centuries of slavery, colonization, and destruction? Can one
group of people be held accountable for what their ancestors did? Where does
exploitation in the present fit in?

One way to
resolve this issue is to not look at what would be fair compensation for
slavery. The crime is too big, committed by too many people, over too long, with
so many of the perpetrators and the victims dead that restitution, in the sense
of punishing the perpetrators by making them pay compensation to the victims,
isn’t possible.

Besides, imagine
if a figure were arrived at, and paid—as a direct transfer from Western
governments to African countries. Would those who need that money most ever see
it? Would the money be used to address the serious problems Africa faces? Or
would the whole exercise be used as PR, in which the West clears its conscience
without ever having to solve the problems it created? Without fundamental
changes in the power relations between Africa and the West, real gains from
reparations would be quickly eaten away. On the other hand, reparations could be
part of a program of fundamental changes in power relations. In other words,
reparations could either be a “reformist reform”—one that upholds the logic of
the current system by a quick transfer of resources that would even more quickly
return from Africa back to the West—or a “non-reformist reform,” one that runs
counter to the logic of the current system and moves the world in a direction of
greater equity and solidarity.

One path to a
“non-reformist” reparations program is focusing on the damage that was done to
African society by slavery, colonialism, military interventions, and structural
adjustment programs, and how to repair that damage. The answer to “what is due
to Africa?” becomes: “What will it take to restore Africa to equality with the
rest of the world, with all the quality-of-life, infrastructural, technological,
and ecological improvements this entails?” As for the question of where these
resources would come from, the answer is: there is plenty of money at the top.
That is, the resources would be transferred from those institutions that are
currently continuing the plunder of Africa: corporations, governments, and
military institutions.

Damage was meted
out by Europe (and North America) to Africa in four phases. The first was in the
period of slavery, 1450-1850. The second was the period of colonization,
1850-1960. The third was in early independence, 1960-1980. The fourth was in the
period of structural adjustment, 1980 to the present.


Basil Davidson, in his
book, The African Slave Trade, summarizes the damage done by the slaving
relationship that dominated the interaction between Europe and Africa from
1450-1850, intensifying in 1650-1850.

Davidson thinks that the direct impact of depopulation on Africa was less
devastating than the economic, social, and political impact. This is, of course,
no comfort to those millions of people whose lives were shattered by the trade.
An estimate of the number taken is 12 million, plus 2 million who died in the
passage, and 7 million killed before embarkation, for a total of 21 million from
1650-1850. This was a devastating loss and there is evidence that depopulation
had a lasting impact. In areas where people were unable to defend themselves
from slaving, there are still lower densities of population than where people
were able to defend themselves.

Slaving did steady and decisive damage to the economic and
technological development of Africa. In Davidson’s words, “Africa’s export
production was a monoculture in human beings.” The people who would have
contributed their labor to Africa, developed skills and techniques and local
industries, were taken away. They were unable to even remit anything back to
Africa the way migrant workers were.

Socio-Political Impacts.
The slave trade empowered the most conservative
elements of African society, allowing them to trade people for devastating
weapons to do still more slaving. It gave chiefs a way to get rid of critics,
removing a crucial element of dissent and pressure that drives change and
progress in any society.

It is possible
that Africa could have recovered from the long and destructive relationship if
that had been followed by a new relationship of equality, with technological
advance and an expansion of economic freedom. But slavery helped prepare the
ground, in the form of devastated societies and social structures, for


An excellent primer on the
impacts of colonialism and the later relationship between the West and Africa is
the work of Brooke Schoepf, Claude Schoepf, and Joyce Millen in Dying for

Europe followed
the four centuries of slaving by carving Africa up into colonial possessions.
They did so in incredibly violent ways. Belgium’s conquest of the Congo killed
millions. Europe developed “scorched earth” methods of warfare, destroying
agricultural systems and depopulating whole areas. In East and Southern Africa,
the combination of war and disease killed the population of cattle and therefore
the local economy, and epidemics followed.

Colonialism was a
period of monopoly capitalism. Europe established plantations to grow cash
crops, mines, and transport systems to facilitate the extraction of these
resources. The rails and roadways were designed for commodity export, and not
for economic interconnectedness and development within Africa.

devastated social structures that had already been devastated by slaving. People
were forced by taxes and coercion to work in colonial enterprises in which they
were overworked and underfed. Agriculture suffered, food production declined,
and hunger, famines, and disease followed. The unhealthiest period in African
history was the colonial era 1890-1930.

To the extent
that there was economic growth, its benefits were transferred to Europe. Civil
society, severely damaged by the ability of chiefs to get rid of dissenters over
the centuries of slaving, was further destroyed by colonial politics. Skilled
jobs and education were generally monopolized by white settlers—and when they
were not, they were doled out in order to create an elite beholden to colonial
powers, an elite who would act in colonial and not African interests.

destroyed the African economy and agricultural system and replaced it with
systems, infrastructure and class structure designed for commodity export and
exploitation of African labor and resources for European benefit. The need at
the time was therefore a reorientation of those social systems towards the
utilization of African labor and resources for African benefit. A new
transportation and communication infrastructure, land reforms to reverse the
agricultural destruction, and a transfer of resources to rebuild the areas most
damaged by colonial warfare was in order. At independence, that would have been
the course of restitution. But since then, Europe (and North America) has not
acted to repair the damages of slavery and colonialism, rather it has inflicted
further damage on Africa.


Not only did Europe have
no intention of relinquishing its control over Africa, but it was felt that
Europe should be “given” Africa to help it rebuild after World War II (and not
the other way around). The colonial elites who had served Europe’s interests
often remained in power. So did the commodity-dependent economics. Indeed, much
of the economies remained in foreign hands. When African leaders tried to embark
on a course of independent development, they were overthrown in
Western-sponsored coups.

This happened in
1961, with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. Lumumba was
elected prime minister in 1960. He sought independent development for Africa.
Belgium sponsored an uprising in a resource-rich province of the Congo, Katanga,
and intervened to support that province’s bid for independence, violently. A UN
intervention followed the Belgian. Lumumba was dismissed from his post by the
president under fairly sketchy circumstances. He persuaded parliament to return
him to power, but was forced to flee. There is evidence (see William Blum,
Killing Hope
) that the U.S. was complicit in his assassination in 1961. A
long and brutal civil war followed that assassination. At the end of the war,
Mobutu Sese Seko, a bloody and thieving dictator came to power. Mobutu was
replaced in the mid-1990s by Laurent Kabila, another dictator, whose son
currently holds power in the Congo.

Western-sponsored coup also overthrew Kwame Nkrumah, a pan-Africanist leader in
Ghana, in 1966. Nkrumah also sought independent development. A wave of
privatizations followed the coup.

Those governments
that were not overthrown and wanted to diversify their countries” economies and
build public services did so by borrowing from international financial
institutions. With sectors in the economy controlled by multinationals who were
repatriating profits, African countries often found it impossible to build up
capital and productive capacity. Diversification was slow, when it happened at
all, and when commodity prices collapsed, Africa entered a debt crisis.

The damage done
in the period of early independence, then, consists to some degree in not
allowing Africa its chance to repair the damage done to it in previous periods,
as well as some direct damage by assassinating leaders, allowing debts to
accumulate, and allowing apartheid to continue. The debt crisis inaugurates the
fourth period of damage to Africa, the period of structural adjustment.

Structural Adjustment

Since the 1980s, Africa
has suffered over 42 structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Structural
adjustment typically features: privatization of public industries and services,
deregulation of labor and environmental standards, the downsizing of public
sector workforce and services—including health and education and subsidized
food—a contraction of the essential public services in poor countries.

In Zaire
(formerly the Congo), for example, in 1984, an SAP led to 80,000 health and
education workers being cut from government payrolls. It is difficult to
calculate the ripple effects of such a move—in lost incomes for whole families,
in the losses of the services those workers provided, in the loss of the
spending they would have done, in the weakening of the organizations that were
left without them. In 1985, Ghana employed 1,782 doctors. In 1992, it employed

The SAPs have not
led to the reduction of Africa’s debt, whose principal has been paid back many
times over. Debt service takes an appalling share of income countries need to
keep their people alive, and it also forces countries to keep their economies
oriented to production of exports to earn foreign exchange. For every aid dollar
received by Africa in 1993, three dollars left Africa in debt service;
four-fifths of Uganda’s export earnings go to debt service. Between 1990-1993,
African countries spent $13.4 billion in debt service—4 times what they spent on
health. That Africa produces cash crops for export and imports food is not good
for its own food security, but it is good for Western agribusiness, which gets a
market in Africa at the expense of land reform and the alleviation of hunger

The structural
adjustment era was also one of damaging foreign policy. The U.S. intervened in
Somalia’s civil war in 1993, supposedly to “restore hope.” That intervention
cost the U.S. 18 lives, and Somalia 7,000-10,000. The 18 lives the U.S. lost led
it to refuse to allow the UN to intervene in Rwanda where the commander on the
ground claimed he could have prevented 800,000 deaths in 1994-1995 with 5,000 UN
troops, who required an airlift that only the U.S. could have provided. In
Sudan, in 1998, the U.S. destroyed a pharmaceutical plant, wiping out half that
country’s pharmaceutical supply, with catastrophic, but unstudied, public health

Not all the blame
can be placed on the West, although the historical role means that even African
political structures were shaped by the long and destructive relationship with
the West. When the present damage being meted out in military interventions and
SAPs is considered, it is clear that a horrific amount of unnecessary suffering
is going on.

Even in the
Rwandan genocide, which was the product of a political movement of “Hutu Power”
extremists, the West had a role to play beyond simply not acting to prevent it.
The genocide was one in which Hutu Power organized Hutus to kill Tutsis and
moderate Hutus. Beside Rwanda in Burundi, a Tutsi ruling minority had spent the
1960s-1980s slaughtering politically active Hutus who tried to depose them:
thousands in 1965, perhaps 100,000 in 1972, over 5,000 in 1988. At least part of
the responsibility, according to Basil Davidson (in The Black Man’s Burden)
belongs to the colonial legacy. In both Rwanda and Burundi, the relationship
between Tutsi and Hutu had been one of caste, with the Tutsi minority
dominant—but it had been a caste system in which there was mutual obligation and
customary rights. Belgian colonialism promoted the Tutsis from a constrained
upper caste with responsibilities to an unconstrained dictatorial minority
without any responsibilities. The result was a rupture between the two groups
that was deepened by western intervention in the tried-and-true form of
“globalization”:  in October 1990 Rwanda suffered a devaluation of currency that
threw many youths out of work. In 1989, the “floor price” for coffee, that
provided farmers with a minimum of income security, was withdrawn at World Bank
urging. Unemployment, poverty, and economic insecurity does not lead inexorably
to genocidal violence. But the former do provide fuel for the latter in the form
of desperate people more ready to believe an organized campaign of scapegoating.
In Africa, with such a high rate of foreign ownership in the economy, where the
state is such an important arena for jobs, competition for such state patronage
can (and was) be manipulated by communal movements like Hutu Power.

In the African
AIDS crisis, the West also plays a role. While there is some controversy over
whether AIDS is the killer of millions of Africans that most public health
professionals agree it to be, and whether 35 million Africans are in fact
infected, what AIDS dissidents and AIDS researchers can agree on is that the
appropriate response is most definitely not the contraction of public health
systems and the exacerbation of poverty through SAPs. The disagreement is over
drugs. Cheap, generic AIDS drugs in Brazil appear to have been successful in
reducing transmission and prolonging lives. A side effect of generic drugs is
that they interfere with drug corporations’ rights to profits, rights that are
protected in trade charters like the WTO and enforced by international financial
institutions. AIDS dissidents for the most part agree that the health of people
takes precedence over the profit of corporations. They disagree that drugs help
that health. In any case the drugs should be available, as they are in Brazil
and as they are for the wealthy.

The drug example
is actually a good illustration of the reparations issue. Who should suffer
economically so that the health of Africans can be protected?—drug corporations.
These corporations can be offered the choice of not interfering with the
production of generics or being nationalized and run in the public interest,
with the profits going to build African public health systems. Likewise, who
should pay to restore Sudan’s pharmaceutical production and repair the damage
caused by its loss?—the U.S. government, with the funds coming out of the
military budget. Who should suffer when Africa’s debts are written off the
books?—the lending institutions and their profits. Who should pay for the
“re-restructuring” of African agriculture, transport, communications, for local
development and independence?—those governments and corporations that have
benefited from its plunder—first world elites, in other words. How much is
enough?—enough to repair the damage and restore Africa to equality with the

This is
technically and economically feasible. The resources to rebuild Africa are
there. What the West owes is a relationship of equality and the resources to
undo the damage it has done. In the process, elites of rich countries would lose
considerable power, profit, and control. But that has to happen in any case.

Justin Podur is a graduate student in environmental science at the University of
Toronto. He maintains the ZNet Chiapas/Zapatista Crisis Page and South Asia
Watch. He also translates for the Columbia Support Network.