Non-Reformist Reparations for Africa

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?

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.

Depopulation. 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.

Economic Impacts. 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 colonialism.


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 Growth.

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.

Colonialism 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.

Colonialism 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.

Early Independence

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.

A 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 965.

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 there.

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 consequences.

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 world.

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.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.