Africa Versus the West in the Court of Reparations

by ‘Muyiwa Falaiye


When Alex Haley’s Roots was first serialized on Nigerian television in the 1970’s, I was too young to appreciate it beyond seeing it as the story of slave trade. On the one side were the whitemen on a savage mission of capturing as many slaves as possible to work their ever expanding plantations. On the other side were the “innocent, peaceful and primitive” Africans unaware of other civilizations. The whitemen came and changed this scenario. They were “rapacious, brutal and callous”. Africa lost many generations of young people, perhaps its most important resource. The result has been a retardation, in some cases a total stagnation, of the hitherto advancing African civilizations.

For these reasons, Africans of our time are demanding reparations for atrocities committed hundreds of years ago. The timing of the return of Roots to the Nigerian Television screen in 1992 was anything but a coincidence(1). It clearly shows how far television can be used to whip up national sentiments in support of the crusade for reparations for the ‘injustices’ done Africa and Africans during over four hundred years of slavery and slave trade. Roots is a powerful recounting of those terrible days. No one in their right mind can refuse to condemn the obnoxious trade in human beings, whatever the reasons for it.

In this forum, I intend to raise some fundamental questions which I expect will crop up in the course of these demands for reparations. Such questions are already, albeit in another direction, being debated in the SORAC discussion (2). When the modified version of this paper was first published in The Guardian (Nigeria), the controversy it generated lasted for more than a year. I admire the courage of the late Chief M. K. O. Abiola for almost single-handedly standing up against the intimidation and manipulation that resulted from demanding reparations for what he and his allies perceive as ‘injustice and rape of Africa’s resources, human and material. However, I must begin by concurring that reparation is good and dear, at least in these trying times, but the truth, I dare say, is better and dearer.

Using the facts of history, the polemics of philosophy and evidence in law, I simulate a court room situation (3) in order to examine how the demand for reparation will stand in the face of cross-examination. The petitioner is hereafter referred to as “Chief Africa”. The defendant will simply be referred to as “Defence Counsel”. My hypothetical judge is definitely not of Arab extraction, but a neutral observer.

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