Posted by: sean | June 16, 2005

Wole Soyinka and postcolonial reparations

This week I saw both Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Wole Soyinka speak. Not surprisingly, Mr. Soyinka proved to be the more interesting of the two. He was there to speak about “post-colonialism,” although he didn’t seem terribly sold on the term. But all appellation issues aside, he had some interesting things to say about African politics, colonialism, European immigration and integration, the “African diaspora” and reparations.

One interesting thing was his focus on the idea that as far as the Slave trade and reparations for such acts go, Europeans are not the only guilty parties. Not to mention some Africans themselves, the Arabs, presumably pushed by a law of not being allowed to enslave another Muslim, were highly active in the slave trade. (The transsaharan slave route should be as famous as the transatlantic version.) He brought up the fact that some Arab governments and intellectuals thought that the history of Arab slavers should be forgotten, since both Arabs and Black Africans have been victims of European colonization.

Then he brought up Fanon, and his theory that victims often have a psychological tendency to take their frustration out on other victims, because they aren’t able to aim that frustration at their actual oppressors, although it’s hard to say how convinced he was of this theory.

Personally, I think it’s important to keep in mind that there’s enough blame for everyone, and that just because Europeans were guilty of enslaving Africans doesn’t mean that the Arab slavers were any less guilty. Some Africans have recently fallen into a discourse of victimhood in an attempt to evade responsibility for some very heinous acts. So while we must come to terms with the fact that the Belgians made up the ID cards in Rwanda, the French supplied and trained many of the killers and the US sat back and did nothing, the people who picked up machetes and brutally murdered their neighbors were Rwandans.

In any case, for Soyinka, the first step is recognizing the evils done in the past, and making at the very least an official and symbolic repentance. He even said that these reparations wouldn’t have to be monetary: “Give us back the art and cultural artifacts stolen from Africa, and we’ll call it quits!”

At first thought, it seems like another gesture might be debt forgiveness and more foreign aid. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s important that the debt be wiped clean more on principled justice than as a magnanimous gesture of self atonement by the rich countries. Many African dictators were given loads of money to build opulent palaces and buy weapons for oppressing their compatriots, so long as they were on the right side of the Cold War divide. So it seems highly unfair that when the peoples of these countries finally manage to rid themselves of their monstrous dictators (often through no help from, or even despite the efforts of, rich countries), that the rich countries who financed their oppression should expect them to pay that money back.



  1. Blame runs in latitude and logitude across the Globe, and many times in complete circles (current and future Western Europe blames Eastern Europe for being cash-hungry; Eastern Eurpoe blames Soviet Union/Russia for years of plunder and a governing system that is like an anathema; Russia could well blame – in case they realize, that their revolution was imported from Western Europe, Germany in particular). So what are the options? I think that monetary reparations should be out of the question, for the above reason (you’ll never get to the end of the blame chain). On the other hand, coming out clean and coming to grips with the real and ugly events of history may alleviate some of the pain, and most importantly, demolish national myths that ‘we are better’, myth that are bred in the history books of every nation.
    Unfortunately, I don’t see the latter happening any time soon, because that would imply the recognition that we’re all human, and our forefathers as well. So politically, the Pandora’s box snaps closed, after the only possibility: ignore. I wish I were wrong.

  2. While I agree that there is plenty of blame to be passed around, I think it’s a little too easy to say that it goes around in circles, which implies that no one is really guilty, at least no more than anyone else.

    Rich countries are guilty of having plundered and continuing to plunder the African continent. I’m not sure whether monetary reparations would be wise or not, or even how they would be calculated, but I do think that we have to steer away from the facile idea that just because both parties are guilty of something, they’re equally guilty and everyone is even.

  3. pleas include something about ”africany reality and sensibility in the works of wole soyinka” , which is my project subject. pls do it as earsly as possible

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