While studies on the question of reparations for slavery and colonialism are multiplying, few of them focus specifically on the African continent. The ambiguous position of Africa was underlined by Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986: Africans could be held jointly responsible for the sale of human beings to European slavers, but they could also claim reparations since the slavery had ravaged the organic dynamics of their development.
To shed light on the engagement of African figures in the global movement for reparations, I studied the engagement of the Nigerian bashorun (Where ” Chief in English) Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola for reparations for slavery and colonialism, as well as his speeches and operational initiatives, including the conferences in Lagos in 1990 and Abuja in 1993. For the first time, a representative at the highest level of an African State, candidate for the presidential election in his country, has put all his intellectual, political and financial weight in a cause shared with the representatives of the African diasporas and the Pan-African movement.
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He thus formulated what I called Africa’s promise: African states were ready to engage alongside activists in the cause of reparations, often from the diasporas, to place reparations at the heart of diplomatic and late 20th century politicse century.
The pan-Africanist commitment of Chief Abiola
Chief Abiola is one of those famous big man who marked the political and economic history of Nigeria. A prosperous entrepreneur with multiple responsibilities, who got rich quickly, who invested a lot, who married often and who, in an environment dominated by the military, coups d’etat and oil revenues, took on a national, but also pan-African.
In five lectures given between 1987 and 1991 in the United States, the businessman draws on an older imagination, with biblical contours, to encourage the interest and commitment of African-Americans in Africa. It mobilizes history to defend the idea of a “common heritage of slavery, colonialism and discrimination”.
His reasoning is based on the articulation between two historical phenomena between which he establishes a causal relationship: slavery would have had as consequences the underdevelopment of Africa as well as the colonial and neocolonial debt which hinders African economies. Chief Abiola advocates the idea of massive investments in infrastructure, industry, energy, telecommunications, education, health, agricultural technology and support for political democracy – which are qualified as reparations.
Suiting the action to the word, he organized and financed the first “world conference on reparations for Africa and Africans in the Diaspora” which was held in Lagos, Nigeria, on December 13 and 14, 1990.
The Lagos conference in 1990
Organized under the aegis of General-President Babangida, its objective was clearly to “place the critical issue of reparations for Africa and Africans in the diaspora as a priority on the agenda of international dialogue for global action”. Nigerian personalities intervene, such as the jurist Akinola Aguda and the diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, as well as the intellectual Chinweizu Ibekwe and Prof. Ade Ajayi, a recognized historian – but no woman.
The Pan-African world is mobilized: there is Abdulrahman Mohammed Babu from Zanzibar, one of the organizers of the future 7e Pan-African Congress to be held in Kampala in 1994; Craig Washington, the Texas Democratic Representative to Congress; Bernie Grant, from Guyana, elected to the British Parliament; Randolph Peters, Trinidad’s Ambassador to Nigeria; and Dudley Thompson, Jamaica’s Ambassador to Nigeria, a veteran of Pan-African affairs.
The Lagos conference appoints an international committee for reparations, recommends the development of a mass movement and appeals to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in order to obtain its support before bringing its demands to the Nations united. With this meeting, Chief Abiola becomes a major player in the institutionalization of the issue of reparations and formulates this promise: Africa is politically committed alongside its diasporas in the cause of reparations.
It first took shape through the commissions set up in several countries, such as in the United Kingdom where Bernie Grant founded the African Reparation Movement (ARM), and in Jamaica, where the first committee for reparations, led by the Rastafarian George Nelson, was set up in 1991. Then, Dudley Thompson invited the lawyer Lord Gifford to produce a legal basis for this cause and he became the Rapporteur of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) for Reparations, established by the OAU and chaired by Chief Abiola. Finally, this GEP organizes in Abuja from April 27 to 29, 1993 a high-level pan-African conference under the patronage of the OAU and Nigeria.
The final resolution of the Abuja conference stressed that what was essential was the recognition of responsibility, the transfer of capital and the cancellation of debt, and the facilitation of the “right of return” of the diasporas.
Chief Abiola made no secret of his ambition to present the reparations case to the United Nations if he were elected President of Nigeria in the elections scheduled for June 12, 1993. Africa’s promise had never seemed so close, so tangible. , as possible as at the end of the Abuja conference.
But that was without reckoning with the disaster of the Nigerian elections. Won by Chief Abiola, they were immediately canceled by General-President Babangida. Five months later, a coup brought General Sani Abacha to power, Chief Abiola in hiding before being arrested as a crackdown descends on Nigerian pro-democracy forces.
A promise yet to be fulfilled
Many questions remain unanswered. Could Chief Abiola’s pan-African network serve his national political purpose? Did he really think that the cancellation of the debt of African countries could serve as a remedy for slavery and colonialism? Could the extroverted economy of the oil sector be affected by this cause? Was there a connection between the reparations brought by Chief Abiola and the 1993 election disaster? Would the United Kingdom and the United States, threatened by the issues raised by the movement for reparations, have pushed for the cancellation of the election, which nevertheless cast opprobrium on the country? This is the interpretation, perhaps distorted by the commitment, that some defend.
Nigeria was sinking into political violence and the cause of reparations was losing its African leadership. Africa’s promise, barely made, was already broken. The wealthy, pan-Africanist and committed businessman had been crushed by the political and armed forces of his country. In 1996 his second wife was murdered in the middle of the street. And on July 7, 1998, the day he was to be released from prison, Chief Abiola died during the visit of two American emissaries. If he has become a martyr of democracy, his pan-African dimension remains less known. However, Chief Abiola was the craftsman of a promise of a political and pan-African nature, which could not be honored for the moment and which left the Nigerian democratic forces orphaned, as well as the African dimension of the global movement for repairs – even if this has since ceased to be reinvented.