International Affairs

Germany’s Reparation to Namibia: Lessons for the Global Community

Germany has just recognised for the first time that it committed genocide in Namibia during its colonial rule more than a century ago. The country has promised financial support worth more than one billion euros ($1.2bn) to fund infrastructure projects in the African nation.

Between 1904 and 1908, German settlers killed thousands of Herero and Nama people after the tribes rebelled against Berlin’s rule in the colony, then called German South-West Africa.

Tucked away in a military cemetery in the Berlin suburb of Neukölln, one can find it: a small plaque dedicated to “the victims of German colonial rule in Namibia…in particular the colonial war”.

Berlin has no shortage of memorials to the crimes of Germans. Yet this is the country’s only commemoration of the genocide it inflicted in 1904-1908 on the Herero and Nama peoples. The plaque was laid in 2009 by locals anxious to counter the symbolism of the “Hererostein” that looms behind it: a rock bearing a memorial dating from 1907 to seven German soldiers in the imperial “Schutztruppe” force who died in the Herero uprising that triggered the killings. The rock is scarred with rivulets of dried red paint, having been defaced last year during Berlin’s Black Lives Matter protests.

This scene sums up Germany’s complicated attitude to the killings, in which at least 75,000 Herero and Nama were slain in battle, executed, enclosed and starved to death in the desert or worked to death in forced labour camps. It was not until 2015, after years of tongue-twisting, that the German government accepted the term genocide and embarked on negotiations with its Namibian counterpart on how to acknowledge and compensate the country for the actions of its forebears.

The German government has previously acknowledged “moral responsibility” for the killings but Berlin has avoided an official apology to ward off compensation claims. As a gesture “to recognise the immense suffering inflicted on victims”, Germany will also support the “reconstruction and the development” of Namibia via a financial programme of 1.1 billion euros ($1.34bn), Maas said.

The sum will be paid over 30 years, according to sources close to the negotiations, and must primarily benefit the descendants of Herero and Nama. Some negotiators, however, queried referring to it as reparations, saying the payment did not open the way to any “legal request for compensation”.

This kind of crime against humanity, championed by the West against the African continent is not synonymous with Germany alone. Virtually all major powers in Europe and America did the same to the African continent.

Standing on an auction block in chains, an African man in good health could sell for over $1,200 in New Orleans in the decade before the US Civil War. A girl of nine or ten could fetch over $1,400 under the right market conditions. Pricing took into account a man’s strength or a girl’s ability to bear children for resale.

Calculating the value of a life is complex, but as slavery has taught us, it’s been done before. For centuries, Africans were reduced to property in North, South America, and the Caribbean. Slave traders had no trouble pricing human life, and abolition-era economists repaid slave owners for the losses of their freed slaves. It is only when the descendants of those slaves return to ask for compensation for their lost ancestors that counting or getting an estimate becomes difficult.

Similarly, the loss of human life from the African continent due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade had a real cost. Africa wasn’t just deprived of manpower and income, but also creativity, innovation, and relationships. Those losses were multiplied by millions of lives, over hundreds of years, stunting the development of a continent whose governments have since struggled to find the will to ask for restitution.

With the first step taken by Germany, there is no need to further justify reparations for Africans and the African diaspora to redress the legacy of slavery and colonialism. What needs to be discussed now is how those reparations will be paid out and to whom. That will require not only economic dexterity but empathetic imagination.

Before the Portuguese arrived in what is today Angola just after the turn of the 15th century, the Arab state had a thriving slave trade on the continent, and Africans themselves enslaved other Africans captured in battle. But it was the trans-Atlantic trade—rooted in capitalism and imperialist expansion, and requiring the mass kidnapping of human beings on an industrial scale—that is perhaps most pressing right now.

As Germany has shown example by tendering an official apology to Namibia, the descendants of those slaves—the African diaspora—should be demanding justice. It is time that Africa, the continent on whose losses Europe and the Americas were built, should join in this demand.

Approximately 12.5 million people were enslaved and taken from Africa, according to a widely accepted figure from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, but some estimates argue that as many as 20 million people were enslaved.

One of the earliest formal requests for reparations to Africa began in 1992, when a group dubbed the “Eminent Persons” came together under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union.

It was led by a wealthy Nigerian businessman and former president-elect, the Late Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola, and championed by Kenyan academic, Ali Mazrui. The eclectic group also included a US congressman; economists, historians, politicians, as well as South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba.

For the reparations movement to work, Mazrui argued it needed to connect Africa and the diaspora, creating what he called “a worldwide crusade for reparations for the African and Black world as a whole.” That is, looking beyond money and finding realistic ways to address the imbalance between Africa and the West. Mazrui pushed for the empowerment of Africa and her people in relation to the current world order.

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As Mazrui argued in the 1990s, reparations from Western countries meant reducing their support for African tyrants, supporting democracy on the continent, giving African states a louder voice in international organisations, and cancelling their debts.

Mazrui and the group of Eminent Persons devised what they called the Middle Passage Plan, inspired by the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Just as the US transferred more than $13 billion ($140 billion in today’s dollars) toward the rebuilding of Europe, so too should former slave-owning and colonial nations transfer capital toward rebuilding Africa.

The Middle Passage Plan (paywall) was to include a skills transfer to Africa with scholarships for African students. The plan also called for a power transfer, giving greater voting rights to Africans on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Security Council.

The passing of the Nigerian billionaire politician, M.K.O Abiola, as well as several others that championed the course seemed to have truncated the issue of reparations to Africans. However, Germany’s offer of development aid to Namibia echoes similar arguments from other colonial powers: that aid to the continent should suffice. But decades of foreign aid have created economies in Africa that are reliant on Europe and North America, following the geographical route of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and mimicking that unequal trade. These aids also fail to acknowledge the psychological and emotional impact of the slave trade.

In earnest, if the discussion on reparations to Africa were to begin again, it must take off with the West’s acknowledgement of its wrongdoing, followed by adequate compensation. Analysts believe this to be the only vehicle to address what is perhaps the most difficult effect of slavery and colonialism, coupled with its psychological impact on Africans.

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