Earlier, this year a North Carolina city committed $2.1million toward funding reparations. Surprisingly, the movement for reparations has ignited considerable political support. Unfortunately, the sensibility of calls for reparations has failed to invite scrutiny outside a few conservative publications. Usually, critics posit that reparations like welfare are unlikely to elevate the condition of black America. However, this objection is irrelevant to the debate.
To justify reparations, proponents must demonstrate that black Americans are worse off than Africans, and therefore reparations are required to restore their dignity. On the eve of abolition, compensating former slaves would have been just, since they were compelled to labor without remuneration. But their descendants can lay no claim to such compensation because they were never enslaved.
Recognizing that present facts cannot substantiate their case, activists instead opt to validate reparations by submitting that the black-white wealth gap is a consequence of slavery. Although, popular this is a facile proposition. A legacy of oppression does not necessarily lead to social immiseration. In Nigeria, the Igbos are a financial powerhouse, though they are often the target of derision. Similarly, the Chinese have prospered in Malaysia despite discrimination and in some regions of Africa, descendants of agriculturalists are more successful than pastoralists, even when pastoralists constitute the majority.
Group differences in productivity are well-documented and have been discussed at length by economists, so the reasons for such differences will not be rehashed in this piece. As such, the campaign for reparations must fail because it is constructed on a false premise. Modern studies have furnished sufficient information on pre-colonial Africa to enable commentary on the level of economic development in these societies. According to data compiled by Lindgren (2010) even Africa’s economic superstar was a laggard during the pre-colonial era. Estimates show that Botswana’s GDP per capita at purchasing power parity was $407 in 1820, thereby trailing France and Germany at $1,508 and $1,946 dollars respectively.
Achieving parity with the West requires years of work since Africa is behind the growth curve. Economic comparisons reveal that as recent as 2008, moderately prosperous African countries recorded GDP per capita levels that Britain attained in 1700, whereas the richest sub-Saharan African countries were comparable to Britain in 1913. The poorest African countries fared the worst by recording GDP per capita levels on par with Medieval Europe. Without analyzing societies in pre-colonial Africa, one cannot recommend reparations, since his frame of reference would be non-existent.
Calvin Wilson, an early observer of African Americans in his 1912 essay “Negroes Who Owned Slaves,” noted that several of the slaves in America were either slave owners or slaves in Africa. Wilson commented that the enslaved African transferred tribal and class distinctions to American soil. “Moreover, there were in his country, tribal differences, and antagonisms which continued to obtain in America; the “Guinea Nigger” was looked down on by members of superior tribes, and one of a higher race often felt that a Guinea negro was only to serve him, “ he wrote.
Comparable observations pertaining to indigenous slavery in Africa were explicated by planter historians like Bryan Edwards and Edward Long in the British West Indies. Slavery was an established affair throughout Africa with the enslaved serving a wide array of functions. Furthermore, notwithstanding attempts to romanticize slavery in Africa by remarking that slaves were incorporated into kin groups, it must be noted that in many places they were still perceived as strangers. For example, in Yorubaland incorporation did not alter the perception of a slave as an outsider.
Admittedly, life for ordinary people in Yorubaland and pre-colonial West Africa more broadly could be quite precarious. Due to custom, members of a debtor’s family or town could be seized as payment for outstanding debts. Failure to create an impartial legal system disentangled from tribal sentiments could make life quite difficult for Africans. Additionally, the custom of sacrificing slaves was pervasive in West Africa with the cases of Dahomey, Benin, and Asante being frequently cited by historians.
Mary Grabar in her terrific book Debunking the 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America relays a gruesome description of the treatment meted out to slaves and commoners in pre-colonial Africa: “In the tenth century, Ibn Hawqal referred “to the sacrifice of female slaves at the funerals of wealthy men” in the Kingdom of Ghana. In the eleventh century, al- Bakri gave “a detailed account of royal funerals in Ghana which involved the burial (apparently alive) of personal servants of the King in the royal grave.”
Quite appropriately, Grabar informs readers that sacrificing humans was celebrated at Yoruba’s Ogun festival and at Dahomey’s yearly celebrations known as the “Watering of the Graves.” Estimates suggest that over 100 victims were sacrificed to honor Kings whenever such events were held in Dahomey. Human sacrifice was so sacred in Dahomean culture that King Gezo who matriculated to the throne in 1823, increased the carnage to between 249 and 300, arguing that his predecessor was deposed for neglecting the practice of human sacrifice – which persisted until the French conquest of Dahomey in the 1890s.
Intriguingly, not only did slavery exist in Africa, but history records examples of slaves becoming so powerful that they could resort to exploiting commoners. Salami B. Olawale recounts the tale of slave-soldiers in the Ibadan Empire: “By the 1870s, the slave-soldiers had wielded immense power and influence in Ibadan. The free hand given to them in the conduct of public affairs had become of such an alarming proportion that they started abusing the privileges they had… The slaves came up with the practice of ikeke-siso – tying of beads. The soldier slaves used this system to extort money from people by marking them out with beads tied to their wrists. Without any justification the bead-branded people had to pay some money to have the wristlets of the beads removed…The common people were often rather afraid to give offence to these powerful slaves. Therefore, a situation arose in which life for ordinary men and women, unless they bound themselves to powerful warrior-chiefs, was becoming less safe and secure.”
Fittingly, this passage reveals that after slavery was abolished in America, Africans were still engaged in the act. Without question, slavery occupied a seminal role in numerous African societies. During its apex, the Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria presided over one of the more successful slave economies in Africa. Slavery only withered under the British as a result of policies that increased the cost of acquiring slave labor. Yet the imprints of slavery remain in some African countries long after abolition. Today, in Nigeria, descendants of Osu slaves encounter discrimination. In 2020, the BBC penned a disturbing report outlining challenges endured by these people who are even barred from marrying people of different ancestry: “Marriage is not the only barrier slave descendants face. They are also banned from traditional leadership positions and elite groups, and often prevented from running for political office and representing their communities in parliament.”
Indeed, it’s appalling that activists don’t deem it necessary for African countries to atone for their involvement in slavery. However, Western governments are under pressure to offer reparations, although Western societies were the first to experience a moral crisis that lead to abolition. As Bronwell Everill exclaims in her new book Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition – the brutish imagery of slave labor engendered feelings of guilt among consumers and in the business world which prompted demands for a system of ethical capitalism divorced from slave labor.
Nevertheless, despite possessing the moral high ground, only Western societies are compelled to grapple with the legacy of imperialism. Moral crusaders have been failing to impose pressure on the descendants of the Asante Empire (Ghana), or the progenitors of the Dahomey Empire (Benin) to repent for the sins of an imperial past. But we are frequently fed articles asserting that Trans-Atlantic Slavery has left long-term consequences. At least, Western politicians have sought to placate the descendants of slaves.
Moreover, since reprising the past of Western countries is currently in vogue, we should earnestly discuss research purporting a link between indigenous slavery and underdevelopment in Africa. In a landmark paper titled “Indigenous Slavery in Africa: Conditions and Consequences,” the authors conclude: “In present-day African populations many people have ancestors who were indigenous slaves living in worse conditions than the free population. Therefore, these effects may still be significant -just like US blacks are a population segment that has been historically underprovided in terms of income, health care, and social status, with measurable effects on their health and income to this day… A one standard deviation (0.39) increase in the population share practicing indigenous slavery in the 19th century is robustly associated with between 3.8 and 7.3 per cent lower life expectancy.”
Likewise, in another paper, these authors opine that slavery created institutions that “impeded the development of ‘open access states’ where the access to the political system is open (democracy) and where social relations are impersonal, including rule of law and secure property rights.” Essentially, slavery concentrated elite quarters, thereby stifling the growth of inclusive institutions and undermining economic progress.
Slavery is an atrocity, irrespective of the victim’s race. But by all accounts, the life chances of black Americans are superior to their African peers and there is no evidence to suggest that they would have been better off in Africa. So, unluckily for activists, the case for reparations is invalidated.