Over Ten Years Ago African Human Rights Organisations Urged Traditional Rulers to Apologise for their Role in Slave Trade

This is old news, but it is well worth repeating in the current controversy over historic transatlantic slave trade and its legacy. Although much of the blame has naturally been rightly placed on the White Europeans responsible for the purchase, transport and exploitation of enslaved Africans, human rights organisations in Africa have also recognised that its indigenous rulers were also responsible. And they have demanded they apologise for their participation in this massive crime against humanity.

On 18th November 2009, eleven years ago, the Guardian’s David Smith published a piece reporting that the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria has written to the country’s tribal chiefs, stating “We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless.” It urged them to apologise to ‘put a final seal to the slave trade’ and continued

Americans and Europe have accepted the cruelty of their roles and have forcefully apologised, it would be logical, reasonable and humbling if African traditional rulers … [can] accept blame and formally apologise to the descendants of the victims of their collaborative and exploitative slave trade.”

The head of the Congress, Shehu Sani, explained to the Beeb’s World Service that the Congress was asking the chiefs to make the apology because they were seeking to be included in a constitutional amendment in Nigeria:

“We felt that for them to have the moral standing to be part of our constitutional arrangement there are some historical issues for them to address. One part of which is the involvement of their institutions in the slave trade.” He stated that the ancestors of the country’s traditional rulers “raided communities and kidnapped people, shipping them away across the Sahara or across the Atlantic” on behalf of the slaves’ purchasers.

Other Africans supported the demand for an apology. They included Henry Bonsu, a British-born Ghanaian broadcaster and co-founder of the digital radio station, Colourful Radio. Bonsu had examined the issue himself in Ghana in a radio documentary. He said that some chiefs had accepted their responsible, and had visited Liverpool and the US in acts of atonement.

“I interviewed a chief who acknowledged there was collaboration and that without that involvement we wouldn’t have seen human trafficking on an industrial scale,” said Bonsu.

“An apology in Nigeria might be helpful because the chiefs did some terrible things and abetted a major crime.”

The call was also supported by Baffour Anning, the chief executive of the non-governmental agency Africa Human Right Heritage in Accra, Ghana. He said, !I certainly agree with the Nigeria Civil Rights Congress that the traditional leaders should render an apology for their role in the inhuman slavery administration.” He also believed it would accord with the UN’s position on human rights.

The article notes that the demands for an apology mostly came from the African diaspora, and that it wasn’t really a matter of public concern in Africa itself. It also noted that many traditional chiefs prefer to remain silent on this awkward and shameful issue. However, one of the exceptions was the former president of Uganda, Yoweri Musaveni, who in 1998 told Bill Clinton “African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologise it should be the African chiefs. We still have those traitors here even today.”

See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/nov/18/africans-apologise-slave-trade

This adds a very interesting perspective on the current slavery debate, and one which very few here in the West are probably aware. It’s strange reading that Africans have come to Liverpool and the US seeking to atone for their ancestors crimes during the slave trade when so much of the debate has revolved around the responsibility of Liverpool, Bristol and others cities, and western nations as a whole, such as the US and Britain, for the abominable trade. One of my concerns about the demand for museums to slavery is that these would place the blame solely on western Whites, and so create not just a distorted view of slavery but another form of racism, in which slavery was only something that Whites inflicted on Blacks. If it is the Black diaspora that is demanding African chiefs recognise and apologise for their part in the slave trade, this may not be an issue.

Nevertheless, it needs to be remembered that slavery existed, in Africa and elsewhere, long before transatlantic slavery. Black Africans also enslaved each other, there was also a trade in slaves from east Africa to Arabia, India and Asia. At the same time the Turkish Empire also raided sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Sudan, for slaves. One of the reasons the British invaded and conquered much of Africa was to stop the slave trade and end it at its source. In many cases, I’ve no doubt that this was just a pretext to provide a spurious justification for military annexation against competition for territory by other European nations. But many of the officers and troopers involved in the suppression of the trade were sincere. This included the Royal Navy, whose officers were largely evangelical Anglican Christians, who took their duty to stamp out the trade very seriously.

In the years since then real slavery has returned to Africa. The Islamists, who have seized power in part of Libya ever since we bombed it to liberate it from Colonel Gadaffy have taken to enslaving the Black African migrants making their way there in the hope of reaching sanctuary and a better life in Europe. At the same time there have also been reports of a slave market opening in Uganda. And this is apart from the persistence of traditional slavery in countries such as Mauretania and disguised forms of servitude in Africa and elsewhere, which were described a quarter of a century ago in the book Disposable People.

While it’s natural that attention should focus on historic Black slavery in the west following the Black Lives Matter protests and western Blacks’ general underprivileged condition, it is disgusting and shameful that real slavery should continue to exist in the 21st century. It needs to be tackled as well, beyond the debates about the legacy of historic slavery.

 

 

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