Reparatory justice for slave trade gathers momentum


Ghana is leading demands for Europe and the United States of America to pay long-awaited reparations for the inhuman and degrading transatlantic slave trade. On Tuesday, November 14, 2023, Ghana had the singular honour of hosting the Africa Slavery Reparation Conference organised by the Africa Union.

Ghana could not have been a better choice for the conference because it was the slave trade’s epicentre in Africa. During the slave trade and colonialisation of Ghana, major European powers fought for control of its human and natural resources.  In slave trade history, Ghana was the major transit point for three-quarters of all slaves that left West African shores under the most terrifying and horrifying conditions. This explains why Ghana hosts more slave monuments than any other country in Africa.

Records indicate that at the height of the slave trade there were over 60 slave monuments on the journey from the Sahelian north that served as a slave route from northern Ghana to countries in the south – where slaves who survived the tortuous journey on foot were crammed into forts and castles to await later transportation, mostly to the Americas. Atop the castles were churches where slave masters worshipped and praised their God for making business profitable. Those forts and castles remain among Ghana’s most distinctive features of the ignominious slave trade.

Costliest trade

Over the Atlantic slave trade period between 1526 to 1867, an estimated 12.5 million men, women and children were captured and put on ships for the new world. It is estimated that 10.7 million slaves arrived in the Americas, meaning more than two million did not survive the horrifying journey. Their remains were simply disposed of into the sea for sharks to feed on. This makes the Atlantic slave trade the costliest of all long-distance global migrations in human history.

It’s noteworthy that modern Black historians say the above figures underestimate the real number of Africans killed in the slave trade process by a factor of 10 – because they don’t include those killed while resisting capture and those who did not survive the journey to the coast.

In August 2019, the government of Ghana organised a memorial tiled ‘The Year of Return, Ghana 2019’ to commemorate the 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. The arrival of enslaved Africans marked a sordid period when able-bodied men, women and children were forcefully captured and sold for transportation into years of forced labour, deprivation, humiliation and torture.

According to Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, about 1.1 million home-based Africans and Africans in the Diaspora returned to Ghana “to celebrate the cumulative resilience of all victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade who were scattered across North America, South America, the Caribbean and Europe. The impressive turnout was a huge increase on 956,372 tourists in 2018.

Chronicle of struggle for reparation

The struggle to obtain reparation-justice for the slave trade commenced in 1783 – when a freed woman named Belinda Sutton demanded the Massachusetts legislature to pay reparations. She was granted a pension of 15 pounds, 12 shillings from the estate of the man who had enslaved her. The struggle continues to 2023 when Africans and Africans in Diaspora have accelerated the momentum for reparations.

When the US Civil War ended in 1865, the federal legislation called for land to be leased or sold in 40-acre parcels to people who had been enslaved.  Similarly, in 1868 the 14th Amendment – passed by Congress in 1866 – was ratified by some states. The amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalised in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” – including the formerly enslaved. The amendment provided that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process, and that former slaves were entitled to equal protection by law.

Besides, in 1890 through the advocacy of a Nebraska businessman, Walter Vaughan – a Democrat and son of slaveholders, Republican US Representative William J. Connell introduced a bill proposing the federal government provide pensions to former slaves. Although the bill failed, Vaughan publicised an idea that he thought would inject cash into the struggling economy of the South.

In 1898 US Representative Jeremiah D. Botkin, a Kansas Democrat, introduced a bill to endow individuals who were former slaves with 40 acres of land – and 160 acres to families. However, the proposal – which would have provided cash payments – failed to pass. Following that, in 1960 Malcolm X during a speech in Boston declared that the United States must “compensate us for the labour stolen from us”.

Affirmative action

Furthermore, in 1961 the term “affirmative action” was used in an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy – which instructed federal contractors to ensure that applicants were treated equally. Despite the affirmative action, Black Americans did not benefit from the concept in higher education and jobs.  Nevertheless, between 1783 to 2019 a lot of inroads had been made in the struggle to get reparatory justice for Africans. Below are the latest indicators of success in the demand for reparations.

In 2022 an Oklahoma judge ruled that the three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa massacre can proceed with a lawsuit seeking reparations.  During the massacre a white mob murdered dozens of Black Tulsans and razed the entire Black neighbourhood. The suit demanded a 99-year tax holiday for Tulsa residents who are descended from victims of the massacre near Greenwood.

Finally, in 2023 recommendations have been approved by California’s governor-appointed Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The recommendations include suggested formulas to determine cash reparations and a call for state lawmakers to make the final decision on whether reparations should be made, and what that would entail. The ruling also demanded a formal apology for the state’s role in perpetuating discrimination against African Americans.

Most significantly, the US Representative, Cori Bush – a Democrat from Missouri, introduced House Resolution 414; which says that the United States “has a moral and legal obligation to provide reparations for the enslavement of Africans and its lasting harm on the lives of millions of Black people. .It argues that a minimum of US$14trillion in reparation justice will be needed to close the racial wealth-gap between Black and white Americans.

US Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, introduced House Resolution 414 which calls for reparations. Picture credit (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

But the concept of paying financial reparations for the enslavement of Africans remains vague. There are two types of reparation that Africans and Africans in Diaspora are demanding from the United States and Europe which mostly benefitted from the dehumanising slave trade. Firstly, African governments are advocating reparations for the harm that the slave trade caused their economies. During the centuries of illegal trade, able-bodied men and women were forcibly shipped to the new world – thus denying Africa the needed active working population to develop its economy. The second reparation is that being demanded by the African Americans scattered across South and Latin America. In the past, those who benefitted from the slave trade exploited the vagueness and lack of one voice to shoot down demands for reparatory justice.

Akufo-Addo leads the call

In a speech at the conference, President Akufo-Addo appealed to African governments and the Africa Union to speak with one voice on demands for African slavery reparations.  Ghana’s president has been the torchbearer of Africa’s demand for reparations, and during several UN General Assembly sessions vehemently demanded justice. During the latest UN General Assembly in 2023, President Akufo-Addo used his speech to demand more acknowledgement of the impact from colonial exploitation of Africa.

‘”No amount of money can restore the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences. But surely, this is a matter that the world must confront and can no longer ignore. The entire continent deserves a formal apology from the European nations involved in the slave trade,” he declared at the Reparations Conference in Accra. Akufo-Addo challenged Africa to work together with the Caribbean to advance reparations, labelling it a “valid demand for reparatory justice”.

Furthermore, he pointed out that the period of slavery undermined Africa’s progress economically, culturally and psychologically. “You cannot quantify the effects of such tragedies, but they need to be recognised,” he concluded. Similarly, President of the Comoros and African Union Chairperson Azali Assoumani emphasised that the slave trade’s impact continues to “wreak havoc on our population”; describing slavery and colonialism as “Africa’s darkest phase”.

Stolen treasures

Earlier this year, Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed his “shame” at crimes committed during his country’s colonial rule in Tanzania. Moreover, the owner of British newspaper The Guardian apologised for the role its founders played in transatlantic slavery – and announced a “decade-long programme of restorative justice”. Some Western leaders like Emmanuel Macron have recently acknowledge the wrongs perpetrated during the colonial era in Africa. But France’s continued hold and control over its former colonies makes Macron’s apology worthless and mere lip-service.

While the debate over reparations for slavery is gathering momentum, the restoration of stolen treasures and artefacts has steadily advanced. Nigeria is in the process of retrieving thousands of 16th – 18th century metal plaques, sculptures and other art objects that were looted from the ancient kingdom of Benin and used to decorate museums across the US and Europe. Many of the artefacts were originally taken in 1897, when a British military expedition attacked and destroyed Benin City.  In 2022, Nigeria’s neighbouring Benin Republic inaugurated an exhibition of its artworks and treasures returned by France after two years of negotiations. In response, other museums in the West have begun returning stolen African treasures and artefacts.

Sober reflection

However, as African leaders advocate for reparatory justice, Africans must undergo a sober reflection on the role our traditional rulers played in sustaining the slave trade over several centuries. It was African traditional rulers and their kingdoms that embarked on destructive and internecine civil wars that paved the war for Arab and Europeans to exploit the continent’s human resources. In the past, powerful kingdoms that conquered weaker kingdoms demanded ransoms in the form of human beings – who were sold as commodities to European merchants.

For instance, after conquering the Dagomba Kingdom at a point the Ashanti Kingdom demanded 1,000 slaves a year as reparation. The Dagomba Kingdom in turn invaded and conquered smaller kingdoms to obtain 1,000 slaves for its master.   In fact, our culture tolerates servitude (slave-master mentality) or else there was no way the Europeans and Arabs could have succeeded in perpetrating their inhuman trade with humans as commodities for profit.  Historians say at the height of the illegal trade, one Ashanti king was reported to have rejected a proposal by the British government to abolish the slave trade – because it was a profitable business for him and his kingdom.

Furthermore, as Africa is pursuing reparatory justice, African leaders must pay equal attention to using their resources and indigenous knowledge to develop their countries. Sadly, many African countries lack clear visions, if any, to steer their countries out of economic backwardness. The net effect is that Africa’s youth are queuing at Western embassies to beg for visas – seeking greener pastures in the very western countries where they are only recognised as second-class citizens. In most of these western countries, animals have more rights than Africans.

Therefore, the AU and African leaders must act quickly to stop the embarrassing second slave trade through migration – first of all by curbing the current ‘elite’ greed and callousness that sees them sequestering African nations’ wealth in ‘developed country’ banks in their personal accounts. This is what impoverishes our societies and promotes social vices – including the strife in West Africa that’s described as ‘terrorism’ but is in fact an expression of the people’s economic desperation. This is what causes the fruit of Africa to seek greener pastures abroad: they are chasing the money stolen by their leaders and stashed with the same old colonial masters while they spew pan-African platitudes.


Bryson, D. 2023.  ‘Making Amends: The History of Reparations’.


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