UP EXPERT OPINION: Africa's 30-year struggle for reparations continues

Posted on April 24, 2023

In his recent Business Day column, Professor Adekeye Adebajo reflects on the efforts of European countries to address their exploitation of Africa and the call of Africa for reparations through the 1993 Abuja Proclamation. 


This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Abuja Proclamation, which emerged from the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU’s) first Pan-African Conference on Reparations, held in Abuja in April 1993. The proclamation stressed that Western countries that had benefited from four centuries of free slave labour and a century of colonial exploitation must repair this damage.

It advocated cash transfers and debt annulment for African countries and diaspora states and communities across the Caribbean and the Americas. Abuja further called for greater African representation in institutions of global governance such as the World Bank and IMF, and a permanent seat for Africa on the UN Security Council.

Many of these were ideas Kenyan intellectual Ali Mazrui had consistently championed. He also proposed four concrete acts of restitution:

  • Western material and moral support to democracy in Africa.
  • Western reduction or elimination of economic impediments to Africa’s development and the annulment of Africa’s external debt (which stood at $644bn in 2021).
  • Helping Africa overcome sociocultural obstacles to democratisation through backing women’s empowerment programmes.
  • Capital transfers from the West to Africa through a “Middle Passage Plan” similar to the $12bn Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after 1945.     

Mazrui was part of the OAU eminent persons group that was established in Dakar in 1992, along with Nigerian historian Jacob Ade Ajayi and Jamaican scholar-diplomat Dudley Thompson. The group was co-chaired by its major financier, Nigerian multimillionaire Moshood Abiola. 

Ajayi argued for a central focus on the transatlantic slave trade due to its links with colonialism. He regretted that discussions about the contributions of the slave trade to the West’s industrialisation had been neglected, and criticised the indifferent attitude of many African scholars to this issue.

Ajayi also pointed out that about 1-million Africans had died defending their European colonial masters during two world wars. He thus called for four measures to achieve reparations: domestic education and mobilisation of African societies; documentation and research on the costs of slavery and colonialism; arguing a cogent case for African reparations; and making detailed calculations of the costs of reparations to the UN.

The 1993 Abuja proclamation was also visionary in calling for the return of looted African artefacts to their rightful owners, which the French, German and British governments have recently started to do. The proclamation further called on the OAU to grant observer status to diaspora groups working on restitution.

Ancestral homelands

Finally, Abuja requested African states to accede to the “right of return” of all diaspora citizens wanting to resettle in their ancestral homelands.

The UN World Conference Against Racism took place in Durban in August-September 2001, hosted by then SA president Thabo Mbeki, who had preached black solidarity from Atlanta to Bahia, Havana and Haiti. Mbeki consistently urged for a strengthened African role in reformed institutions of global governance.

Durban declared slavery to be a crime against humanity. The transatlantic slave trade was termed an “appalling tragedy” of “abhorrent barbarism” that “should always have been” a crime against humanity. Durban also argued that colonialism had resulted in racism and suffering that has endured into the contemporary age.

The declaration pushed for the inclusion of the history and contributions of Africans in educational curricula, as well as fully integrating into public services, and increasing social services to, “communities of primarily African descent”.

Durban helped lay the foundation for contemporary Black Lives Matter-led struggles involving antiracism protests around the globe in 2020. The movement to abolish slavery took generations to succeed, and so too will the contemporary movement for reparations for slavery and colonialism.

Germany and the Netherlands have recently announced programmes of restitution for past imperial crimes. Will the more egregious abusers of France, Britain, Belgium and Portugal follow suit, and start to atone for their historical crimes against humanity?


Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in The Business Day on 24 April 2023

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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