Where past is present
reflects on the coincidence of two radically different commemorations -- 200 years of the abolishment of the slave trade and the golden anniversary of the European Union
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Celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery took place across the globe -- in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. Some descendants of European slavers expressed regret at the henious slave trade, while for Africans it was a time for retrospection. At the same time, Europeans celebrated the golden jubilee of the launching of the European Union
Another week, another day marking a momentous occasion, for Europe that is. However, for Africa and the African Diaspora in the Americas, this week marked a very different date -- the 200th anniversary of the British abolishment of the slave trade. Organisers of the celebrations spared no effort in painting its dire consequences in the starkest colours.
One man's meat is another's poison. Europeans in the Americas profited tremendously from African labour. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that the present wealth of the Americas was founded on the backbreaking toil of African slaves. The contribution of African slaves to the economic development of the Americas was invaluable.
The stream of official statements on this solemn anniversary is a reminder of what the world owes Africa. But when it comes to turning these words into deeds, Western leaders must bear in mind the needs of contemporary Africans. If Africans are today seen as haplessly holding out begging bowls, Europeans must concede that they had a hand in Africa's underdevelopment. Yet Western governments have unanimously rejected the notion of reparations. Succumbing to those arguments would be a tragic mistake, they reckon.
Such an intransigent position on reparations spells disaster for contemporary Africans, for it betrays the real intentions of Western powers -- they are not really repentant about slavery and colonialism. Indeed, they have a vested interest in perpetuating neo-colonialism, of continuing to loot Africa's riches.
The sons and daughters of Africa were exposed to untold horrors. Millions drowned in what came to be known as the "Middle Passage" -- the Atlantic Ocean where Africans were unceremoniously buried. But, that was no ordinary burial at sea. As slaves, they were routinely and systematically dumped into the Atlantic -- most without a single relative to mourn their passing in such heart-wrenching circumstances.
The slaves who survived the nightmare journey across the Atlantic were forced into a life of misery on the plantations of the Americas. However, it was in Africa that the slave trade had its most horrendous impact. As far as development -- social, political and economic -- was concerned the slave trade destroyed existing cultures and paved the way for colonisation by European powers. By the end of the 19th century, the horrifying consequences of the slave trade were actually used by racists to justify the supposed superiority of the white man and European civilisation. Africa was impoverished and its social fabric destroyed, and not surprisingly showed up at the bottom of the West's various human "development" indices.
In Britain the Anglican Church came under fire for its role in the slave trade. The current Archbishop of the Church of England Rowan Williams has publicly acknowledged the historical involvement of his church in the abominable trade. Slaves were branded with the initial of the Church in the Caribbean. The church claimed that slavery was ordained by God. Archbishop Williams vowed that the church will attempt to atone for its past sins, for this darkest chapter in the church's history. However, he stopped short of pledging reparations.
However, even such mild mea culpas will not be heard as European leaders toast their 50 years of unity. Rather than recognising that Africa's ailments are not so much self-inflicted as the result of its tragic history at the hands of the Europeans, and that the gap between the aspirations of Africans and the ability of their governments to meet them is growing daily, the Europeans are dancing to a very different tune. Westerners in general are under the impression that Africa needs a new overseer these days. Pax- Americana has come home to Africa to roost. The West is in effect to run Africa's defences. Chronic military over-stretch has emerged as the bane of the nascent and cash-strapped African Union, the continental pan-African body that is attempting to ape the European Union. Indeed, the AU's proposed rapid deployment peace-keeping force, in careful consultation with the West, is widely expected to be headquartered in Ghana, the small West African nation of 22 million people, that coincidentally is the focus of the main celebrations on the continent marking the abolition of slavery.
Ghana, a nation that has just recently celebrated its golden jubilee anniversary of independence from Britain. This week's celebrations are taking place in and around the 45 mediaeval slave forts constructed by the Portuguese and other European powers. Elima, the largest and best preserved of these forts played host to the main event. Celebrities from Africa, Europe and the Americas converged on the dungeons of this evil fort. Tribute was paid to white abolitionists, but the focus was rightly on the heroic struggles for freedom of the slaves themselves. Concurrent celebrations are taking place in Jamaica.
Everyone stressed that this most tragic chapter in Africa's history cannot be closed without a full apology and a promise of reparations. However, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of making a full apology for Britain's role in the slave trade, and there is no plan for reparations.
Africa is underdeveloped, civil war-ridden and stricken by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Reliance on reparations alone cannot solve the present crisis. However, Africans and people of African descent are in agreement that the principle behind reparations is sound. It is a reasonable way in which to redress the wrongs of the past.
The world cannot wave the magic wand of hindsight where slavery is concerned. However, neither must it forget that Britain abolished slavery for specific economic reasons. The archaic and feudal system of slavery was detrimental to the industrialisation of Britain: it was in the British interest to abolish slavery.
The European Union, in sharp contrast to the African Union, has been an inspiring economic success for reasons which Africa can never hope to duplicate. And this widening gap between the two continents has led to a situation where Africans are fleeing in ever-increasing numbers to their ex- colonial homelands. Europe's very economic success has resulted in a second wave of African mass migration -- this time across the Mediterranean as opposed to the Atlantic. Hundreds of thousands of Africans have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in overloaded and unseaworthy vessels. The tragic irony is that while in the past, Africans were forcibly removed from the continent, today millions of young Africans are rushing voluntarily to their slavery and/or deaths.
While economically some countries on the continent are booming, politically civil wars and political instability continue to plague Africa. Multi-party democracy, Western-style, has emerged as the norm in many African nations. However, democracy does not feed people, especially when instituted along with privatisation and economic deregulation, which has laid off workers and driven down incomes. Social justice is fast eroding and the gap between the haves and the have- nots dangerously widening.
It is in this context that Western nations are fielding more peace-keepers than ever before on the continent of Africa, and as part of its "war on terror" the Bush administration has proposed a rapid deployment force to police the continent. The idea is to have African peace- keeping troops under the direct supervision of Western powers deployed across the continent ostensibly to pacify trouble spots and ensure democracy.
This twin legacy of slavery -- the current mass exodus and Western military plans for policing the continent -- show that colonialism still haunts Africa. Slavery as an institution might have been abolished two centuries ago, but the mentality of master and slave is alive and well.