Half a century ago, European explorers got into boats and set sail for faraway lands in search of fame and fortune. They ‘discovered’ lands teeming with wealth and encouraged their governments to colonise them. Then they looted and plundered them, taking away slaves, precious minerals and produce.
This plunder helped build empires and many of the world powers today, in Europe and the Americas.
Many European cities are towering edifices of great architecture, their museums eloquent narratives of culture yet I have never been able to stop imagining the gargoyles lining their castles spitting out not water, but the blood of the victims of their conquest, the museums hiding, in their deep, recessed inners, the buried hopes of conquered peoples.
Today, that great migration has been reversed. Every day small rickety boats set off from the edge of the continent, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea carrying, not just the overcrowded bodies of its African occupants, but also the inflated hopes of the families they leave behind.
Where slaves were once bound and forcefully taken, suckling babies plucked off the pointed nipples of their wailing mothers, thousands of Africans today willingly risk everything to offer themselves into the modern-day wage slavery of Europe and America.
This raises fundamental questions, including whether ‘masters’ owe their former colonies anything. Does Belgium, for example, owe the Congolese reparations for the plunder and carnage its King Leopold visited on their country?
If the answer is no, why not?
If the answer is yes, then what form should the reparations take and who should determine them? Should it be in the form of aid designed to keep a patron-client relationship that allows the flow of value from the colony to the master in exchange for global patronage and favours – today’s trinkets of support – to the local ruling elite?
Should it be a one-off sum to end all claims and reset relations, allowing the former colony to seek new friends and even new identities, in the way Rwanda, for instance, has sought to cut off the painful memory of its Francophone past?
Is it just a financial consideration or should there be some form of apology and other non-financial concessions, say on the movement of capital and labour?
These are complex issues but they must be answered, however painful the search for answers will be, if we are to find some closure.
A popular view is that asking about the past is diversionary, that we must move on and deal with the present and the future. In my view, many of our present problems arise out of a failure to deal with the structural legacies of colonialism, in particular the neo-colonial ruling elite that inherited the predatory patronage of the nation states, replacing racism with tribalism, but maintaining the extractive and punitive nature of the state.
Mobutu, Amin, Mugabe are all African problems but the circumstances that gave rise to their emergence were deeply steeped in the dislocations of colonial enterprise. Mugabe, for instance, has run down Zimbabwe and its economy through his land redistribution programme but how did the inequality he was trying to address emerge and how can other countries facing similar problems, from Kenya to South Africa, resolve them?
Europe’s decision to turn its back on the African boat people and kick away the ladder is morally repugnant, but so is the kleptocracy and despotism of many leaders of the countries they are fleeing from.
Our generation must stop running away from our problems. However, before we can have a serious conversation with the West about reparations, memory and apology, we must fight the corrupt despots who, like Leopold, run our countries like personal colonies. Anyone who gets into a canoe headed for Lampedusa over stormy seas should have the stomach for a street fight in Lubumbashi.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org
SOURCE: Daily Monitor