Prof. Hilary Beckles is soft spoken. He has a charming and unassuming personality, which is somewhat very humbling. As an academia, he has risen to the zenith, emerging the Vice Chancellor of the University of West Indies. Reparation struggle is an issue he is very much passionate about and he is one of those pushing the boundaries of the struggle forward. He is pained that the African governments are not giving the struggle the needed support it required. In this interview with Charles Ajunwa and Ugo Aliogo, he speaks about the reparation struggles and other issues facing the continent of Africa
You spoke passionately about the reparation struggles in Africa during your presentation at the J.F. Ade Ajayi Memorial Lecture held recently at the University of Lagos Main Auditorium. Do you think the issue is making headway in the continent?
The reparation struggle is making headway on a global scale. In the Caribbean, we are now in the vanguard of reparation, the government has established reparation commissions to carry out national public education and to organise historical information in order to make a compelling case. We have completed our work and submitted our findings to the government and we have told the government that the evidence is clear. Therefore, they are now in a position to make a claim to the government of Europe. Therefore, the government of the Caribbean has written formally to the government of Europe calling for a summit to discuss the crimes that have been committed against the people in the Caribbean and Africa.
We are not going to give up on this; we are waiting for the government of Africa to come onboard. The government of Africa have been divided. They are not sure what position to adopt and I have always found this surprising because the damage that has been done on the continent is incredible. Nigeria was the largest exporter of people, who were carried across the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, Nigeria was a country that was ravaged and victimised by this crime.
So we have always expected that Nigeria will play a role in the United Nations in arguing the case. It is a matter that ought to be settled in a diplomatic fashion. UN has to provide the leadership; it will make a huge difference, so in the Caribbean we are waiting on Africa and Nigeria leadership. We have played our path to persuade the UN to declare the next 10 years as the International Decade for People of African Descent. It took a lot of global diplomacy to announce. In this decade, one of the objectives we have to achieve is that there must be global justice for the African people for the crimes committed during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Brazil has now come onboard and established a reparation commission. The U.S. has also established a national reparation commission. We are waiting on Nigeria and other African governments to come onboard regarding this issue. If we have this alliance between North America, the Africa-America, the Caribbean, Brazil and Africa, there will be a global transformation. The Europeans believe that they can treat the Caribbean in a certain disrespectful way because we are small countries and we don’t have the global power on the international community.
But Nigeria is a major player, therefore if she joins the solidarity, then we will be well aware. We were disappointed in 2001 in Durban South Africa, when then Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo did not support us. Also most of the governments of West African countries did not support us as well. We felt wounded that the governments of Africa were supporting Europe, instead of pitching tent with us. It is a wound that has not healed. In the Diaspora, we believe that we have played an important role in the liberation of Africa. When African countries were fighting for their independence in the 50s, we played a vital role through our intellectuals, musicians, and political leaders.
We fought the apartheid regime, thousands of people from the Caribbean died fighting the liberation struggles in Southern Africa, though the Cubans were in the majority, but there were soldiers from other countries. But to organise the Cubans to fight in order to bring down apartheid, the Caribbean had to be mobilised to enable those soldiers travel across the Atlantic Ocean in order to reach Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia.
For the last 60 years, before the days of Marcus Garvey, who started the process of African liberation struggle in an organised way, we have been fighting for the liberation struggles for Africa and now we have called on the African governments to support us and our political struggles for reparation. We were disappointed that we didn’t get the necessary support from the government of African countries, but the citizens of Ghana and Nigeria were supporting us.
We had full support from the academics, trade unions movement and civil society organisations in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. They were fully in support, but the government was not. It was a case where the people of Africa and West Africa were on different pages. Though, we were disappointed that we could not get government support but it was cheering to know that the people were with us. We are hoping that the government and the people will join together to support us.
What would you say were the reasons for the lack of support from African leaders and how much of support has African Union (AU) put to government of the Caribbean to push for the reparation struggle?
During the time when the issue of reparation struggles were brought among African leaders, a number of arguments were raised, we tried to persuade the government not to agree to those positions. The President of Nigeria then expressed concerns that the reparation issue would create a policy of confrontation with the West. Therefore, he didn’t wish to be part of the confrontation issue. We tried to convince him that reparation is not about confrontation, rather it is about using the diplomatic channel that you have, since the United Nations was talking about dialogue and diplomacy.
This is why the United Nations was the organisation that brought us together. We tried to explain that this is not about conflict, but reconciliation. It is the biggest way to reconcile the people of Africa all over the world. If you want to have reconciliation, you need to have peace. You cannot have reconciliation and peace without justice. For instance, the government of Britain has stated that they would not apologise for the crimes they committed. They have apologised to the Jewish people and the Irish people for creating the potato farms in Ireland.
They have apologised to the Palestine. They have apologised to everybody they committed crimes against. We are the only people who do not deserve an apology. If they have negative opinion of you, they will say that you don’t deserve an apology. If they don’t have respect for you they will not apologise to you because it looks demeaning to them.
Then President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo said that somehow it might lead to ethnic conflict in Nigeria. You might have one ethnic group who will affirm that during the period of the slavery that a particular ethnic group collaborated with the British or the Dutch or French and this could create ethnic dialogue between the different ethnic groups, which could lead to ethnic strife. We didn’t agree with that either. You can’t hide from your history, the truth must prevail. If there is a measure of that we have to know about it.
But we do know that a vast majority of Africans fought against the slave trade. There were individuals who participated, but you have to isolate these individuals and separate them from the rest. What the devastation of the slavery did to Nigeria was very bad, they took about 10 million people from Nigeria, and hundreds of villages were destroyed.
We tried to talk to the President that the history has to be confronted and addressed, but there was a view that many of the African countries were negotiating with International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan and there were concerns that if they have taken stance in support of reparation they will be blackmailed by the IMF and the World Bank. It was clear to us that many of the African countries were being intimidated by the IMF and the World Bank. There was no doubt that IMF was involved in the intimidation of Senegal because Senegal was negotiating with World Bank for loans. The important thing is for us to recognise that many of the government of African countries were being intimidated by the IMF and the World Bank.
What is the AU support towards the reparation struggle?
Since Durban, we have been able to move the matter unto the agenda of the AU. We have urged the AU that they must reverse their position on the issue, because what was done to the people of Africa and the Caribbean was wrong. We have told them that they need to reverse their position. The matter has come to the AU and they have given their support. The AU has stated that they will treat the Diaspora as the zone of Africa and in principle they are in support of reparation.
The government of Gambia has stated that they will be the champions of reparation movement in Africa. I am involved in negotiations across Africa to persuade many African countries to take a stronger position and to use the AU as a platform to strengthen the case. Also, move towards the United Nations General Assembly. We already have the platform in the UN General Assembly because they have endorsed the two things; slavery and slave trade which were crimes against humanity. The UN has also endorsed next decade aimed at looking at the damage done to African people as a result of these crimes. Therefore the United Nations has done what it can do, it is left for us to do the rest.
Some governments in Africa have been making frantic efforts in tackling corruption. How do you rate these efforts?
One of the ways to tackle corruption is to ensure that your systems of governance work. In societies where the legal process is not working well, people try to get around the system if they don’t have confidence in it. Therefore, we have to build systems of governance that people have confidence which will work. Any time you have a society where the people believe that the systems are not working, they will try to get around with it and create a criminal system. I think a part of the focus should be strengthening of the institutions of governance and law and order. Reform of governance is very important, but it is not easy.
During your lecture presentation, you spoke about history and the Pan African nation. What was the take home from that lecture?
I feel there should be tremendous solidarity between the citizens of Nigeria and the citizens of the Caribbean on the issue of justice. The issue here is that not many Nigerian citizens are well aware of the history of Transatlantic Slave Trade and the consequences both in Nigeria and the Caribbean. It is not as well known as it should be, there are many people who seem to forget all of these or put it behind them. Despite that, I do believe that there is solidarity, and sincerity. I believe that the government of Nigeria will look at the issue differently in the years ahead.
What is the way forward?
The way is forward is for the governments of Africa to use the platforms of United Nations and the International Decade for People of African Descents to make sure that they promote the issues of justice, so that in the end the conditions of the black people will be improved. If at the end of this decade we have not resolved these issues, we are in serious trouble. We have an opportunity and what the situation is calling for is central leadership which means black leadership. Nigeria is in a position to provide that leadership.
What would you say are the seeming challenges in carrying out this vision and how can they be addressed?
The challenge is to find solidarity at the AU and to move from there to the UN. We want to have a global summit; we want the countries of Africa and the Caribbean to meet together with the government of Europe. All of the countries that have benefitted from this crime to meet in a summit and discuss the way forward. As part of the way forward, we have a mapped out a 10-Point Plan which involves the need for an apology, investment in education, technology transfer, the building of museums. In Britain for instance, there are four international museums dedicated to slavery and in the Caribbean.
Therefore, Great Britain should fund this. We need the support of everyone in promoting this summit. If African countries have solidarity, then we will have a very powerful voice. The key to success is visionary leadership and commitment to ideas and principles. If they believe that as a leader, your leadership has values and standards, they will relate to you differently. But if they believe you are weak and have no values they will treat you in a certain way. We need to have a resolution on this matter of reparation. It is an opportunity for all African leaders to show leadership.
Can you compare the tertiary institutions here in Nigeria with what you have over there?
In Nigeria, the universities here are about the same age with the University of the West Indies. A good example is the University of Ibadan. Both universities were created from a grant from the British Government and for the same purpose. The British government decided that since the colonial period was coming to an end they wanted to put an institution in place. We have evolved along together along similar lines in the past years. The two universities are very close, they work together, we share examiners, we have relationships, and the Vice Chancellors have always interacted. Therefore going forward, we are about the same.
Nigeria and West Indies have things in common especially socio-politically and culturally. What do you think you are right that we are not doing right?
We should not look at it in that perspective because we are all involved in the duty of nation building and the circumstances that confront Nigeria are different from that which confronts the West Indies. Each of us, have been trying to confront the worst aspects of the colonial periods. We all have various national aspirations, different sets of resources, we are building democracies and there are different challenges. But we have different approaches based on our circumstances.
It is not fair to compare the very small Island of the Caribbean which has 200 million people, and with an oil economy. We are a small Island and Jamaica is our largest English speaking Island with just three million people, Barbados has 280,000 people. These are small islands with micro-economies and different environments. Given what we have gone through historically and what has been done to us. I think we have done well, though we can do much better. But we should not be ashamed of what we have achieved.
Nigeria and West Indie have potentials in tourism. But you seem to be doing far better in tourism?
For 300 years, our economy was built on exporting sugar. The sugar economy collapsed in the 60s and 70s. Then we had to find an alternative economy activity. We had to restructure the economy and we built the restructuring around tourism and financial services. Barbados for example, has a very high living standard and the economy is built around tourism and financial services. There are many advantages of the tourism sector which one can benefit from. Again, I don’t think it is fair to compare these economies.
There are no sound basis to compare Barbados, and Jamaica with Nigeria. They are not at par with each other. I believe that the challenge facing Nigeria is much larger than the challenges facing the Caribbean. There are issues of managing the population size, and the creation of a city almost 20 million. These are huge challenges for a nation in the areas of housing, education and infrastructure because people are moving into the cities looking for a better life. One of the effects of that could be agriculture, but also the oil economy.
The sudden influx of cash has distorted economic planning, the politics of managing oil, the exportation of raw materials, the power of the multi-national companies and what they do to the environment. These are huge challenges which Nigeria like other oil producing countries in the developing world have faced. There is a body of theories that speaks to the challenges of managing oil economy in developing countries. They bring some very special challenges and sometimes you have to recognise an exclusion of cash at a short period of time, changes in social values and political dynamics. Many economists have stated that gradual development is more sustainable than sudden explosion of revenue which is more difficult to manage. Therefore, I think many of the challenges that have resulted from the petrol chemical economy are predictable and we have seen them in other economies.
As a professor of economic history, what is your advice on how Nigeria can out of the present recession?
There are always two main objectives in the pursuits of development especially in economy such as Nigeria. First, is how to maintain economic growth especially at a time where the price of the commodity is falling rapidly. We have seen the price of oil collapse from over 200 dollars per barrel. Now we are less than 25 dollars. This has had tremendous impact on government revenue. On the other hand, there is also the issue of social justice and empowerment of local communities. Petrol chemical economies are usually connected to multi-national companies and the exportation of raw materials and very often the materials are not subject to innovations or diversification or the use of the raw materials to create other industrial sectors.
Therefore when you are faced with this type of circumstances, one of the objectives that come to mind is economic diversification. The economy needs to be diversified away from the importation of raw materials. This will create an opportunity for you to spread the basis of the domestic performance and bring in more of the citizens to benefit from the industrial process. This is an imperative which takes time, in some cases it takes 20 to 30 years to achieve a process like that.
In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago have similar problems. The country is an oil exporting economy, at the moment, the oil price has collapsed, the government is faced with recession, there are serious cash flow problems. Now, the biggest item on the agenda is how to diversify the economy. The universities have been brought together to meet with the petrol chemical sector to talk about ways of creating new commodities and diversify projects.
We are looking at ways of creating new chemicals out of the oil. I hopeful that the Nigeria government is trying to ensure that they build a basic domestic industrial base around the oil sector, there are some good universities and petrol chemical engineers, there is need to bring them together to see what other industries can emerge. With a large population of almost 180 million, you have a domestic economy which can grow domestic demand. In the Caribbean, our economies are so small that we cannot produce for the local market. Here, there is a large population, and you can grow that domestic demand through diversification.
Corruption is one of the major challenges facing African countries. How should government address this issue?
During the memorial lecture, Vice President YemiOsinbajo spoke about the issue and his description was very disturbing. In the final analysis, corruption is much of the responsibilities of the citizens as well as the government. There is a tendency in many developing countries to attribute all of the ills to political leadership. I noticed that in developing countries where the civil service has been weakened, there is a greater tendency for public sector corruption, in countries where the civil service has remained strong; the permanent secretaries have maintained the culture of the permanent secretaries. The culture of the permanent secretaries is meant to be a fearless person who represents high quality and standards, when you weaken those structures, then you open the door. In stamping out this behaviour, there has to be an alliance.