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Recovering the Oromo Story in Ethiopia’s Fractured Past

8 min read. Successive Ethiopian governments have tried to erase the history and culture of the Oromo people, but a recent conference held in Addis Ababa finally gave this marginalised community an opportunity to be heard.

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Recovering the Oromo Story in Ethiopia’s Fractured Past
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The “Ayyaantuu”, are a body of persons within Ethiopia’s Oromo people, whose life’s work is calculating time using a complex system of numerology and astronomy to predict everything from weather patterns for the use of agricultural planning, to moments of societal upheaval.

It is being slowly discovered that they maintained, in their antiquity, a series of astral observatories all along the length of the eastern Rift Valley, through which they had mapped the visible universe, named stars and planets, and developed a calendar system that recycles itself every three hundred and sixty-five years.

Their other tools were a forked sighting staff, still carried by Oromo herdsman today, and the string of a series of lakes along the length of the valley floor that curiously, lie in the pattern of a star system above them.

Perhaps the last of these observatories has been finally acknowledged as such at Namoratunga in northern Kenya, with most of the star-aligned stone pillars still intact.

They had observed a comet, and calculated that it was set to return every seventy-five years.

In 1682, the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) using Newtonian laws of motion to compute its overall trajectory of the same comet even after it has departed, came to the same conclusion. The comet is now named after him, except in Oromo, where it is called “Gaalessa”.

Gems like this were part of a veritable avalanche of hitherto lesser-documented information that came flooding out during the thirty-third conference of the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) and after. The gathering, held between 26thand 27th July, was historic in many ways. It was the first time the OSA had ever been able to hold a conference on Ethiopian soil.

Out of over 100 papers submitted, there were some fifty-six presentations covering topics ranging from ecological management, history, constitutionalism, culture and economics.

OSA was founded by a group of exiled activists in 1986 in response to a crackdown that had driven those campaigning for greater recognition of the Oromo people and their culture murdered, tortured, jailed or driven out of the country.

There is a long and short background to this.

As a people, The Oromo number over thirty-five million in all directions from Addis Ababa, which also was Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They consist of a solid whole third of the country’s overall population.

Ethiopia has travelled its own uncolonized journey in the quest to build a modern, unified African country. Nevertheless, this quest has run into many of the same problems experienced by the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, namely what to do with those sections of the population that still defined themselves as other things, other nations even, predating the idea of the new state?

The Oromo number over 35 million in all directions from Addis Ababa, which also was Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They consist of a solid whole third of the country’s total population.

In post-European Africa, the story was quite straightforward. Those Africans argued that Africa must re-embrace its indigenous customs and institutions, and set aside the legacies derived from the long European colonial occupation.

The Ethiopian story allowed for the side-stepping of that question, for a while at least. The official argument has always been that the Ethiopian state is an independently-founded African institution, and that therefore those arguments do not apply.

The periods of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991) saw a fealty to the concept ideal firmly established by Selassie’s predecessor Emperor Menelik (1889-1911): that all of Ethiopia was to be assimilated into one Amharic-speaking Orthodox Christian culture.

The politics of the wars of resistance to Mengistu’s brutal Dergue rule, led to the ascension of a government obliged to make specific statutory recognition of the country’s ethnic landscape, despite the numerous schemes by the new strongman the late Meles Zenawi (1991-2012) to undermine this game-changing arrangement.

The April 2018 resignation of Meles’ successor Prime Minister Desalegn was a direct result of mass protests triggered by the government attempt to expand the boundaries of the already disputed city further into Oromo federal territory.

A reality now exists: a people mobilised in a political context where their previously hidden identities are now constitutionally recognised.

This is the political inheritance Desalegn’s own successor, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is currently grappling with.

From its founding, OSA has functioned as a de facto think tank, policy forum and perhaps virtual parliament for the aspired-for Oromiyya nation-state.

Finally, with this homecoming conference, the enforced diaspora was able to meet and encounter those who had never left home, and many in between.

The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, and massively militarily expanded by Emperor Menelik II, and then consolidated through a series of recognition treaties with the European powers. Assimilation, and cultural erasure were the particularly emphasized aspects of this process. The Oromo point to a long-standing need for effective decolonization. At the very least, they argue, this should mean the actual implementation of the full meaning of the 1995 Constitution that for the first-time recognized Ethiopia’s separate nations. At the most, it could mean secession (an option also provided for in the same constitution).

Within Ethiopian political discourse (and even beyond), this stance provokes a whole spectrum of reactions, from the deeply considered, to the nakedly visceral. It has been the primary driver of the culture of political intolerance in Ethiopia.

The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, and massively militarily expanded by Emperor Melelik II, and then consolidated through a series of recognition treaties with European powers.

Take the case of Ruda Kura, a Sayyoo clan elder, who lived between 1870 and 1974. He endured monstrous deprivations, including being chained to a tree in a public square for three years, and being publicly flogged due to his refusal to pay taxes to, or otherwise endorse the imposed Menelik state structures.

Much of such history is not widely known, not just in wider Ethiopia, but even among the current younger generations of Oromos themselves. And where it is known, there are often numerous academicized and historicized apologia seeking to explain it away.

This is where OSA’s relevance came in.

The first goal was to set the historical record straight, whatever the potential outcomes. This included the possibility of a consensus being arrived at that, despite the long-standing historical injustices, perhaps Ethiopia should just struggle on as a unitary, monolingual state.

But it is simply not possible to have a productive discussion on a way forward, if “half the story has never been told” as Bob Marley aptly put it.

And it is simply not possible to tell that half of the story if it has never been documented, and those carrying it in the hearts and memories are dismissed as unreliable, inauthentic sources, because they do not speak the language of academia.

This was a mission to re-define knowledge, and have it recognized as such.

It is a story with which many other native populations would be familiar. However, in the Ethiopia/Oromo case there was also a very longstanding, vigilant and meticulous system of censorship and policing within academia to prevent this other knowledge being produced in the first place.

OSA was established to carry out an “engaged scholarship” aimed at telling the full Oromo story, recovering and conserving the embattled indigenous knowledge, and researching the continued effects of what they see as a sustained colonial occupation aimed at erasing them.

The significance of the conference revealed itself only slowly, in many public and private moments. The appointed interim President of the Oromo federal unit he opening, and listened to some of the early presentations after making a short speech. This was followed by the mayor of Addis Ababa attending the opening of the last day, and giving his own speech. Neither had been on the programme, and never had Oromo natives holding office in the capital spoken so freely to an independent Oromo native gathering critical of the Ethiopian state. It was also a homecoming for many members after four-decade separations, such as among the Jalata family, whose member, the activist Professor Asafa Jalata, had been exiled in the United States.

It was triply significant for the American researcher, activist and academic Bonnie Holcomb, author of the 1991 book: The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, whose had been arrested and eventually banned from the country altogether back in the 1970s, for documenting the Oromo experience that informed the work.

She was able to finally return through this conference. In her time, she has seen the culture move from being essentially banned and demonised to nominally statutorily recognised, and the organisation she co-founded finally make its way home, to discover and connect with two generations of home-based activism.

A second major OSA goal was to generate reflection on what contemporary thinking on “Development” means for the Oromo people. This is partly because Oromo areas of Ethiopia constitute the breadbasket of the country, and as such, any objections to further development (read “eviction” and environmental destruction) projects were deemed as the thoughts of a backward people. Many native peoples can learn from this.

A new approach is needed to get beyond the crisis that five hundred or more years of dominant Western thought has now imposed upon the planet. The planet has reached a point where it may no longer be able to sustain human, and possibly other forms of especially mammalian life. Western thought’s underlying Abrahamic exhortation to “…multiply…fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis: 1:28) is about to kill us all.

Key to this new approach will be resetting humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature. For that to happen, humanity will have to reach deep into those areas of human knowledge hitherto marginalised and downgraded by the great White experiment, for answers. Only those peoples who, despite colonialisms and attempted genocides, still held on to their pre-Abrahamic knowledge systems or have the means of reconstructing them, can help.

The Oromo are a prime example of this.

Through their book: Sacred Knowledge Traditions of the Oromo of the Horn of Africa, essentially researched over a period of three decades, Dr Gemetchu Megerssa and Dr Aneesa Kassam have finally managed to capture the detailed outline of this thought system, aspects of which have been recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as part the intangible human cultural heritage.

Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renown Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Booran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.

This is a classic case of the re-definition of knowledge. The primary source for this great study was a series of initiation sessions that Gemetchu was inducted into as a young man, in search of a deeper understanding of the Oromo system. His key teacher was Bulee Gayoo. He agreed to pass on the teaching upon establishing that in fact, Gemetchu was Ruda Kura’s paternal grandson.

Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renowned Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Booran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.

Among his people, Bulee Gayyoo was an ilmaan korma, a first son born when his own father was forty years old. This meant he was “born within time”, and aligned with the Oromo Gadaa time system, giving him special responsibilities as a custodian of its knowledge.

In Kenya, he presented first as a night watchman, and then a cattle-labourer in Kariobangi market and lived in the slums of Mathare Valley, where the teaching sessions took place. He passed on in 2003. Now he lives on in the form of a deeply researched book. How much of the knowledge held by people such as him, never made this journey? How much is lost to the vanities and stricture of Western-inspired academia?

But there is more: the recovered Oromo story also offers the foundation for a greater study of the black Kushite civilizational system that gave rise to the black civilization of Khemet, better known as Ancient Egypt.

With Oromo, OSA may have found the place where the proper historical reconstruction of the actual African story may begin.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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Rant of a Coconut: What Chigumadzi Doesn’t Get about Nigerians

10 min read. In this essay, SANYA OSHA debunks myths about Nigeria that are being perpetuated by African academics who fail to appreciate the impact slavery and colonialism had on West Africa, and the role Africans have played in exposing the contradictions of the postcolonial ethos.

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Rant of a Coconut: What Chigumadzi Doesn’t Get about Nigerians
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Panashe Chigumadzi’s long, digressive article, “Black Skins White Masks Revisited: Why I am No Longer Talking to Nigerians about Race”, on the necessity of Nigerians to engage with the question of race is purposely provocative. It also serves to mislead and misinform. For someone who obviously considers herself eminently qualified to speak in defense of “a radical anti-racist politics”, it would be appropriate to dwell a bit on what precisely are her credentials.

Admittedly, she has confessed to being schooled in white establishments virtually from kindergarten until her current base at Harvard University. In the essay where she makes this confession (“Of Coconuts, Consciousness and Cecil John Rhodes: Disillusionment and Disavowals of the Rainbow Nation”) she also admits to being a “coconut” (black on the outside, white on the inside, the perennial Fanonian quandary), what conscious African-Americans would call a “coon”, or in earlier times, an “Uncle Tom”. And so on the basis of this “impressive” set of accomplishments, she feels, still under the age of thirty, qualified to challenge a nation of almost 200 million souls to engage with the problem of race in globally explicit ways.

Her other accomplishments include her role at the height of the #FeesMustFall campaign when she was invited to Rhodes University, South Africa, to launch her novel, Sweet Medicine, in 2016. There had been a schism within the black students’ movement between purveyors of radical black thought and “integrationists” of the coconut stripe. White liberals were in full support of the integrationists who had been indoctrinated to misread and misapply the radical teachings of theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. Chigumadzi had appeared on the platform of the integrationists, obviously at her “coconutic” best.

It really does take some nerve to castigate an entire nation with such incredible blitheness and glibness. It is even more difficult to assimilate when one reviews her “lofty” credentials. Her “coon” education obviously did not prepare her to appreciate the canonical import of works such as Chinua Achebe’s majestic Things Fall Apart whose setting is in faraway Nigeria, and not nearby within the southern tip of Africa, as she points out in her characteristically digressive essay, “Rights of Conquest, Rights of Desire”, which casually glosses over perhaps the most powerful as well as the most insightful exploration of the colonial encounter in all of literature. Instead she smuggles unwanted black bodies in the midst of racist white angst as if that in itself constitutes a gesture of racial reconciliation. And just like a true coconut, she had to find a place for the swart gevaar (the black threat) by means of the most remarkable kind of Conradian literary inversion.

It really does take some nerve to castigate an entire nation with such incredible blitheness and glibness.

Wole Soyinka, the icon of African literary creativity and redoubtable social activism, is briskly dismissed in the following manner; “Soyinka […] had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent”. To bolster her point, she cites the now tired and lame quip, “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.”

After the usual interminable digressions, she makes a case for “redeeming Nigerian Tigritude” by concluding that Nigerians lack the qualities of empathy and humility to truly become the giants of Africa. You really must possess considerable reserves of patience to isolate her central arguments, namely, Soyinka’s, and by extension, all Nigerians’, appalling unfamiliarity with global race dynamics. Ultimately, this debilitating unawareness precludes Nigerians from being suitable to be at the forefront of African political struggles.

Curiously, she lists the impressive achievements of Nigeria in combating apartheid in South Africa through the national levies it imposed on school children, the numerous diplomatic initiatives it launched or participated in, the net donation of 61 billion dollars to the anti-apartheid struggle, and yet she cannot seem to think this is a most empathetic contribution.

Again, strangely, she fails to reflect on the scourge of Afrophobia plaguing South Africa, in which the business enterprises and bodies of foreign nationals – particularly, Somalis, Ethiopians, Pakistanis, Zimbabaweans and Nigerians – are razed almost weekly in exuberant public bouts of xenophobic rage. Of course, it is almost impossible to forge any kind of alliance or solidarity amid such constant orgies of rage, violence and destruction aimed at hapless foreigners. Rather than expect more empathy from Nigerians, it would be more logical to expect more gratitude from the proponents and culprits of Afrophobia.

Let us examine the myth that Nigerians have not been able to formulate the kind of emancipatory race politics Chigumadzi approves. Here, Soyinka immediately comes to mind. When he was eighteen years of age at the then University College Ibadan, Soyinka formed the first campus confraternity along with the likes of renowned Cambridge trained physicist, Muyiwa Awe and others, such as the broadcaster, Ralph Okpara. Their confraternity was established to serve as a bulwark against undue colonial indoctrination on their white-dominated campus. So rather than uncritically accepting the acquiescence and complicities of the coconut, there was already an awareness to question and resist racial oppression and injustice even before he had attained full maturity.

Curiously, she lists the impressive achievements of Nigeria in combating apartheid in South Africa through the national levies it imposed on school children, the numerous diplomatic initiatives it launched or participated in, the net donation of 61 billion dollars to the anti-apartheid struggle, and yet she cannot seem to think this is a most empathetic contribution.

Eventually, Soyinka attended Leeds University to complete his undergraduate course but whilst abroad, he was thinking of returning home once his studies were over. For further personal studies, he sought to recuperate orders of knowledge that had been demonised, suppressed and erased by the agents and machinations of colonialism. It was not long before he adopted Ogun, the Yoruba deity of war, iron and justice, as his special guardian spirit contrary to the Western education he had received and the Christian background of the home in which his parents had raised him.

Soyinka’s inquiry into his beloved ancient Yoruba cosmogony led him to forge lifelong links with other Yoruba-affiliated descendants of the African diaspora based in Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, other places in the Caribbean and of course, the United States. Undoubtedly, when he visited those countries, he never failed to promote the tigritude of his Yoruba ancestry and cosmogony. Such was the case when he met Henry Louis Gates Jr., the founder and director of the African and African American Studies Center at Harvard where Chigumadzi is currently a PhD student.

At Cambridge, Gates, in various instances, admits that Soyinka had led him on a continuing journey to discover the truths about Africa that had been occluded by racist prevarication and indoctrination. Indeed since then, they have continued to enjoy close and productive collaborations in developing and strengthening the discipline of Africana studies. Gates would also go on to popularise the figure of Esu, the Yoruba deity of the crossroads, wit and intelligence, in his landmark work, The Signifying Monkey (1988). In this work, Gates explores the various appropriations and survivals of Esu within the context of African American culture and literature.

Soyinka’s transcontinental exertions did not end here. He has undertaken missions at his own personal expense to attempt to retrieve invaluable artworks looted from Africa by European colonialists. He was immensely active during FESTAC 1977, the global black festival that brought together artists and intellectuals of all persuasions to Lagos to celebrate and promote black cultures the world over. Indeed his efforts and initiatives at seeking and cementing Africana ethics and poetics of solidarity are too numerous to mention and cannot be over-emphasised. In a context when the notion of black excellence is increasingly becoming trite and perhaps meaningless, he remains a lodestar upon which we can begin a proper conversation.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is another exemplary figure who contributed enormously to black pride, agency and resurgence in incomparable ways. Incidentally, Anikulapo-Kuti and Soyinka are cousins and so it isn’t a surprise that they share and practise similar kinds of global black solidarity. Anikulapo-Kuti’s radicalism made him adversaries amongst the elite political classes in his native Nigeria and Ghana after he was hounded out of his country on account of his vociferous activism and oppositional poetics.

Due to his uncompromising radicalism, doors closed on Anikulapo-Kuti everywhere; the foreign-owned record companies at home and abroad shunned him, and the international music industry cartels made it difficult for him to have significant breakthroughs. Radio stations wouldn’t feature his compositions because he would not sing three-minute hits as opposed to the half-hour long tunes of great complexity and ingenuity he favoured.

When established record labels refused to release and market his music, he set up his own channels and platforms. His compositions, in the global era of disco, vacuous entertainment and feel-good funk seemed out of time by virtue of his trenchant ideological vision, his strident critiques of racism, imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism and international finance capitalism that impoverished and immiserated more or less all of Africa and much of what was then called the Third World.

During his lifetime, all the wealth Anikulapo-Kuti made was showered on the ill, needy and homeless, and when he passed away in 1997, he had almost nothing to his name, except perhaps, the ever-green radiance and energy of his astonishing compositions.

His work was not confined to the west coast of Africa and its multiple diasporas. When Hugh Masekela visited Lagos in the early 1970s seeking fresh sources of inspiration, Anikulapo-Kuti hooked him up with the inimitable Ghanaian back-up combo that propelled him to greater musical horizons. Miriam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Kiki Gyan, Lester Bowie, Gilberto Gil, Sandra Izidore, Roy Ayers and Randy Weston, at various times, sought his unparalleled musical artistry and guidance in advancing their own projects. And just like his cousin Soyinka, Anikulapo-Kuti vigorously re-established connections that existed in Africa before the advent of colonialism.

After having studied European classical music and compositional techniques in London during the 1950s, he returned to Nigeria to study the indigenous methods of his ancestral forebears, paying particular attention to the spiritual aspects and trance forms.

Anikulapo-Kuti had every opportunity to be a certified coconut. His mother, Olufunmilayo, is widely regarded as Nigeria’s first modern feminist who visited the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and China on questions of mutual interest. She was also a friend and collaborator of the great exemplar of Pan-Africanist epistemology and praxis, Kwame Nkrumah, when he was the President of Ghana.

Anikulapo-Kuti could have led a comfortably sequestrated existence filled with the cheap glories of being a coconut but he chose to align himself with the lowly lot of economic and political outcasts, cultural renegades and oppositional figures of all stripes who naturally irritated the custodians of worldly power. But like a true Pan-Africanist fighter, he elected to remain a thorn in the flesh of decadent and corpulent power until his inevitably tragic end. He excoriated figures, such as P.W. Botha, the Prime Minister of apartheid South Africa, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Ronald Reagan of the United States, and not least of all, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria.

Perhaps employing the Pan-Africanist visions of Soyinka and Anikulapo-Kuti, it would be most appropriate to complexify the very notion of “the Nigerian”. Many Nigerians in their reflective moments know that it is an unfortunate and almost unbearable fabrication of the self-serving colonial enterprise. It is, in other words, a geographical entity of tragicomic proportions that was meant to frustrate and undermine its hapless inhabitants.

True, the inhabitants of Nigeria had always interacted in the precolonial days, but the modalities of interaction had been independent of arbitrary colonial interference. On the other hand, the new modalities of co-existence and co-operation had been funneled through the misshapen and counter-productive channels of colonialism. Those channels were not intended for sociopolitical success of postcolonial Nigerians, as they weren’t for most of the colonised world.

Anikulapo-Kuti could have led a comfortably sequestrated existence filled with the cheap glories of being a coconut but he chose to align himself with the lowly lot of economic and political outcasts, cultural renegades and oppositional figures of all stripes who naturally irritated the custodians of worldly power.

And so the geographical entities of postcoloniality always pose questions regarding their ultimate viability as largely baseless colonial constructs. However, Chigumadzi is unable to see the incongruity and innate discomfort in saying as a Zimbabwean-born South African (or whatever identity she chooses to adopt), I am able to castigate Nigerians for their perceived lack of empathy and ethics of solidarity. Colonial African geographical constructs were basically not designed for that purpose.

Soyinka has variously denounced this untenable situation with harsh words for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, the precursor to the present African Union [AU]), which uncritically sanctioned this gross and violent colonial misadventure that should be considered as yet another deleterious scheme to violate and undermine African communities. This is why Nigerians and Ghanaians, for instance, can needlessly squabble over seemingly meaningless and counterproductive trivia without seeing that they had once enjoyed more humane and beneficial relations in abundance before the unwholesome truncation of colonialism. Chigumadzi’s rant is merely an extension of this ahistorical postcolonial mindset, or is it myopia, namely, the inability to interrogate, negate and (re)negotiate colonial African geographical constructs as eternal givens.

If this radical questioning remains always ignored and is not approached with a healthy dose of scepticism, preposterous political scenarios and vast genocidal scenes of utter disarray come to mind that are likely to abound only because we have accepted to be the slavish “coconuts” of unsustainable postcolonial geographical dispensations.

The uncritical subscription to a colonialist project of identification in the wake of the devastation of colonialism that differentiates Zimbabweans, South Africans, Kenyans, Ghanaians or Nigerians as bearers of immutable forms of identity and subsequently pits them constantly against each other, undoubtedly bodes ill for any conception of mutuality, or indeed, solidarity.

But even if we were to subscribe to the colonial geographical markers of identity as Chigumadzi does, Nigerians have been in the forefront of practising Egyptian theorist Samir Amin’s concept of “delinking”. Employing this concept, Amin argues for the decoupling of peripheralised African economies from the invariably inequitable global monetary system that enforces a centre/periphery dichotomy that reduces Africans to suppliers of primary products while the West plays the dominant role of manufacturers as well as incubators of technological innovation and advancement.

Rather than mentioning counter-paradigmatic Nigerian social scientists, such as Ola Oni, Sam Aluko, Adebayo Adedeji, Claude Ake, Bade Onimode, Omafume Onoge , Adebayo Olukoshi and a plethora of others who have offered the most devastating critiques of the Bretton-Woods institutional order that all but crippled the growth of African educational establishments beginning in the 1970s through the toxic mantra of profits-before-people, deregulation and privatisation, Chigumadzi instead chooses to linger on the forgettable work of Chika Onyeani, a reactionary self-nullifying anti-black character, and a darling of the white liberal press in South Africa, who simply does not register in the ever-vibrant discourse of Nigerian socio-economic theory.

If Chigumadzi is really concerned about pursuing a politics of global black emancipation – as she might perhaps imagine herself to be – she ought to be critiquing the bastions of white supremacy that have provided her the leeway from which to cast aspersions on Nigerians. Attacking Nigerians is indeed diversionary as she ought to embark on a quest for reparations for the descendants of the transatlantic slave trade, as the late Nigerian politician, business and philanthropist Moshood K.O. Abiola had with uncommon vigour, commitment and immense sacrifice before his death in 1998.

If Chigumadzi is really concerned about pursuing a politics of global black emancipation – as she might perhaps imagine herself to be – she ought to be critiquing the bastions of white supremacy that have provided her the leeway from which to cast aspersions on Nigerians.

For Chigumadzi to claim Nigerians are unaware of the problem of race is tantamount to ascribing to them an ignorance of a slave trade that wreaked extreme devastation on their territories, and across the entire West African region along with the lands of Angola and the Congo. Ancestral blood from those various territories, in spite of all protestations to the contrary, was largely responsible for creating the wealth of Europe and the Americas as we know them today. An appropriate global politics of black emancipation and inclusivity would need to calibrate these historical realities rather than being cocooned within the safe enclaves of racist power and privilege and then finding easy discursive targets amongst millions of toiling black folk.

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Reckoning with 400 Years: Remembrance, Resilience, Responsibility, Reparations and Redemption

24 min read. The landing of a slave ship in Virginia four hundred years ago changed not just the fortunes of slave owners in America, but also transformed the modern world. In this essay, the historian TIYAMBE ZELEZA examines the demographic, social, cultural, and economic impact of slavery on the Western world and on the African continent, and explains why African countries need to connect with their global diasporas.

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The Original Sin: Slavery, America and the Modern World
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Four hundred years ago, in late August 1619, a slave ship named White Lion, landed on the shores of Point Comfort, in what is today Hampton, Virginia. On board were more than 20 African women and men, who had been seized from a Portuguese ship, São João Bautista, on its way from Angola to Veracruz in Mexico. Virginia, the first English colony in North America, had only been formed twelve years earlier in 1607.

Thus, the two original sins of the country that would become the United States of America, the forcible seizure of the lands of the indigenous people, and the deployment of forced labor from captive and later enslaved Africans, began almost simultaneously. The Africans were stolen people brought to build stolen lands, as I noted in the lead short story in my collection, The Joys of Exile, published in 1994.

I attended the First Landing Commemorative Weekend in Hampton, Virginia on August 23-24. Partly for professional reasons as a historian who has done extensive work on African diasporas. And partly in homage to my acquired diaspora affiliations, and the diaspora identities of some key members of my immediate family including my wife and daughter.

In the events I participated I was enraptured by the stories and songs and performances of remembrance.  And I was inspired by the powerful invocations of resilience, the unyielding demands for responsibility and reparations, and the yearnings for redemption and recovery from what some call the post-traumatic slave syndrome.

The emotions of the multitudinous, multiracial and multigenerational audiences swayed with anger, bitterness and bewilderment at the indescribable cruelties of slavery, segregation, and persistent marginalization for African Americans. But there was also rejoicing at the abundant contributions, creativity, and the sheer spirit of indomitability, survival and struggle over the generations. We still stand, one speaker proclaimed with pride defiance, to which the audience beamed and chanted, “Yes, we do!”

In the events I participated I was enraptured by the stories and songs and performances of remembrance.  And I was inspired by the powerful invocations of resilience, the unyielding demands for responsibility and reparations, and the yearnings for redemption and recovery from what some call the post-traumatic slave syndrome.

The scholars brought their academic prowess as they methodically peeled the layers of falsehoods, distortions, and silences in the study of American history and society. They unraveled the legacies of slavery on every aspect of American life from the structure and destructive inequities of American capitalism to what one called the criminal injustice system rooted in the slave patrols of the plantations, as well as the history of struggles for democracy, freedom and equality that progressively realized America’s initially vacuous democratic ideals.

The artists and media practitioners assailed and celebrated the 400 years of pain and triumphs. They exhorted the power of African Americans telling and owning their stories. A renowned CNN pundit reminded the audience that there are four centers of power in the United States, namely, Washington (politics), Wall Street (finance), Silicon Valley (digital technology), and Hollywood (media), and that African American activists have to focus on all of them, not just the first.

The politicians implored the nation to confront the difficult truths of American history with honesty and commitment. The two former governors and the current governor of Virginia paid tribute to the centrality of African American history and their role in bridging the yawning contradiction between the claims of representative democracy and the heinous original sin and exclusions of slavery. They proceeded to promise various policy remediations. Black members of Congress bemoaned the incomplete progress made in the march to freedom and inclusion and denounced the resurgence of hate, racism and white supremacy. An eleven year orator electrified the crowd with his passionate plea for fostering a community of care and kindness that would make the ancestors proud.

Two hundred and forty one years after the arrival of the first Africans in Hampton, in the summer of 1860, the last ship that brought African captives to the shores of the United States landed north of Mobile, Alabama. The Coltilda brought 110 women, men, and children. The Senegalese historian, Sylviane Diouf has told their story with her characteristic care, compassion and eloquence in her book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama.

The following year, in April 1860, the American Civil War broke out primarily over the institution of slavery. The abolition of slavery finally came in 1865. By then, hundreds of ships had plied the Atlantic and brought nearly half a million African captives to the United States. They and their descendants endured 246 years of servitude and slavery, a century of Jim Crow segregation, and another half a century of an incomplete and contested civil rights settlement.

The African men and women who landed as captives in Hampton arrived out of two confluences of pillage: in Angola and in the Atlantic. They were pawns in the imperial rivalries and internecine wars engendered by the burgeoning slave-based Atlantic economy enveloping what became the insidious triangle of western Africa, western Europe, and the Americas that emerged from the early 1500s.

But even in their subjugation they were history makers. They became indispensable players in the construction of Atlantic economies and societies. In short, their history of servitude that before long calcified into slavery, is the history of the United States of America, of the making of the modern world in all its complexities and contradictions, tragedies and triumphs, perils and possibilities.

By the time the first captive Africans arrived in Virginia, more than half a million Africans had already crossed the horrendous Middle Passage to the incipient Portuguese, Spanish, and English colonies of South America and the Caribbean. In fact, they were preceded in several parts of North America itself by Africans who came with the conquistadors from the Iberian Peninsula both in servitude and freedom. For example, the first recorded person of African descent to reach Nova Scotia, Canada in 1604 was Mathieu Da Costa, a sailor and translator for French settlers from Portugal.

It is critical to remember that the Iberian Peninsula had been conquered in 711 by northwest Africans who ruled parts of the region for eight centuries (in Eurocentric textbooks they are often referred to as Moors, Muslims, or Arabs). Later, the descendants of Africans brought as captives to Spain from the 1440s, sometimes referred to as Afro-Iberians, plied the Atlantic world as sailors, conquistadors, and laborers in the conquest and colonization of the Americas. For the United States, it appears in 1526 enslaved Africans rebelled against a Spanish expedition and settlement in what is today South Carolina.

This is to underscore the importance of placing the arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 in a broader historical context. Their horrendous journey, repeated by 36,000 slave ships over the centuries, was embedded in a much larger story. It was part of the emergence of the modern world system that has dominated global history for the last five hundred years, with its shifting hierarchies and hegemonies, but enduring structures and logics of capitalist greed, exploitation, and inequality. I found the broader trans-Atlantic and global contexts somewhat missing from the commemorations in Hampton.

The new world system that emerged out of the inhuman depredations of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, and the economic revolutions it spawned, was defined by its capitalist modernity and barbarism. It involved multiple players comprising political and economic actors in Europe, Africa, and the expanding settler societies of the Americas. Scaffolding it was the ideology of racism, the stubborn original fake news of eternal African inferiority, undergirded by physiological myths about African bodies. Racism was often supplemented by other insidious constructs of difference over gender and sexuality, religion and culture.

Much of what I heard at the Commemorative Weekend and read in the American media, including the searing and sobering series of essays under “The 1619 Project” in The New York Times powerfully echoed the academic literature that I’m familiar with as a professional historian. Befitting the nation’s most prestigious paper, The 1619 Project is ambitious:  “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

The essays paint a complex and disturbing picture of American history. One traces the shift from forced labor, which was common in the Old World, to the rise of commercialized, racialized, and inherited slavery in the Americas, and how this ruthless system generated enormous wealth and power for nation states in Europe and the colonies, institutions including the church, and individuals. As the plantation economy expanded, the codification of slavery intensified into a rigid system of unmitigated exploitation and oppression.

The new world system that emerged out of the inhuman depredations of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, and the economic revolutions it spawned, was defined by its capitalist modernity and barbarism. It involved multiple players comprising political and economic actors in Europe, Africa, and the expanding settler societies of the Americas.

Another essay underscores how the back-breaking labor of the enslaved Africans built the foundations of the American economy, how cotton became America’s most profitable commodity, accounting for more than half of the nation’s exports and world supply, which generated vast fortunes. Yet, the enslaved Africans had no legal rights to marry, or to justice in the courts; they could not own or inherit anything, not even their bodies or offspring, for they were chattel, property that could be sold, mortgaged, violated, raped, and even killed at will; and they had no rights to education and literacy.

One contributor to the series states categorically that “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” Key institutions and models that have come to characterize the American economy were incubated on the plantation. They include the relentless pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting, workplace supervision, the development of the mortgage and collateralized debt obligations as financial instruments, and the creation of large corporations. Slavery made Wall Street, America’s financial capital. In short, slavery is at the heart of what one author calls the country’s low-road capitalism of ruthless accumulation and glaring inequalities.

But the contributions of African Americans went beyond the economic and material. Several essays discuss and applaud their cultural contributions. Music is particularly noteworthy. Much of quintessential American music exported and consumed ravishingly across the world is African American, from jazz to blues to rock and roll to gospel to hip hop. Forged in bondage and racial oppression, it is a tribute to the creativity and creolization of diaspora cultures and communities, the soulful and exuberant soundtrack of an irrepressible people.

One could also mention the indelible imprints of African American cuisine, fashion, and even the aesthetics of cool. We also know now, through the work of African American historians and activist scholars and others, such as Craig Steven Wilder’s groundbreaking book, Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, that the growth of America’s leading universities from Harvard to Yale to Georgetown and some of the dominant intellectual traditions are inextricably linked to the proceeds and ideologies of slavery.

No less critical has been the massive contributions by African Americans to defining the very idea of freedom and expanding the cherished, but initially rhetorical and largely specious ideals of American democracy. Juxtaposed against the barbarities of plantation economies was the heroism of slave resistances including rebellions. It is the generations of African American struggles that turned the United States from a slavocracy (10 of the 12 first presidents were slave owners) to a democracy.

It is they who turned the ideal and lie of democracy into reality, paving way for other struggles including those for women’s, gay, immigrant, and disability rights that engulfed 20th century America and still persist. The struggles were both overt and covert, militant and prosaic, episodic and quotidian. They started among the captives enroute to the slaveholding dungeons on the coasts of western Africa, through the Middle Passage, on the plantations, and in the mushrooming towns and cities of colonial America.

The African American struggles for human rights peaked during Reconstruction as electoral offices opened to them and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed outlawing slavery, guaranteeing birthright citizenship, and the right to vote, respectively. But these advances soon triggered a backlash that ushered the racial terror of Jim Crow that reinstated the caste system of American racism for nearly a century.

After the Second World War the country was convulsed by the long crusade for civil rights that resulted in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively. But as with every victory in America’s treacherous racial quagmire, a racist counteroffensive soon erupted, which intensified during and after the historic Obama presidency. And the struggle continues today in myriad ways and venues.

The Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas have generated some of the most heated debates in the historiographies of modern Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the world at large. A trading and labor system in which the commodities and producers were enslaved human beings cannot but be highly emotive and raise troubling intellectual and moral questions.

The controversies centre on several issues, five of which stand out. There are, first, fierce debates about the total number of Africans exported; second, the demographic, economic and social impact of the slave trade on Africa; third, the impact of Africans and slavery on the development of economies, societies, cultures and polities in the Americas; fourth, the role of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the development of industrial capitalism in the western world generally; and finally, the contentious demands for reparations for the slave trade and slavery that have persisted since abolition.

In so far as the Atlantic slave trade remains the foundation of the modern world capitalist system and the ultimate moral measure of the relationship between Africa, Europe, and the Americas, between Africans and Europeans and their descendants in modern times, the amount of intellectual and ideological capital and heat the subject has engendered for the past half millennium should not be surprising. Predictably, also, all too often many scholars and ideologues hide their motives and biases behind methodological sophistry, rhetorical deflections, and outright lies.

Many of the contemporary disputes are as old as the Atlantic slave trade itself. Two approaches can be identified in the debates, although there are considerable overlaps. There are some, especially those of European descent, who tend to minimize the adverse impact that the slave trade had on Africa and Africans on the continent and on the enslaved Africans in the diaspora. Others, mostly of African descent, tend to emphasize the role of the slave trade in the underdevelopment of Africa, development of the Americas and Western Europe, and the marginalization and reconstruction of African diaspora cultures and communities in the Americas.

The Atlantic slave trade began slowly in the 15th century, then grew dramatically in the subsequent centuries, reaching a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. The trade was dominated first by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries, then by the Dutch in the 17th century, the British in the 18th century, and the Europeans settled in the Americas (e.g., USA, Cuba, Brazil, etc.) in the 19th century.

The bulk of the enslaved Africans came from the western coast of Africa covering the vast regions of Senegambia, Upper Guinea Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Congo and Angola. In short, West and Central Africa were the two major streams of enslavement that flowed into the horrific Middle Passage to the Americas.

The Atlantic slave trade was triggered by the demand for cheap and productive labour in the Americas. Attempts to use the indigenous peoples floundered because they were familiar with the terrain and could escape, and they were increasingly decimated by exposure to strange new European diseases and the ruthless brutalities and terror of conquest. And it was not possible to bring laborers from Europe in the quantities required. In the 16th and 17th centuries Europe was still recovering from the Black Death of the mid-14th century that had wiped out between a third and half of its population.

And so attention was turned to western Africa. Why this region, not other parts of Africa or Asia for that matter, one may wonder. Western Africa was relatively close to the Americas. If geography dictated the positioning of western Africa in the evolving and heinous Atlantic slave trade, economics sealed its fate.

The African captives were highly skilled  farmers, artisans, miners, and productive workers in other activities for which labor was in great demand in the Americas. Also, unlike the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they were more resistant to European diseases since the disease environments of the Old World of Europe, Africa and Asia overlapped.

The bulk of the enslaved Africans came from the western coast of Africa covering the vast regions of Senegambia, Upper Guinea Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Congo and Angola. In short, West and Central Africa were the two major streams of enslavement that flowed into the horrific Middle Passage to the Americas.

Furthermore, the captives were stolen. Slavery entailed coerced, unpaid labor, which made both the acquisition of captives and use of slave labor relatively cheap. The captives were acquired in several ways, predominantly through the use of force in the form of warfare, raids and kidnapping. Judicial and administrative corruption also played a role by sentencing people accused of violating the rules of society and witchcraft, often capriciously, into servitude. Some were seized as a form of tribute and taxation.

Thus the process of enslavement essentially involved the violent robbery of human beings. The families of the captives who disappeared never saw them again. Thus, unlike voluntary European migrants to the Americas and contemporary migrants from Africa, the families of the captives never got anything for the loss of their relatives. There were no remittances.

And few ever saw Africa or the wider world again, except for the sailors who plied the Atlantic. The exceptions also include individuals like Olaudah Equiano, who left us his remarkable memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. There are also the striking stories of return to Africa among some of those whose memoirs are recorded in Allan D Austin’s pioneering compendium, African Muslims in Antebellum America.

For their part, the slave dealers, from the local merchants and rulers in Africa to the European merchants at the hideous fortresses that dot the coasts of western Africa and slave owners in the Americas, shared all the ill-gotten gains of captivity, servitude, and enslavement. One of the difficult truths we have to face is the role of Africans in the Atlantic Slave trade, a subject that casts a pall between continental Africans and the historic diaspora in the Americas.

African merchants and ruling elites were actively involved in the slave trade, not because their societies had surplus population or underutilized labour, as some historians have maintained, but for profit. They sought to benefit from trading a “commodity” they had not “produced,” except transport to the coast. The notion that they did not know what they were doing, that they were “bamboozled” by the European merchants is just untenable as the view that they generated, controlled, or monopolized the trade.

To assume that African merchants did not profit because their societies paid a heavy price is just as ahistorical as to equate their gains with those of their societies. In other words, African slave traders pursued narrow interests and short-term economic calculations to the long-term detriment of their societies. It can be argued that they had little way of knowing that their activities were under-populating and under-developing “Africa,” a configuration that hardly existed in their consciousness or entered into their reckoning.

However, Europe and European merchants bear ultimate responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade. It was the Europeans who controlled and organized the trade; African merchants and rulers did not march to Europe to ask for the enslavement of their people, in fact some actively resisted it. It was the Europeans who came to buy the captives, transported them in their ships to the Americas, and sold them to European settlers who used them to work on mines and plantations, and to build the economic infrastructure of the so-called New World.

Clearly, the consequences of the Atlantic slave trade varied significantly for Africa on the one hand and Europe and the Americas on the other. While much of the historiography focuses on the economic underdevelopment of Africa and the economic development of the Americas and Europe, this needs to be prefaced by the uneven and unequal demographic impact.

As noted earlier, there’s no agreement on the numbers of captive and enslaved Africans. The late American historian, Philip Curtin in his 1969 book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census estimated that 9,566,100 African captives were imported into the Americas between 1451 and 1870. His followers proposed slight adjustment upwards as more data became available. In much of the western media including The New York Times’ 1619 Project, the figure that is quoted is 12.5 million.

To assume that African merchants did not profit because their societies paid a heavy price is just as ahistorical as to equate their gains with those of their societies. In other words, African slave traders pursued narrow interests and short-term economic calculations to the long-term detriment of their societies.

In a series of articles and monographs, Joseph Inikori, the Nigerian economic historian, questioned  the computation methods of Curtin and his followers and the quality of the data they employed, particularly the underestimation of the slave imports of Spanish, Portuguese and French America. He suggested a 40 per cent upward adjustment of Curtin’s figures which brings the Atlantic slave exports to a total of 15.4 million, of whom about 8.5 million were from West Africa and the rest from Central Africa.

The exact number of African captives exported to the Americas may never be known, for there may be extant sources not yet known to historians or others that have been lost. Moreover, it is difficult to establish the number of captives who arrived through the clandestine or “illegal” trade, and those who died between the time of embarkation and arrival in the New World in both the “legitimate” and clandestine trade. Even harder to discern is the number of captives who died during transit to, or while at, the coast awaiting embarkation, and of those who were killed during slave wars and raids.

As I argued in my 1993 book, A Modern Economic History of Africa, the “numbers game,” is really less about statistical exactitude than the degree of moral censure. It is as if by raising or lowering the numbers the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on the societies from which the captives came and on the enslaved people themselves can be increased or decreased accordingly. There is a long tradition in Western scholarship of minimizing the demographic impact of the slave trade on Africa. It began with the pro-slavery propagandists during the time of the Atlantic slave trade itself.

There is now considerable literature that shows the Atlantic slave trade severely affected the demographic processes of mortality, fertility and migration in western African. The regions affected by the slave trade lost population directly through slave exports and deaths incurred during slave wars and raids. Indirectly population losses were induced by epidemics caused by increased movements and famines brought about by the disruption of agricultural work, and flight to safer but less fertile lands.

All the available global estimates seem to agree that by 1900 Africa had a lower share of the world’s population than in 1500. Africans made up 8% of the world’s population in 1900, down from 13% in 1750. It took another 250 years for Africa’s population to return to this figure; it reached 13.7% of the world’s population in 2004. Inikori has argued that there would have been 112 million additional population in Africa had there been no Atlantic slave trade.

As I argued in my 1993 book, A Modern Economic History of Africa, the “numbers game,” is really less about statistical exactitude than the degree of moral censure. It is as if by raising or lowering the numbers the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on the societies from which the captives came and on the enslaved people themselves can be increased or decreased accordingly.

This is because the slave trade also altered the age and gender structures of the remaining populations, and the patterns of marriage, all of which served to depress fertility rates. The people who were exported were largely between the ages of 16 and 30, that is, in the prime of their reproductive lives, so that their forced migration depressed future population growth. Moreover they were lost at an age when their parents could not easily replace them owing to declining fertility.

The age structure of the population left behind became progressively older, further reinforcing the trend toward lower growth. Thus population losses could not easily be offset by natural increases, certainly not within a generation or two. The gender ratio was generally 60 per cent for men and 40 per cent for women. This affected marriage structures and fertility patterns. The proportion of polygynous marriages increased, which since it may have meant less sexual contact for women than in monogamous marriages, probably served to depress fertility as well.

The fertility of the coastal areas was also adversely affected by the spread of venereal diseases and other diseases from Europe. The Mpongwe of Gabon, for instance, were ravaged by syphilis and smallpox, both brought by European slave traders. Smallpox epidemics killed many people, including those at the peak of their reproductive years, which, coupled with the disruption of local marriage customs and the expansion of polygyny, served to reduce fertility.

Thus, for Africa the Atlantic slave trade led to depopulation, depleted the stock of skills, shrunk the size of markets and pressures for technical innovation. At the same time, violence associated with the trade devastated economic activities. It has been argued that the Atlantic slave trade aborted West Africa’s industrial take off.

It was not just the demographic and economic structures that were distorted by the slave trade, social and political institutions and values were also affected, so that even after slavery in the Americas was abolished, the infrastructures developed to supply captives for enslavement remained, and were now used to expand local labour supplies to produce commodities demanded by industrializing European economies. As the great radical Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney, argued in the late 1960s the slave trade contributed to the expansion of slavery within Africa itself, rather than the other way round as propagated by Eurocentric historians.

The sheer scale and longevity of the Atlantic slave trade generated cultures of violence and led to the collapse of many ancient African states and the rise of predatory slave states. Thus it has been argued that the slave trade was one of the main sources of corruption and political violence in modern Africa. The political economy of enslavement tore the moral economy of many African societies. Contemporary Africa’s crass and corrupt elites that mortgage their country’s development prospects are the ignominious descendants of the slave trading elites of the horrific days of the Atlantic slave trade.

In contrast to Africa, the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas became the basis of the Atlantic economy from the 16th until the mid-19th century. It was the world’s largest and most lucrative industry. The crops and minerals produced  by the labor of enslaved Africans such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, gold and silver were individually and collectively more profitable than anything the world had ever seen. This laid the economic foundations of the Americas, and the economic development of Western Europe more broadly.

Inikori argues persuasively in his award winning book, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora were central to the growth of international trade in the Atlantic world between the 16th and 19th centuries and industrialization in Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, and the leading slave trading nation of the 18th century. As Europe became more industrialized it acquired the physical capacity, as well as the insatiable economic appetite, and the ideological armor of racism to conquer Africa.

Thus, the colonial conquest of the late 19th century was a direct outcome of the Atlantic slave trade. Instead of exporting captive labor, the continent was now expected to produce the commodities in demand by industrializing Europe and serve as a market for European manufactures, and an investment outlet for its surplus capital.

There can be little doubt the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved Africans laid the economic, cultural, and demographic foundations of the Americas. It is often not well appreciated that it was only with the end of the slave trade that European immigrants, whose descendants now predominate in the populations of the Americas, came to outnumber forced African immigrants to the Americas.

For the United States the median arrival date of African Americans—the date by which half had arrived and half were still to come—is remarkably early, about 1780s. The similar median date for European Americans was remarkably late—about the 1890s. In short, the average African American has lived far longer in the United States than the average European American.

As Walter Rodney showed in his 1972 provocative classic, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which became the intellectual bible for my generation of undergraduates hungry to understand why Africa remained so desperately poor despite its proverbial abundant natural resources, slave labor built the economic infrastructure of the Americas and trade in produce by slave labor provided the basis for the rise of manufacturing, banking, shipping, and insurance companies, as well as the formation of the modern corporation, and transformative developments in technology including the manufacture of machinery.

There can be little doubt the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved Africans laid the economic, cultural, and demographic foundations of the Americas. It is often not well appreciated that it was only with the end of the slave trade that European immigrants, whose descendants now predominate in the populations of the Americas, came to outnumber forced African immigrants to the Americas.

The contributions of captive and enslaved Africans are greater still. African musics, dance, religious beliefs and many other aspects of culture became key ingredients of new creole cultures in the Americas. This makes the notion of the Americas as an autogenic European construct devoid of African influences laughable. The renowned Ghanaian-American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, correctly urges us in his book, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity to give up the idea of the West and and the attendant vacuous notions of western civilization and western culture, which are nothing but racially coded euphemisms for whiteness.

The Americas including the United States have never been, and will never be an exclusive extension of white Europe, itself a historical fiction, notwithstanding the deranged fantasies of white supremacists.  Brazil, the great power of South America tried a whitening project following the belated abolition of slavery in 1888, by importing millions of migrants from Europe, but failed miserably. Today, Afro-Brazilians are in the majority, although their evident demographic and cultural presence pales in comparison to their high levels of socioeconomic and political marginalization.

The Atlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in world history, had another pernicious legacy that persists. It may not have created European racism against Africans but it certainly bred it. As Orlando Patterson demonstrated in his magisterial 1982 study, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, before the Atlantic slave trade began slavery existed in many parts of the world and was not confined to Africans. Indeed, studies show in 1500 Africans were a minority of the world’s slaves.

The tragedy for Africa is that the enslavement of Africans expanded as the enslavement of other peoples was receding. By the 19th century slavery had become almost synonymous with Africans, so that the continent and its peoples carried the historical burden of prejudice and contempt accorded to slaves and despised social castes and classes. In short, it is this very modernity of African slavery that left Africans in the global imaginary as the most despised people on the planet, relegated to the bottom of regional and local racial, ethnic, and color hierarchies.

This has left the scourges of superiority complexes by the peoples of Europe and Asia against Africans and  inferiority complexes among Africans and peoples of African descent in the diaspora. This sometimes manifests itself in obsessive colorism that can degenerate into mutilations of the black body through skin lightening and other perverted aspirations for whiteness.

It is also evident in inter- and intra-group antagonisms in diaspora locations between the new and historic African diasporas, between recent continental African migrants and African Americans so painfully and poignantly captured in the documentary film by Peres Owino, a Kenyan-American film maker, Bound: Africans vs African Americans. The documentary attributes the antipathies, antagonism, and anxieties that shape relations between the two groups to lack of recognition of the collective traumas of each other’s respective histories of slavery and colonialism.

The Atlantic slave trade and slavery left legacies of underdevelopment, marginalization, inequality, and trauma for Africans and African diasporas. This has engendered various demands for restitution and redemption. Demands for compensation to the descendants of the enslaved Africans in the Americas and Europe have been going on from the time of the abolition of slavery in the Americas captured in the United States in the prosaic claim for “forty acres and a mule.”

In the United States, Representative John Conyers started the reparations campaign in Congress from 1989. Every year he introduced a bill calling for the creation of a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Not much had been achieved by the time he retired in 2017. But in the interim seven states proceeded to issue apologies for their involvement in slavery (Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia). Some private institutions followed suit, such as JP Morgan Chase and Wachovia, so did a growing number of universities such as Georgetown.

Claims for reparations found a powerful voice among some influential African American intellectuals and activists. One was Randall Robinson the founder of the lobbying organization, Trans-Africa, who made a compelling case in his book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. In 2017,  the incisive commentator, Ta-Nehisi Coates reignited the national debate with a celebrated essay in The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations.”

In 2009, shortly after President Obama assumed office, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent encouraged the United States Congress to look into the issue of reparations. But Opposition to reparations remained among the majority of Americans; in a 2014 survey only 37% supported reparations.

In the charged political season of 2019 and the forthcoming presidential elections of 2020, reparations has risen to the national agenda as never before. Several leading Democratic Party presidential candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke) have openly embraced the reparations cause. In the meantime, the reparations debate seems to be gathering momentum in more private institutions including universities buoyed by the unveiling of some universities’ links to slavery, the radicalizing energies of the BlackLivesMatter movement, and mounting resistance to resurgent white supremacy.

The Caribbean region boasts one of the most vibrant reparations movements in the Americas. This can partly be explained by the fact that the demands are not directed to the national government as in the United States, but to Britain the former leading slave trading nation and later colonial power over some of the Caribbean islands. Also, the Caribbean enjoys a long tradition of Pan-African activism.

The call by Caribbean leaders for European countries to pay reparations became official in 2007 and was subsequently repeated by various heads of state in several forums including the United Nations. Hilary Beckles became the leading figure of the Caribbean reparations movement (he is a former colleague of mine at the University of West Indies where we both joined the History Department in 1982 and where he currently serves as Vice Chancellor). In 2013, he published his influential book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. In 2013, the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Reparations Commission was created.

In Europe, the reparations movement has been growing. Black British campaigns intensified and reached a climax in 2008 during the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. In 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Ken Livingstone offered apologies for Britain’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade.

In 2017, the Danish government followed suit and apologized to Ghana for the Atlantic slave trade. But apologies have not found favor in countries such as Portugal, Spain, and France that participated actively in this monumental business of human trafficking. But even for Britain and Denmark reparations have not made much headway.

African states have exhibited a conflicting attitude towards reparations. On the one hand, they have shown eagerness to call on the Atlantic slave trading nations of Europe and slave holding societies of the Americas to pay reparations to Africa. The African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission established in 1999 put the figure at a staggering $77 trillion. At the global level, the issue of reparations was a major subject at the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa.

In 2010, the renowned Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, published an essay in The New York Times in which he raised the thorny question of whether reparations should be extracted from Africans who were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Few African leaders have been prepared to apologize for their societies complicity in the slave trade. In 1999 the President of Benin was among the first to apologize to African Americans. Ghana followed suit with an apology to African Americans in 2006. In January 2019, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 “The Year of Return” to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans in Hampton, Virginia.

The responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade falls on the shoulders of many state and elite actors in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The major benefits of slavery in the Americas accrued to the elites and states in the Americas and Europe. This suggests differentiated levels of responsibility for reparations and redemption. African governments in the regions involved in the Atlantic slave trade must seek the redemption of apology to the historic African diasporas in the Americas through the regional economic communities and the African Union.

Only then can the process of healing and reconciliation for the sons and daughters of Africa on both sides of the Atlantic begin in earnest. Acknowledgement and mutual recognition between Africa and its diasporas should be sustained through the transformative power of education. Teaching the history of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery in the Americas, and the contributions of the historic African diasporas must be incorporated in the curriculum at every level across the continent.

Deliberate efforts must also be made by African governments and institutions to facilitate and promote multidimensional engagements with the historic diaspora. The designation of the diaspora by the African Union as Africa’s sixth region must be given teeth in terms of political, economic, social and cultural rights.

But the charge goes beyond governments. The private sectors and civil societies in African nations and the diaspora must also establish mutually beneficial and empowering modalities of engagement.

There are encouraging signs of new intellectual and artistic bridges being build by the new African diaspora, who straddle in their upbringing, identities, experiences, and sensibilities the sociocultural geographies and political ecologies of continental Africa and diaspora America. A few examples will suffice.

There’s no better accounting of the divergent yet intimately connected histories between Africa and America from the 18th century to the present than Yaa Gyasi’s sprawling and exquisite first novel, Homegoing. It tells the story of two sisters, one who was sent into slavery and the other who remained in West Africa, and the parallel lives of their descendants. Another skillful exploration and painful reckoning with slavery can be found in Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga set in a bustling slave trading market for the Atlantic slave trade.

African governments in the regions involved in the Atlantic slave trade must seek the redemption of apology to the historic African diasporas in the Americas through the regional economic communities and the African Union.

Recounting the travails of an enslaved African traversing across the expanse of the black Atlantic is Esi Edugyan’s soaring story in her novel, Washington Black. Coming to the contemporary African migrants, there is Imbolo Mbue’s Beyond the Dreamers set in New York that captures the aspirations, anxieties, agonies, assaults, and awakening by the new diaspora to the routine hypocrisies, hardships, harassments, and opportunities of American life.

For me, my commitments to the project of reconnecting Africa and its global diasporas in truly transformative and mutually beneficial ways provide the inspiration behind my research work on diaspora histories that I’ve been engaged in for the past two decades. This work led to the establishment of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowships Program  that facilitates the engagement of African born academics in Canada and the United States with universities in six countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa). The program is being expanded into the Consortium of African Diaspora Scholars Programs that seeks to promote flows between scholars from both the historic and new diasporas from anywhere in the world to anywhere in africa.

As I left the Commemorative Weekend in Hampton to fly back to Kenya last night, I was filled with deep sadness at what our brothers and sisters have had to endure over the last 400 years of their sojourn in the United States, but also with immense pride in what they have been able to achieve against all odds. Let me put it graphically, as I did at a training seminar recently for African diplomats: in 2017, the 40-odd million African Americans had a purchasing power of $1.2 trillion compared to $2.2 trillion for the 1.2 billion Africans on the continent. If African Americans were a country they would be the 17th richest country in the world, richer than Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt combined.

Surely, the continent with its abundant human and natural resources can do better, much better. Africa and the diaspora owe each other principled, not transactional, solidarity if we are to navigate the complex and unsettling demands and disruptions of the 21st century better than we fared during the last half millennium characterized by the disabling histories of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and white supremacy backlashes in the United States, and colonialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonial authoritarianisms in Africa. To echo Kwame Nkrumah’s mid-20th century dream, let’s strive to make the 21st century truly ours!

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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana

13 min read. Debates around whether or not to make cannabis legal often fail to recognise that this herb has been used for centuries in many parts of the world.

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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana
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For generations now in most of the world, cannabis has been a prohibited substance, one often vilified as a noxious bringer of addiction. Yet change is coming fast. Several states have already amended statute books to soften laws relating to cannabis (whether through allowing its medicinal use, decriminalising its possession and use, or full-blown legalisation), and many others are considering amendments. Age-old consensus on the substance has cracked, although many remain deeply opposed to any push to “free the weed”.

In Kenya, debate has grown strong too, driven by, among others, the late Ken Okoth, the MP for Kibra, who pushed for a bill legalising and regulating the substance before his sad passing. This article traces the history of this controversial substance and policy towards it, with a particular focus on Africa, and looks at the likely impact – good and bad – as a botanical outlaw is increasingly rehabilitated.

Beginnings

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food (its seeds are highly nutritious, as is the oil derived from them), and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

Rather than bringing to mind this marine history, however, for most people around the world, the name cannabis conjures up images of a haze of psychoactive smoke emanating from the mouths of such legendary “stoners” as Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti. It also conjures up the characteristic leaves of the cannabis plant – odd-numbered combinations of serrated spears that have become symbolic not just of cannabis culture but a much wider culture of defiance.

Even the taxonomy of the plant is controversial, as researcher Chris Duvall (author of a new book, The African Roots of Marijuana) has shown. An orthodox theory holds that there is one species – Cannabis sativa – that has been cultivated and used in different ways: for fibre, for food and for its psychoactivity. Such a theory has suggested a racialised view of cannabis usage – that industrious Europeans built great seafaring empires out of hemp, while other people used it to get high.

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food, and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

However, a two-species theory – that there is Cannabis sativa more suited to producing fibre, and Cannabis indica more capable of psychoactivity – gives a more accurate botanical view of why cannabis is valued in different regions for different purposes: sativa and indica varieties simply grew in different climates, the latter more at home in warmer regions.

Whatever the taxonomic truth, cannabis originated in Eurasia, and palaeobotanical evidence suggests that people were already making use of cannabis as far as East Asia 12,000 years ago, though in what ways is now impossible to discern. It seems likely that cannabis was being farmed in East Asia 6,000 years ago, while Koreans appear to have been making fabric from it around 5,000 years ago.

But people have also long been aware of the psychoactive qualities of cannabis, and a burial site 2,700 years old in northwestern China has preserved a large cache of potent cannabis, possibly for ceremonial or shamanic use. In South Asia, there is also a long history of cannabis usage for fabric and for intoxication, a distinction emerging in Sanskrit between sana and bhanga, the former a source of plant fibre, the latter a source of intoxication and medicine. Bhang, of course, is now a widely dispersed term (in East Africa too) used for intoxicating cannabis.

This plant and its usage then took many different routes around the world. These routes owed much to a number of maritime and overland trade networks that have transported cannabis and its cultures of use. Around 5,000 years ago, cannabis was projected westwards as far as Egypt through overland trade linking India to Mesopotamia and beyond, while Indian Ocean trade networks brought cannabis to East Africa’s coastline, where it has had a presence for at least a thousand years. From there it spread inland and into many different African cultures of consumption, the use of the term bhang in much of the region suggestive of its Indian Ocean network origins, although many local terms suggest possible multiple routes of entry.

The Atlantic slave trade was another vector of its spread; slaves departing from the Angolan coast sometimes carrying cannabis seeds, which led to its spread in Brazil. Another vector in its spread has been war, its popularity in West Africa owing much to the return of soldiers who had been fighting in Asia during World War II and were exposed to its consumption there. In Europe, the use of cannabis for intoxication purposes was initially an elite pursuit of Bohemians in the nineteenth century, the likes of Baudelaire popularising experimentation with the drug in an age of intense European intellectual interest in “exotic” mind-altering substances that also included opium.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. For Fela Kuti, cannabis had much symbolism as a symptom of defiance against authority, and this has long been a core part of the herb’s appeal for many consumers within various countercultures.

Much of this aura of defiant cool derives from the fact that for over a century cannabis has itself been an outlaw, as both internationally and nationally many jurisdictions have prohibited the production, trade and use of this controversial plant. Yet these prohibitions are now under threat as never before, as even countries that have long fought and promoted the “war on drugs”, such as the United States, are experimenting with various forms of decriminalisation and legalisation, while other countries still try and hold firm against calls for legislative change.

Regulating the herb

For as long as mind-altering substances have been used by humans, attempts to regulate their use have likely been used. Whether alcohol, opium or cannabis, the psychoactive qualities of such substances mean that they are usually viewed with great ambivalence – substances that can ease worries and bring pleasure, yet also bring harm and danger. Such ambivalence has spurred efforts to restrict access to those seen as able to use them responsibly, or to forbid their use completely.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.

The widespread claim that historically East African societies restricted access to alcoholic beverages and khat to elders reflects concerns over youthful drinking and chewing. It also suggests that similar types of restrictions and regulations might have been in place for cannabis in East Africa and elsewhere.

However, the formal prohibition of cannabis is mostly a twentieth-century story, albeit with a number of precursors, including the Merina king Andrianampoinimerina prohibiting it in the late eighteenth century in Madagascar on the grounds that it made his subjects “half-witted”. Its prohibition story links to that of opium, and the growing international calls for its regulation and prohibition that grew strong after the nineteenth-century Opium Wars where the British compelled China, through force, to accept imports of opium from India in the interests of their Imperial economy.

Unease with the free trade in opiates led to the International Opium Commission conference in 1909 in Shanghai, and later the International Opium Convention that called for controls and restrictions of the trade in opiates and cocaine was signed in 1912. This marked the start of the internationalisation of drug control. Cannabis was not added to these conventions until 1925 when, at the request of Egypt, cannabis was added to the conventions and its exports restricted. Subsequent conventions (including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs) further globalised attempts to suppress a growing range of psychoactive substances, including cannabis.

This international story of drug conventions and cannabis prohibition played out differently in various countries, the US history of marijuana prohibition and its link to characters such as Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics being the most familiar. Historians such as Isaac Campos and Jim Mills have also analysed the equally fascinating history of cannabis policy in Mexico, India and the UK.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier. The major mind-altering substances of interest to African and colonial officials before then had been alcoholic drinks, as well as kola nuts and khat. The lucrative kola trade had been regulated and taxed since the end of the eighteenth century by states administering foreign trade, such as the Asante Kingdom in today’s Ghana. Alcohol use had been prohibited in many of Africa’s Muslim societies for long and became the subject of intense international debates and domestic control at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular, the trade and production of distilled spirits became the target of state regulation at that time.

African control efforts on cannabis, opiates and cocaine generally commenced only after the national and international debates on distilled spirits had become quiet. In 1927 the first Nigerian Dangerous Drugs Ordinance restricted the use and trade of cannabis, opium and coca products to medical and scientific purposes and put them under the supervisory powers of the chief medical officer of the colony. The law made the unlicensed use and trade in these drugs a crime.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier.

In Kenya there is an earlier history. An Opium Regulations Ordinance was put in place in 1902. This was intended to restrict the import and production of opiates to permit holders, and sales were restricted to the discretion of medical officers. “Opium” included a wider range of substances, including “bhang”, the main term used in East Africa then and now for cannabis. This ordinance had little teeth, and pressure grew from colonial officers in western Kenya (where much cannabis was grown and consumed) for possession to be outlawed too and harsher penalties introduced for those producing or trading such substances without permits. This pressure in part led to the Abuse of Opiate Ordinance in 1913 that attempted to eradicate illicit consumption of not just opium, but a range of opiates, as well as cocaine and cannabis.

The Kenya colony and its opiate ordinances apart, drug ordinances did not usually grow out of colonial anxieties about these drugs’ threats to health or a paternalistic concern to “protect Africans” from foreign substances, as had been the case with distilled spirits. In South Africa, debates on the use and control of opium were also closely tied to the growing gold mining industry in the Transvaal as it was feared to decrease the productivity of South Africa’s workforce. In 1923 the South African government even urged the League of Nations to classify cannabis as a dangerous substance requiring international control.

In effect, most African drug laws were based on colonial blueprints, such as the Hong Kong Drug Ordinance, which was circulated among British colonial governments in the 1920s. These laws often preceded local concern with cannabis, opiates and cocaine and served more to satisfy the legal obligations of governments under new international laws, such as the 1925 and 1931 Geneva Opium Conventions. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, most African colonies were therefore signed up to a range of international treaties on drug control, without there being much of a local concern or debate about the laws transposed into domestic legal codes, except for the case of Kenya and South Africa.

This situation changed somewhat by the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African countries gained political independence. This period coincided with the wider use and growing public concern about cannabis and saw the first effective government policies on cannabis. In West Africa, concern was driven by medical professionals who encountered cannabis-smoking ex-soldiers among their patients. Doctors, such as Thomas Adeoye Lambo, Africa’s first Western-trained psychiatrist, started exploring Africa’s new drug and addiction problems in their research and public speeches.

Cannabis addiction also became a key discussion point at the newly founded Pan-African Psychiatric Congress and its African Journal on Psychiatry (Lambo 1965; Lewis 1975). This new medical and also media interest in cannabis led to important policy changes in some countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria. In the latter, a coup d’état brought a group of reform-minded soldiers to power who aimed to address cannabis use with the draconian Indian Hemp Decree of 1966 shortly before the country slid into a civil war.

Cannabis thus became firmly embedded in the statute books of most African nations. However, this legal uniformity belied continuing ambivalence towards the substance. Legality or illegality, of course, rarely perfectly matches societal attitudes, and many continued to view the substance positively in various ways, including as a traditional medicine, and as a recreational substance associated with popular figures such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. Furthermore, its illegality only further increased its reputation as a symbol of defiance against authority. For many, cannabis law has little legitimacy – or power, given the lack of state capacity to police it effectively – and it has grown to be a vital part of the rural and urban economy in much of Africa. On the other hand, many, for social, cultural or religious reasons, have bought into the idea of cannabis as socially and medically harmful and something that should be restricted.

African debates

In such a cultural climate, legalisation or decriminalisation campaigns were unlikely to take root beyond the margins. Indeed, in an earlier book we suggested that debate on drug policy had yet to take off in most African countries (2012). Yet things appear to be changing, as the impact of policy change even in parts of the USA – long the leader in the “War on Drugs” – has global repercussions.

On a more regional level, the activities of organisations like the West African Drugs Commission have also expanded the narrative away from a simple focus on repressive supply-side policy in relation to drugs of all types. In East Africa too there are moves towards alternative “harm reduction” policies, especially in regard to heroin use in cities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and more recently also in Nairobi. In Africa, as elsewhere, the international consensus around drug policy is fracturing, especially in regard to cannabis.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa, perhaps the African country with the strongest drug counter-culture. As with parts of the USA, permitting medical use of cannabis appears the first step in this process, and South Africa is developing provision in this regard. In addition to this, a recent court case in the Western Cape has raised hopes further that legalisation is around the corner. Several activists (including those from the “Dagga Party”, dagga being the common South African term for cannabis) brought a case “seeking a declaration that the legislative provision against the use of cannabis and the possession, purchase and cultivation of cannabis for personal or communal consumption is invalid”.

In March 2017, the court ruled that there should be a stay of prosecutions for possession of small quantities of cannabis and use of cannabis in private settings, and gave the government 24 months to amend the law in this regard. On 18 September 2018, South Africa’s Constitutional Court confirmed this judgement and thus made the growing and use of cannabis for private use legal with immediate effect, although the exact implementation of the decision is yet unclear. While there are no doubt many more hurdles to overcome for the campaigners (most prominent of whom are a white couple known as the Dagga Couple), many are already eyeing a potential legal market for cannabis in South Africa, leading some to fear the predation of corporate interests.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa…

Elsewhere too, there are increasing signs of shifting policy. Linked to the change in South Africa, Lesotho, a major supplier of illegal cannabis to the South African market, has recently given a licence to a South African firm to cultivate medical cannabis. Malawi, another major cultivation country of illegal cannabis, is also moving towards a legal hemp industry. While hemp consists of non-psychoactive varieties of the cannabis plant, even this move required overcoming resistance in Malawi’s National Assembly to an initiative based around so infamous a plant. Ghana, ranked the country with the highest rates of cannabis consumption in Africa, is also seeing rising debate on cannabis policy, and even calls for a cannabis industry to be established to take advantage of legal opportunities around the world. Debate seems more muted in Nigeria, a country with some of Africa’s harshest drug laws, although the debate is gaining ground there too.

In East Africa, debate is also increasingly conspicuous in news reports and in the wider media, especially in Kenya. There, calls for full legalisation have recently been made, including by Ken Okoth, and by political analyst Gwada Ogot, who took a petition for legalisation to the Kenyan senate. Okoth argued for Kenya to benefit economically from an export market for cannabis, suggesting that the “government should stop wasting money on sugarcane farming and legalise marijuana instead”. Ogot focused more strongly on the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and sought in his petition to have cannabis removed from the list of scheduled substances, and for the establishment of a regulatory body to oversee a legal market. He argued that: “The plant is God’s gift to mankind just as the many minerals he has put in store for Kenyans. The banning was purely for commercial interests with pharmaceutical firms seeking to control the medical industry during the first and second world wars.”

This petition was debated in the Senate, Kenya’s upper house of Parliament, in February 2017, where it garnered much interest in the media. While the debate in the Kenyan Senate was somewhat inconclusive, and decriminalisation is unlikely, at least in the near future, that such a petition was heard at all marks a shift. Debating the issue confers at least some legitimacy on a topic that many Kenyans recently would either have found shocking or comical.

What all these debates and apparent moves to different policy suggest is that the issue is a live one in African countries. However, it seems likely that the debate will gain more traction in some countries than in others and we should be cautious in generalising across such a diverse continent. In many countries there are so many other more pressing issues than cannabis, that it is unlikely to garner sufficient attention. Indeed, pushing through legislative change will require much energy and resources. For this reason, some might see legalisation as fine for rich countries like the USA with greater capacity to cope with the consequences, but hardly sensible in countries with so many other challenges.

As we have seen, economic reasoning appears to be underlying some of the push to liberalised policy, with some eyeing lucrative futures based around a cannabis industry. Economic interests have, of course, long been important in policy debates around psychoactive substances, with governments often balancing tax and other forms of revenue against medical and social harms with substances like tobacco and alcohol. And historians and anthropologists alike have emphasised the importance of analysing drugs as commodities.This has certainly been true in the case of alcohol, but also in the case of khat. Like cannabis, khat’s harm potential is ambiguous, allowing governments to justify both restricting it and developing a market for it. In the case of khat, producer countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have long resisted making the substance illegal, even if governments have been suspicious of the substance.

In relation to cannabis, we can see how in countries like Lesotho and Malawi, where the cannabis industry forms a major proportion of the national economy, the temptation to make the crop legitimate and boost national coffers might be attractive. A country like Kenya, on the other hand, cultivates cannabis, but not to the same scale. It forms only a minor part of the economy, and is unlikely to garner a strong export market anyway.

It seems possible that where economic logic is not an especially pressing factor, the political will to change cannabis policy is less likely to materialise. In countries like Kenya, concern with the harmful effects of cannabis, as well as the cultural conservatism of many in government and in the general population, will form a substantial roadblock in the way of reform. In fact, Kenya has recently banned shisha smoking on health grounds, suggesting that in terms of policy the predominant logic is still one of restricting rather than liberalising. Yet change in relation to cannabis law is coming thick and fast, and given growing support amongst the political class, change cannot be ruled out in countries like Kenya. Indeed, the sad passing of Okoth has encouraged others to follow his example in calling for such change.

That change to cannabis law in Kenya is now being considered might prove a strong legacy to the memory of Okoth. Stronger yet would be taking seriously too his calls for a properly regulated market, one that would offer protections to the vulnerable, and ideally protect against predation from corporate interests.

Cannabis has provided many smallholder farmers with livelihoods – albeit illicit ones – throughout much of Africa and elsewhere in the world. As Chris Duvall argues, African cannabis farmers have done much innovation in its cultivation even under the cover of illegality. It would be a shame if legality means that powerful interests move in to seize the fruits of this innovation.

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