By Vishani Ragobeer
As part of his Emancipation Day message to Guyanese on Sunday, President Dr. Irfaan Ali stated that Guyana recommits to the goal of gaining international reparations for the crime of African enslavement.
Caribbean enslavement lasted for centuries. It involved a system of forcibly bringing enslaved Africans from West Africa to the Caribbean- Guyana included- and forcing them to toil on the plantations. Historical accounts detail that their labour was used to enrich Europeans nations. In Guyana, that meant enriching the British and the Dutch.
Now, 183 years after the enslaved Africans were free from bondage, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) continues its work on calling for reparations from the nine european countries that were involved in enslavement in the Caribbean.
“Reparations means to repair, it means legally being given reparations for crimes against humanity,” Eric Phillips, the chairman of the Guyana Reparations Committee, explains.
And, he emphasises that it is not just about being paid a sum of money.
In the Caribbean, calls for reparations became more formalised in 2013 when the Caribbean Reparations Commission (CRC) was established. Renowned academic Sir Hilary Beckles has chaired the Commission, and a ‘Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice’ was subsequently launched.
This plan articulates the needs for reparatory justice for people in the Caribbean. And, the ten points are: a full and formal apology; repatriation to Africa; the development of cultural institutions; addressing the public health crisis, illiteracy eradication; the Development of an African knowledge programme; psychological rehabilitation; technology transfer and debt cancellation.
Phillips explained that this plan was developed after careful consideration of the challenges that have endured since enslavement. For example, he stated that there is research to support that the prevalence of diabetes in the Caribbean is linked to the poor diet of enslaved Africans during enslavement.
Also, he related that the financial constraints of Caribbean countries are also constrained by the extraction and exploitation of the Caribbean’s resources to enrich the European nations. In fact, he said that 46,00 people in Britain alone owned enslaved people and were able to benefit from their exploited labour- amassing large sums of money and creating generational wealth.
And even though African enslavement in the Caribbean occurred a long time ago, he says that these challenges, and more, continue to plague descendants of the formerly enslaved Africans and Caribbean countries at large.
“What reparations will do is to allow Caribbean nations to get on a path of sustainable development.
“Right now most of the countries are debt-ridden and that is because of the economic structure they inherited (during colonisation) and we are hoping that through reparatory justice, and we have those ten points, that governments in the Caribbean will be able to take funds and improve their education systems, improve their health systems improve their economies,” the Chairman stated.
President Ali has agreed.
In his Emancipation Day message, the President also stated, “Freedom, however, was not accompanied by recompense for the atrocities committed against those enslaved.
“Emancipation Day remains a constant reminder of the debt that is still owed to Africans and their descendants.”
And cognisant of this, the President acknowledged that reparative justice is needed to correct that wrongs of the Transatlantic slave trade, African enslavement and the “enduring effects” of those.
While advocacy on reparations continues internationally, a local youth group known as Ikemba (a Nigerian word that means ‘strength of the people’) has been doing the groundwork to help young people understand their history and why reparations are due.
Kibwe Copeland, President of Ikemba, also emphasises that reparations are “more than just money”. And, he says that it is this misconception of reparations that makes many people pessimistic about securing this compensation.
“When we examine reparations,” he says, “Reparations speak to a further liberation, it is a continuation from emancipation.”
While emancipation on August 1, 1838 meant that the enslaved Africans were freed from physical bondage, he said that reparations would aid in freeing people from the systemic challenges that continue due to the entrenched system of white supremacy.
And, for him, the advocacy for reparations also demands that people have a deeper appreciation for their culture and the strength of their foreparents. This is part and parcel of the psychological rehabilitation and knowledge programmes articulated in the ten-point plan.
And, when African descendants living in Guyana and the Caribbean can appreciate and reconnect with their culture, he is certain that the whole society can benefit.
In fact, he contended, “When you can understand each other’s culture, accept it – not to make it your own but to appreciate it, it helps you to move forward in more synergy.”
On the point of this “synergy”, Phillips also clarifies that the pursuit of reparations is not meant to isolate the development of African people. Instead, he said that reparations would augur benefits for the society at large.
“…in reality, whatever is given to a particular country or the Caribbean, replicates throughout the economy and so everyone benefits,” he explained.
Further, he stated that Guyana’s Amerindian Act of 2006- an unparalleled reparatory justice legislation- illustrates this.
“The lands are going to Amerindian communities but as Amerindian lands develop, Guyana develops. It’s the same thing with whatever resources come to Guyana, it will be invested in Guyana,” he explained.
Now, as Caribbean economies reel from the grave effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, Phillips says that reparations are all the more important to protect lives and livelihoods.
“Without reparations, Caribbean civilisation is at risk,” he said seriously.
Regionally, in 2020, Sir Beckles has made a call for a reparations summit to engage the European nations- including governments, businesses and citizens- on CARICOM’s plan for reparations. On Sunday, President Ali gave his support for this summit.