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History, restitution and justice for African nations

Written by Onyekachi Wambu


A recent court case is a good place to start as we consider how issues of history, restitution and justice intersect. It involves a young man of African descent entering a museum, attempting to remove looted African artefacts through direct action, in order to correct historical wrongs. Thirty-four year-old Isaiah Ogundele was convicted of harassing museum manager Henry Martin at Stratford Magistrates Court on 18 September 2020, following his loud protest against a display of Benin bronzes at the Museum of London Docklands in January 2020. As he tried to grab the bronze, it fell from its cabinet, clanging on the floor.

The trial of Isaiah Ogundele

It was strange sitting in court for the Ogundele trial – a small case, pregnant with meaning. I was the lone African as the accused did not show up for the hearing. It was not clear whether he had received the summons, or whether he indeed had a fixed abode for it to be delivered to, so he was tried and convicted in absentia. Not being there to defend himself, the prosecution presented evidence from staff at the Museum of London and from the police. The picture painted was kind of trope – a loud aggressive black man, acting erratically, who believed the bronze belonged to his family, and who talked about a history of family slavery and colonialism which continued to impact him and torment him to this day.

When repeated in evidence by the Museum of London staff and police reports, his words were troubling and captured years of grief and turbulence. But in the court, especially without his presence, they became just a series of cold and solemn entries shared between the prosecutors, court servants and the presiding magistrates, as they processed the inevitable criminalisation of another person of African descent.

From the tragic to the absurd

Among the tragedy, the whole scene also struck a level of absurdity, a little like the trial in Alice in Wonderland. There was the lion and unicorn herald overlooking proceedings, and the criminalising of a young man for merely shouting and accidentally damaging an object. Meanwhile those who violently looted the objects and killed thousands continue to be celebrated as heroes and have their rights to the booty defended so openly. In fact, the only thing missing was the cry ‘off with his head’.

One suspects this was fully the intention of the Crown Prosecution Service, perhaps to send a message of deterrence as part of an ongoing culture war. This despite the fact that the Museum of London, we understand, were reluctant to prosecute. I am sure they felt ethically uncomfortable in being placed in the position of a thief asserting their legal rights 123 years later, against a descendent of the punitive Benin raid, punishing the Africans again and again in what appears to be a ‘Groundhog Day’ of continuing retribution.P erhaps Frederic Bastiat, the French economist, commenting on issues of taxation, put it best in the Law:

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it.” (..and the perversion of language that enables it).

But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

The economic benefits of restitution

Beyond a meditation on issues of fairness, justice and ethics, what might the Ogundele case tell us about development? There are indications that restitution could provide massive economic benefits for African countries.

An example of this is Ghana’s 2019 Year of Return initiative, which attracted over one million diaspora visitors and generated $1.9 billion in additional spending for the country, according to Ghanaian Minister of Tourism Barbara Oteng Gyasi. Like the frequently unacknowledged impact of diaspora remittances to Africa ($86 billion in 2018, and at $25 billion more than the federal budget in Nigeria), these figures outperform Official Development Assistance figures.

Other African countries are making the connection between returning artefacts, heritage and tourism policy, too. The Republic of Benin, for example, established a tourism agency for the promotion of heritage in 2016. For Benin, the restitution of cultural property has implications not only for attracting tourists, but also for cultural diplomacy and development more broadly.

Covid-19 and an African Spring

The Ogundele direct action in January preceded the killing of George Floyd but anticipated the growing impatience and reckoning with history, and oppressive governance systems that have since been exposed globally by young Africans, whether in the Black Lives Matter or End Sars movements.

Large-scale protests have taken place, statutes have toppled, and corrupt and brutal police have been stood up to. The movements are initiating a global conversation about slavery, colonialism, structural racism and the ways the lives of those of African descent globally have been marginalised, devalued and in extreme cases, even extinguished.

The Covid-19 pandemic that brought the planet to a stop has also enabled the flowering of this African Spring. It has increased understanding that what is being challenged is the unfair social contract that underpins the Atlantic civilisational space.

Like Arabs during their Spring, many people of African descent understand the commonalities and tropes of social, economic and legal oppressions spread across that civilisational space. They are now in the forefront of the calls for radical change, whether in unfair trade practices or capital flows between north or south (especially from their corrupt elites in Africa to the north), racism that produces unequal outcomes in health, education and justice systems, even in our own development sector, or at the apex of the UN institutions, with the Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Africa’s role in creating the Atlantic civilisational space

This space, unleashed by Columbus, has been the most important geopolitical reality of the last 500 years. The gold, land and free labour of the conquered and enslaved transformed the fortunes of the European world, turning small and medium countries into superpowers.

People of African descent have played critical roles in co-creating this civilisational space over the last 400 years, but rarely enjoyed the benefits. The protests are part of the reckoning by the black and African world of the damaging impact and legacies over the last 400 year of slavery and colonialism.

They reflect the mood for a radical and holistic reform and repair agenda in response, involving the 10 ‘Rs’: recognition of the crimes; remembrance of the victims; restoration of dignity; restitution of artefacts and human remains; reparations and compensation; reconnections with the severed African world; reconciliation between the continent and diaspora, return as achieved by groups like Rastas; reimagining the future, alongside reconstruction of African societies.

The 10 ‘Rs’ have frequently developed organisations and movements of their own but also quite often work as a continuum of one broader movement, seeking change and reform. These movements are likely to become more assertive, alongside Africa’s growing demographic importance.

It’s time for the marginalised to be seated at the table

Globally we are undergoing multiple resets:

  • The health, economic and financial reset triggered by the pandemic; which is also accelerating a geopolitical reset with the relative decline of the Atlantic Space as the East rises;
  • A technological reset
  • The Black Lives Matter reset
  • A Brexit reset for the UK, which might have implications for internal governance;
  • A climate reset, that has consequences for us all.

Inclusive spaces are needed for dialogue as we renegotiate existing protocols and privileges. Unlike the silencing and criminalisation of Ogundele, the marginalised who are making fresh demands need to be seated at the table and have their voices heard.

To celebrate Black History Month in October, we will amplify those tackling the black racial injustices across the world. We will share learning, be allies and listen. Find out more by following us on Twitter.