When a society perennially struggles with underdevelopment and seemingly endless retardation, it is almost inevitable that they will look for metaphysical explanations for their troubles. That was what Yoruba Nation Self-Determination Struggle leader, Prof. Banji Akintoye, did when he tendered an unreserved apology to the victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Claiming that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that our backwardness is a consequence of the curse placed on us by the kith and kin our fathers sold into slavery, Akintoye thought progress would come if we revoked the curse and appeased the aggrieved. For a renowned historian of Yoruba history, it is rather curious that Akintoye needed the Holy Spirit to give him the information long recorded in books and has been a stock of cinema narratives.
Since he claims divine inspiration, his thesis deserves an interrogation before it enters our churches and becomes a prayer point. One only needs to look at our religious houses and the contents of the prayers to which we intone loud and raucous “amens” to determine how much Africans are invested in finding the supernatural roots of their underdevelopment to overturn them. We have blamed all kinds of devils—slavery, colonialism, ancestral curses and village people—but identifying enemies has not righted the course of our destiny. The religious resources we regularly invested in discerning our problems have not paid off significantly because the cause is not as spectacular as enslaved people crying, cursing and jumping off the board. The truth is far triter. A while ago, some preachers too retailed the belief that Africa’s underdevelopment is a result of the mythical curse of Ham, but that was some mere racist nonsense.
At least three things immediately stand out in the missive Akintoye issued through his Communications Office. First, the apology was not directed to any official representative that could generate an actionable plan from it. Second, he primarily blamed the Yoruba people for slavery though virtually every society practised it. Transatlantic slavery might be unique to the extent that it laid the foundations of modern capitalism but slavery is a timeless human practice. From the sweatshops in Asia to the exploited labourers being forced to construct fancy skyscrapers in the UAE, even the modern economy runs on slave labour. Apportioning sole moral responsibility to Yoruba people seems rather self-righteous. Third, the letter reminds one of the Nigerian films where people only seek forgiveness for past wrongs when they have run into a sticky end, not because they have morally evolved. Our films perpetuated the ethic of double stealing from people: you take something away from them by wronging them and then return to demand their forgiveness so you can overcome adversity that befell you because of another imprudent life choice.
While there is some truth in the observation that post-slavery Africa has failed to develop, the curse that plagues us has no supernatural causation. What we suffer from is the consequences of our cultivated habits of exchanging resources for goods and services without developing the capacity to produce. The Africans of the past exchanged enslaved people for the modern goods they needed but could/would not produce. In that wise, they are not different from Africans of today whose relationship to their land and its resources is similarly extractive. Take the example of countries like Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali. We are despoiling our forests to sell Rosewood to the Chinese, whose fast-growing economy requires a constant supply. It is an activity causing civil strife in some communities in Senegal (and who knows where that will lead some years down the line?). Apart from forests being depleted, the wildlife that populates them is imperilled. Lacking a sense of self-preservation or even an elemental appreciation for the forests’ biodiversity, our people repeatedly violate logging bans to sell off their nature-given resources to China. If slavery were legal, would those ones not raid villages?
We are a society that loves to consume but lacks the patience and self-restraint that compels production. When a race of people is as prone to immediate gratification as we are, there is no way they will not appear to external observers as cursed because they will keep making the most imprudent of all choices. For next year, we have been told that Nigeria will have to borrow N11 trillion to fund its 2023 budget. They said they would spend 31 per cent of that sum on fuel subsidy. This supposedly social investment is not regenerative but must be kept on the books because that is part of the money the All Progressives Congress will use to fund their expensive 2023 electioneering. Fixating the sins of Africans in the past without linking their bad habits with present culture will not achieve anything more than just an empty ritual.
If our society is backward because we sold enslaved people, how come our collaborators that bought them are thriving? Western societies not only built a global economy on slavery but they also produced resilient institutions that our leaders might not achieve in another 100 years! That those that diminished other people through forced labour, mutilation, genocide, hunger and disease somehow managed to rise above that murk is proof enough that the consequences Africans suffer are not from a pronounced curse. Countries like Belgium and Germany are responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the history of humankind but they are also one of the most prosperous places. From the 19th to the 20th century, Belgium carried out unspeakable evil in Congo. One of the most endowed countries in the world, Congo is, unfortunately, also one of the poorest. Its present leaders, greedy and morally incontinent, have not been able to dig them out of the rubble of the crimes of Belgium and the concomitant trauma.
Before the Holocaust, the Germans had had a trial run in Namibia, where they exterminated entire populations. I can bet their poor victims of the Herero and Namaqua genocide also pronounced curses on Germans but you cannot tell that by looking at the orderliness of life in their society. The first time I visited Belgium, I was struck by the quality of life there. That was when I realised that even God does not automatically stand with the poor victim waiting to see the evil oppressor punished; God stands only on the side of those who know what they are doing. It is hard to admit, but if those countries that trafficked in slavery sent their ships to the coast of Africa today, half of the continent will beg to enter. They will willingly exchange the despair and frustration that defines their life on this side of the Atlantic with the bare chance of life from working on Oyinbo plantations. Better to serve in heaven than to serve in hellfire!
Finally, I must say I appreciate Akintoye’s gesture of using his status as a Yoruba elder to issue a formal apology to the people sold off into slavery. Truly, we should apologise and provide reparations, not to remove any curse, but because we owe the Africans in the New World that reckoning. Where I depart from his mission is that he does not bear a corporate mandate. That kind of apology is so weighty and historically significant that it cannot be an individual initiative. It must be done by the entire society.
For us to make a sincere apology for the past, we need to first ponder how our ancestors allowed themselves to be deceived by the shiny objects of modern capitalism. We must study history closely to understand the connections between the past and present and make concerted efforts to break the habits of exchanging things of value for the ephemeral. Where past African leaders sold their human and natural resources to the enslavers, contemporary African leaders are still disembowelling the earth and selling us out in deals that will enslave generations of Africans yet unborn. If there is a jinx somewhere, it is in our inability to reflect on our history of making irresponsible choices; our ingrained habit of mental laziness, depravity, inability to take responsibility for our lives; and the inhumaneness that prevents us from creating liveable societies.
If we do not introspect properly to understand how we undermine ourselves, we can neither break our habits of underdevelopment nor even render a meaningful apology to those to whom it is due.