Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has written a sensitive essay, published in the Wall Street Journal, on the African role in the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trade. She observes that the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia coincides with questions about guilt and responsibility and a debate in the United States about reparations to the descendants of slaves.
She observes that this fraught debate is largely absent in Africa, even though Africans were deeply involved in the slave trade. Africans raided for slaves often in connivance with local chiefs and then acted as middlemen with European and Arab purchasers. She recounts stories of the ambivalence of at least some Africans about the role of their ancestors in the slave trade. She reports that Donald Duke, former governor of Calabar state and a good-government presidential candidate in the 2019 Nigerian elections, acknowledges that his ancestors participated in the slave trade. However, Duke says “I’m not ashamed of it because I personally wasn’t directly involved.” However, he does not want history to be forgotten. While governor, he established a museum of Calabar’s history has a slave-exporting hub. Others who are deeply embarrassed by their ancestors’ participation and try to hide it, and some still think they are paying a price for their ancestors’ sins, quoting the Book of Exodus that God is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children…to the third and fourth generation.”
Nwaubani’s welcome report provides another dimension to the conversation about slavery, in Africa as well as in the United States. But, the subject is painful. Nwaubani recounts a conversation with a Tanzanian now living in the United States: “Because of the crimes, the pain, the humiliation that I saw them (descendants of slaves) suffer in the United States,” he avoided talking about his family’s role in slavery, instead highlighting Tanzanian music, architecture, and poetry. Though the histories are interlinked, former Governor Duke does not believe that Africa should play a role in the American reparations debate. After all, the focus of that debate is in on maltreatment and injustice in the United States—not Africa.