The Case for Colonial Reparations My Guka and Me: Reflections of a Personal Colonial Experience in Kenya

Colonialism and its machinations created physical, social and mental wounds, across Africa, that have lasted generations..

The question of reparations is a daunting one. My grandfather was born a colonial subject. Colonialism was, he recalls, more than anything, a social construction. He remembers a time when, using the bus to get home, it would terminate at a destination several kilometers from where he lived. When I asked him why this was so, and why he could not use another bus, he noted simply that all buses completed their routes in white-designated residential areas. If you were black you could not live in such places and you would have to walk all the way from the last stop to your home. In my grandfather’s case, it was a journey that took him several hours.

The violence of colonialism was multi-dimensional. In much of pre-independence Africa, colonialism succeeded in creating racial social hierarchies: white Europeans at the top, Asians in the middle and Africans at the bottom. To maintain this hierarchy, Africans would have to be both persuaded of its legitimacy and dissuaded from any moves to challenge it. Consequently, a majority of Africans were politically, socially, and economically excluded from the benefits of the system. My grandfather could not vote when he came of age, he could not work in occupations designated for Europeans (or even acquire the qualifications needed for such work through schooling) and he could not live, eat or sleep where he chose. In addition, he had to show reverence for every white person he came across, signifying that he ‘understood their important place in society.’

The risk of not adhering to these rules was often prison, injury, death or a combination of these factors.  One survived, my Guka told me, by learning to navigate the racialized norms of society. Because of the extensiveness of the rules of the time, survival involved a lot of self-regulation that made one, in effect, a prisoner of one’s own mind.

The relief of independence, while eliminating the racialized social strictures of African society, could not return the years lost by my grandfather in his attempts of survival within it. It could not address the shame of being Black and having to suppress your culture, beliefs and traditions in order to have a better chance of getting ahead in life. It could not return the lives of freedom fighters who died for a just cause, and it could, and did not heal the mental wounds arising from life under white supremacy.

Colonialism and its machinations created physical, social and mental wounds that have lasted generations. It is a debt, one imagines, that is almost impossible to pay. And yet, would it not be just for the colonial peoples to be compensated?


The 1884 Berlin Conference and its subsequent partitioning of Africa, notes Robert July, was a successful exportation of the tensions arising amongst industrialized European powers in the late 19th century. At stake, July explains, was the ‘delicate balance of power among European nations, the projection of rising commercial interests and the nourishment of national pride that expressed itself through the acquisition of colonial territories.’

In addition to causing tensions amongst industrializing nations, the growth of industry in Europe had brought with it a dual need for raw materials and markets for finished products. Africa, with its vast hinterland and formidable civilizations, offered both. The notable absence of any Africans at the conference was an indication that the partitioning of the continent would not be done with their consideration but was rather an extension of a growing European influence on the world.

Germany, a leading industrial and economic power in Europe at the turn of the 19th century, would host the negotiations on partition, in the process acquiring for herself the protectorates of Togo, Cameroon, ‘German East Africa’ (Tanganyika) and ‘South West Africa’ (Namibia). Subsequently, in the following years the peoples of these territories would find themselves and their land subjected to German colonial rule. Universally, colonial rule meant the appropriation of raw materials for German industry, the imposition of taxes and coercive labor on locals and the establishment of a racialized local political hierarchy, with traditional systems of governance subordinated to a colonially established government.

It was in Namibia, however, that German occupation would be especially brutal. The Nama and Ovaherero groups, occupants of the land that would become Namibia for thousands of years before the arrival of Germans, sustained a campaign of resistance against colonial rule. The resistance came to a head in the 1903-1908 Namibia War, culminating in the first genocide of the 20th Century.

In his book Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past, Reinhart Kossler notes the brutality of the methods used by Germany to subdue the Herero resistance. In 1904, German military commander, Lotha von Trotha, brought in to quell the resistance, issued an Extermination Order. The order essentially declared that the Ovaherero were no longer German imperial subjects, and the German state therefore annulled any obligation to leniency or protection. Additionally, the order called for the elimination of all indigenous peoples from the colony, ‘by death or emigration’.

Consequently, German military officers, buttressed by arriving regiments from Germany, pursued a brutal policy of murder against men, women and children, combatants and civilians alike. The apex of the genocide was the forced retreat of the Herero into the Kalahari desert where German soldiers, under the orders of Trotha, sealed the edges of the desert, poisoned water wells and erected guard posts to shoot surviving Herero on sight.

The ensuing starvation, thirst and death saw approximately 100,000 Ovaherero and Nama perish, a total that represented approximately 80 and 50 per cent of their respective populations. Surviving accounts of the genocide note ‘large collections of remnants of corpses, hundreds of men, women, and children lying together on paths lined with human skulls and skeletons.’ Remnants of the war in the form of human heads decapitated from the bodies of the deceased as well as postcard images of German soldiers standing next to corpses would survive as war mementos, both in German museums and universities and in the private collections of German citizens.

War survivors would be interned in concentration camps, where many would die of exhaustion from labor and undernutrition, as part of a colonial campaign of induced suffering to ensure, in the words of one governor, that ‘they would not revolt again for generations.’ Rape and the brutalization of women were also commonplace, with special female only camps set up to ‘service’ German soldiers.

In the meantime, the colonial government issued laws ensuring wholescale appropriation of native land, as well as laws preventing their economic independence in order to, according to Kossler, ensure that ‘Africans would be pressed into the role of a chattel labor force.’

Namibia would become the last African state to achieve independence in 1990 but it remained an unequal country with colonial descendants controlling much of the best agricultural land. Presently, patterns of wealth and land ownership reflect the colonial legacy, and a significant German minority resides in Windhoek and other small towns.

Germany still retains Herero remains, despite the return of some in recent years.  Moreover , as recently as 2016, streets in German populated areas in Namibia still maintained the names of colonial officials such as Trotha. Discussions on reparations that began shortly after Namibian independence remain, as of 2020, inconclusive.

The genocide of the indigenous peoples of Namibia was a horrible prelude of what would occur in Africa and Europe in the succeeding years. Early on the Nama and Ovaherero groups learned a lesson that would become all too common in colonial Africa, that resistance to white rule and dominance would carry the threat of death and extermination.

Germany has never formally apologized for its African holocaust.


On 29 July 2020, the Zimbabwean government signed a $3.5 billion deal to compensate white farmers that had been dispossessed of their land during a land distribution program under former president Robert Mugabe. Describing the move as ‘historic in many respects’, President Mnangagwa also hoped that it would ‘encourage foreign investment and mend ties with the West’.

The farmers, having arrived under a colonial government that was itself accused of appropriating land from the native Zimbabweans, described the move as ‘a miracle’, optimistically noting that ‘it would unlock challenges facing the country’.

Interestingly, funding for the compensation would come from the issuing of long-term bonds from the Zimbabwe government, as well as international donors. Zimbabwe, a poor African country still reeling from the shock of years of sanctions and recent protests on the state of the economy had concluded that despite heightened inflation, widespread poverty and an ongoing health crisis, compensation for white farmers was a priority.

But no one talks about this.

On April 17 1825, the French King Charles X, following the successful revolt of slaves in Saint Domingue, Haiti, issued a decree stating that France, a world power at the time, would recognize Haitian independence for 150 million francs. The decree, noted Charles, was intended to compensate French colonists for their lost revenues from the emancipated Haitian slaves. The alternative to this ‘compensation’ was made abundantly clear when the decree was delivered to Haiti accompanied by heavily armed warships: rejecting the payment would mean a war that the young country could ill afford.

The sum, absurd even by the standards of the time, was an amount more than ten times the annual budget of Haiti. Haiti was compelled to take loans from French banks and the American Citibank to pay the compensation, and did not finish paying interest on the loans until 1947. Today, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with limited health care, education and public infrastructure systems and a low life expectancy.

It is also worth noting that when France finally entirely abolished slavery in 1848, it paid compensation to former slaveholders in its overseas territories, as did the United Kingdom, which up until 2015 paid former slave owners as part of its 1837 Slave Compensation Act. Britain had to borrow large sums to make the payments, all of which went to slaveholders in its empire, and none, notably, to freed slaves or their descendants. To this day, the British government refuses to publish the names of those who were compensated.

Again, no one talks about this.

The Rationale for Reparations

The objective of restitution or reparations is often to pursue social justice. By compensating the aggrieved, governments or institutions aim to address longstanding social and economic unfairness. The principle therefore, is redress for the weak for the injustices committed by the powerful. But is this the case today?

French leaders continue to elude or mock the idea of restitutive payments to Haiti; the United Kingdom has never paid reparations for its colonial past and the idea of compensation for slave descendants in the United States remains a lofty ambition. In Germany, discussions around reparations for the genocide of the Nama and Herero people in Namibia remain tentative.

In contrast, restitutions for slave holders are paid out in full and their descendants continue to reap the benefits of grave injustice. Indeed, Western Europe and the USA have much to be held accountable for. It is common knowledge that proceeds from slavery were instrumental in the building of cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and London, and prominent banks and financial institutions such as JP Morgan, Citibank, Barclays and Wells Fargo, to name a few, all benefited from slave trade.

As the powers that be neglect justice for the aggrieved in favor of the unjust, the descendants of slavery and colonialism are left reeling from their effects. It could well be that a reckoning of past misdeeds might threaten, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the West’s ‘heritage, history and standing in the world’, but at what cost?

Today the formerly colonial world still bears the brunt of the destruction, death and the despair that the Western world inflicted upon it. We are told constantly of the aid and debt arrangement Africa receives from the industrialized world, and much more of the greed and incompetence of African rulers. Little, however, is said of the malevolent exploitation that has contributed to the current condition.

In several forums and conferences, a ‘way forward’ out of African destitution is often mooted, with everything from increased foreign investment and enhanced local democracy encouraged. But the truth of the matter is, without adequately acknowledging and addressing past injustice, Africa will remain where it has always been.

To reverse this, reparations are a good place to start

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].