Between Truths and Indulgences, Part Two
The second installment of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's opus on Africa's role in the slave trade and its consequences.
The resurrection of this ancient -- and, frankly, increasingly tortuous -- controversy strikes this outside observer as sometimes outside scholarship. Perhaps it has more to do with the politics of academia. If even the famous apology tendered by Matthew Kerekou, the former president of the Republic of Benin -- a terrain that remains unarguably one of the most notorious collection-and-embarkation points of slaves brought from the West African interior -- does not suffice to evoke an objective consideration of culpability, nothing ever will. Equally nothing will stop the people of that nation, the Republic of Benin, from observing the now ritual ''Day of Remorse'' for the role of their ancestors in hunting down and selling their own kind into the unknown. Remorse is the moral motor of reparations.
That continent of Africa -- 17 among its constituent nations -- marks her 50th year of independence from foreign rule. Most of those nations cannot afford the expected splurge in the rites of celebration. There is a commodity, however, that is nearly without outlay, without overheads and without any risk of sinking African nations deeper into bankruptcy, especially of the moral kind: Truth. A frank confrontation with the past, commencing close to the present and reaching far back as the spirit of enquiry chooses to go. For some of us, the urgent mission is to ensure that the continent truly overindulges itself in that priceless but accessible commodity of celebration. I find the proposition of President Barack Obama being personally placed as an arbiter in this process needlessly controversial, an avoidable distraction. Nonetheless, between the ascent of a product of that continent to a position at the world's pinnacle of power, and the failed expectations of 50 years of self-rule on the mother continent itself, there hover some unpalatable truths over the continent's history. It is difficult to project a better time than now in the uncensored apprehension of that history, its appraisal and its lessons.
The foregoing takes no issue whatsoever with the claims of the African-American people in the project of reparations -- symbolic or material. Despite the ascension of an African descendant to the leadership of a notorious slave encampment, the business of full restoration of African-American humanity remains unfinished, and reparations in one form or the other -- affirmative action was a variant -- may lead to ultimate closure of a lacerating chapter. That cause remains on an active agenda of social restitution in which Africans on the home continent have, as clearly indicated, a vested interest. It instigates present and future generations to press the project of self-examination, but also of a candid interrogation of the past in the direction of all beneficiaries from the degradation of African humanity -- from the Arab world through the African continent itself to the Americas and beyond. And let us at least improve on the fateful designation of the African race at the hands of the two slavery-enabling religions: Islam and Christianity. Let us repudiate, once for all, all contemporary intellectual versions of the absolution trade in ''papal'' indulgences.
Wole Soyinka, a native of Nigeria, was the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.