Providing monetary restitution for egregious crimes against humanity is one telling way that ex-colonial powers and even domestic overlords can conceivably apologise for, and attempt to repair, violations of Indigenous rights in times past.
Obviously, complete restoration of lives and livelihoods to before the perpetrated infractions is not possible.
The crimes are too old, and those whose existence was extirpated or abused are no longer with us.
But their descendants are, and reparations help to lift the stain of the past.
Years ago, modern Germany acknowledged the genocidal actions of its colonial predecessors, particularly in Namibia. Storm troopers in what was the colonial outpost of German South West Africa reacted to militant African protests against harsh forced labour and land confiscations.
After issuing an “extermination order,” Germans killed about 65 000 of 80 000 Ovaherero and 10 000 of 20 000 Nama herders and agriculturalists between 1904 and 1906, pursuing fleeing Africans into the Kalahari Desert.
Germans raped women, poisoned wells, burned crops, and established concentration camps. These outrages constituted the first genocide of the 20th century.
Where Herero were a substantial part of pre-massacre Namibia, they were reduced to an insignificant minority, now about 10% of today’s population. Ovaherero want their lands returned, and want German reparations to go to them, and the Nama, rather than to the country as a whole. The Namibian government has a different idea.
In a separate action, some individual Ovaherero are suing Germany in American courts, under the provisions of the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. That act gives US federal courts jurisdiction over lawsuits filed by foreign nationals for torts committed in violation of international law.
Despite Ovaherero claims, Namibia began negotiating with Germany in 2015 after Hage Geingob, a Damara, became president and replaced a succession of leaders drawn from the numerically ascendant Ovambo people of Namibia’s north. Geingob began governing Namibia together with Ovaherero (and other) politicians. Then it became timely to remind Germany of its obligation to repair damages to Namibian society.
The Germans, unlike so many ex-colonial powers, did not resist. German cabinet ministers admitted in 2004 and 2019 that “Germany committed terrible crimes, especially against the Herero and Nama, and we naturally bear the responsibility for this – even today.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government agrees that Namibia deserves recompense. But the two countries have since been disputing exactly what can and should be done. Germany has offered nearly US$16 million in cash to help make up for what its Bismarckian predecessors did. (Allied soldiers chased Germans out of Namibia in 1915, and South Africans took over until 1990.)
Geingob says that is not enough. The Namibians know that Germany gave Holocaust victims US$80 billion, by way of partial recompense, and that a German chancellor went down on his knees to atone for the obliteration of the Warsaw ghetto and its Jewish inhabitants.
For Germany, the Holocaust payments were of a different conceptual order than the reparations being considered for Namibia, where Geingob wants a direct payment to his government. Germany prefers to pay for projects beneficial to Ovaherero and Nama. Germany furthermore asserts that its generous aid to Namibia since 1990 constitutes abundant recompense. There is also a quiet concern in Germany that the proposed payment, however large, will be diverted away from support for deserving Herero and Nama and find its way into the pockets of corrupt Namibian elites. A further issue is that Geingob objects to Germany’s refusal to call the payment “reparations.” Germany wants to term what it is doing a “healing of wounds.” That is no mere semantic difference and provides less in the way of abject apology than Geingob and his negotiating team believe Namibia is owed. Since Germany had so many colonies where its troops pursued ethnic cleansing – such as in Tanzania, where the forcible repression of the Maji Maji rebellion killed at least 75 000 Swahili-speaking Africans from 1906 to 1908 – Berlin today worries that its liabilities for actions in Africa are potentially enormous. Burundi, for example, is now demanding reparations for atrocities in what was once the German colony of Ruanda-Urundi. Modern Cameroon could easily follow suit. And so could Togo (both former German possessions).
Whatever the Germans and Namibians finally decide is fair and just will influence comparable debates in Canada and the United States, throughout the Caribbean, and even in Australia and New Zealand. Distant Namibia may help us all decide what we owe and how it should be distributed, and to whom. *Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. This opinion was first published in the Globe and Mail a Canadian newspaper printed in five cities in western and central Canada.