Africa Ignores Slave-Trade Anniversary

Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. Charles Onyango-Obbo, a writer for Uganda's largest newspaper, offers his thoughts on why few Africans are taking note of the event.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Two hundred years ago tomorrow the British Parliament abolished the slave trade. The event is being marked and celebrated in many parts of the world. But a noted columnist for Uganda's largest daily newspaper, Charles Onyango-Obbo, wrote recently, here's a quote, "There are hardly any such commemorations in Africa, the continent where the slaves came from." Mr. Onyango-Obbo joins us from our NPR Studios in Nairobi. Mr. Onyango-Obbo, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO (Columnist, The Monitor): Thank you.

SIMON: When you talk in your column about the history of slavery, you have some very harsh words for Africans who participated in the slave trade.

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO: Yes, and it's because (unintelligible) Africa's slavery wouldn't have been possible without a very high level of local collaboration, where the African chiefs and other collaborators went into the hinterland and delivered their slaves to the coastal areas or the coast itself, where they were then loaded on ships.

SIMON: Has Africa examined the history of collaboration?

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO: No. And it is very important because most of the discourse about slavery is post-independence, and it takes the form of looking at the injustice done against Africa by the West, mostly the colonial experience. So the slavery period has been placed in the same basket with colonialism.

SIMON: You suggested the infrastructure of slavery is still in place in Africa in many places.

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO: Yes. And I meant that not the physical infrastructure, but I think best call it a mental infrastructure - the great need to really humiliate and really destroy. I mean if you see what's happening in Darfur, for example, I mean, you know, you can really see that if you take a continuum from the behavior that we saw, you know, from the 18th century onwards, it's almost as if there has never been a break.

SIMON: You even compared the plight of somebody who was chained and trapped in a cargo ship as part of the slave trade with the plight of prisoners held by Ugandan security forces today. And you even suggest that the prisoners held today by Ugandan security forces might have it worse.

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO: Yes, you see, because one of the things - and I think it's probably a terrible thing to say - is that from the point of the slave trade, it was based on the need for the slave to survive. Most of African politics today, it's driven by the logic to destroy the opponent.

SIMON: Mr. Onyango-Obbo, when you write as vividly as you do about Ugandan security forces, do you have any concern that something will happen to you?

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO: Maybe, yes, but I never actually think of it that way, because for the years when I was actually based and spent most of my time editing a newspaper in Uganda, I went to court more than 100 times in the period of six years. That's more time, if you think of it, that all the journalists have gone to jail in Uganda since independence in 1962. So you know, I think after some time you say, well, it comes with the territory. Let me do my beat, and let's see what tomorrow brings.

SIMON: Mr. Onyango-Obbo, thank you so much.

Mr. ONYANGO-OBBO: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Charles Onyango-Obbo is a columnist for The Monitor, one of the leading newspapers of Uganda, speaking with us from Nairobi.

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