Imani Tafari-Ama | Recharging reparations responsibilities

The following article is republished from The Gleaner and was written on May 5, 2024 by Imani Tafari-Ama.

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa

There were no drum rolls or blaring bells to mark Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s pronouncement late in the day on Tuesday, April 23, that his country must apologise and assume its outstanding responsibility for colonial crimes committed against indigenous and African peoples. Portugal colonised Brazil, Mozambique, East Timor, the Cape Verde Islands, and Angola, and trafficked and enslaved over six million people.

Although the notorious savagery of colonialism spanned the 15th to the nineteenth centuries, it remains the proverbial skeleton in the colonisers’ closets. The continued presence of Euro-American colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere begs the question that colonialism continues to endanger the human rights capabilities of those unfortunate to be victims of this entrenched architecture of white supremacy.

The European Union must be hopping mad that the Portuguese president decided to make this speech at the annual celebration of Portugal’s 1974 Revolution that transformed the country from a dictatorship to a democracy. This public declaration coincided with the maiden visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Portugal. Lula, a former president (2003-10) and president of the G20, has long been a human rights advocate, and recently confronted Israel for the prevailing genocide in Gaza.

Portugal’s unprecedented justice stance is significant because, under the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. This arrogant arrangement instigated by the Catholic Church resulted in the allocation of lands, plus the peoples inhabiting them, to these European countries for colonisation and resource exploitation.

Insult to Injuries

Adding insult to these injuries, despite the huge profits reaped from the expanded system of enslavement, the countries that constitute today’s Global North have contrived systematic structures and discourses of forgetfulness. This contrived colonial amnesia effectively closed the doors for negotiating for compensation for the injured parties and their underdeveloped descendants.


In addition to the transatlantic enslavement trade, the Maafa also encompassed the colonisation of Africa by European powers. This period, which spanned the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, led to the exploitation of Africa’s resources, political instability, and cultural erosion. The colonisers imposed their own languages, religions, and customs on African peoples, further contributing to the underdevelopment of the continent and her diaspora. This was therefore a deliberate subversion of psychosocial, socio-economic and cultural self-determination. These rights remain elusive for many of the progeny of the people who suffered from the Maafa.

European colonial history and memories have been intentionally suppressed and erased through the absence of the subject from school curricula, public media and popular culture. In contrast, in countries like Germany, the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust committed by German Nazis is commonplace in pedagogical content. Against this background of European dereliction of transitional justice obligations, the singular Portuguese president’s initiative is remarkable. His intention to apologise and calculate the reparations equivalence has set a precedent.

The Portuguese president’s timely speech should be leveraged by reparations advocates to redouble efforts to rouse the hibernating consciences of other European Union members. While many citizens of the African diaspora have been sceptical of the value of reparatory justice politics, the open intention of the Portuguese president to place this problem on the table is a reminder that there is a political economy of crimes against humanity.

In the process of committing genocide against indigenous peoples and confiscating the resources, liberty and labour of Africans, Europeans intentionally destroyed the systems of spiritual, cultural and material well-being of their captives. This widespread damage came at enormous human and social sustainability costs, which reverberate even today.

Economists have long acknowledged that development and underdevelopment are opposite sides of the same coin. Demonstrating this truism, life in Europe contrasts sharply with the raw realities of disadvantage that characterise the states that are classified as the Global South. Kudos to the Lula-Rebelo de Sousa alliance that catalysed the reparations reasoning. The local and regional reparations respondents should take cue and re-energise the ‘a luta continua’ mandate, since the promise of victory is hovering on the horizon.


Imani Tafari-Ama, PhD, is a Pan-African advocate and gender and development specialist. Send feedback to [email protected]


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