Slavery across Africa, has always donned two faces, one of imperialism and theft and the other of the hierarchical caste system of time immemorial, which was exploited and strengthened by imperialists, both from the Arab world and the West.
The Sahel region which stretches across North Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea is known well for its modern-day slavery and seldom contested caste system.
The deafening silence from governments across the world, international organisations and even our very own African Union regarding these matters, leaves much to be desired. African unity and peace across the continent cannot be realised whilst some are still in shackles and forced labour, stuck in outdated practices that are continuously justified through the excuse of tradition.
The conditions of the continent can no longer remain foreign to us whilst our own are sold for forced labour and continuously reminded that they are and will remain at the bottom rung of society and humanity for years to come.
Popular narrative is always focused on the Trans-Atlantic slave routes, preferring to rather ignore the continued slavery that exists on the African continent to this day. Despite slavery being outlawed across the world, many countries in the Sahel still experience slavery to this day and freedom to many Africans is but a word.
Granted we all have much to worry about in our respective home countries, where troubles seem to be never ending and the continent in continuous turmoil, however our voices should not be shackled like those who cannot defend themselves today. This article will focus solely on the problems faced by Malian and Nigerien slaves who are held captive by a caste system that does not seem to have an ending in sight.
In Mali, groups such as the Soninké, Malinké, and Fulani have employed the caste system amongst them for centuries on end. Those born into the lowest castes have no chance of upward mobility, cannot marry outside of their caste, belong to those in higher castes and can be sold to the highest bidder. The Malian Rally for Fraternity and Progress (RMFP), better known as ‘Gambana’, is an organisation that seeks to eradicate slavery within the Soninké and they estimate that within this group alone there are over 200 000 slaves.
Slaves amongst the Soninké live in segregated slave quarters, have no access to identity documents and are forced to toil for free in their masters fields, they are seldom allowed to own any means of production of their own and have to depend on their masters for food.
The Gambana also state that slave owners hide behind the notion of it being ‘tradition’ and once challenged, their response is to marginalize them even more. Many have lost their homes and belongings, been subjected to public floggings with their limbs bound together and have even faced expulsion from their communities for fighting back or speaking out against slavery.
Another group that is well known for owning slaves across the Sahel and not just in Mali, is the Tuareg. This group has been in control of the slave trade in the Sahel, since the 7th century with the Arab invasion of North and East Africa, capturing and selling people off to the East and the West. Given their nomadic status, they are hard to govern over and are even known to always be muddled up in insurgent wars along with other Islamic groups across the entire Sahel region, most recently in Mali and Niger. Much like the Soninké, Fulani and Malinké, the Tuareg have a caste system in which people in the lowest caste are set to be slaves and so do the children born to them.
However the Tuareg are also known to enslave people whom they capture during war whilst some inherit slaves and some slaves are given as gifts. To this day, they own slaves in Mali and Niger, despite legislation that prohibits the ownership and sale of human beings and in Niger, they are known to snatch little girls from their parents to work as slaves.
Slaves in both Niger and Mali are often victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse and are often told that their paradise is bound to their master, should they wish to see heaven, they must remain subservient to their masters. Slaves of the Tuareg are forced to work on farms, mine salt, herd their livestock and perform household duties, being forced to sleep outside their masters tents when they are on the move through the Sahara.
Although it is legally outlawed, the practice of owning and selling slaves across the Sahel is still quite prominent today. Lack of legislative enforcement, rife poverty and lack of opportunity across the area deter many from even trying to free themselves and it is common that many who are freed, will go back to their masters.
In some countries such as Mauritania, the government works with other groups to try and enforce the anti-slavery laws and ensure people’s freedom, whilst in Mali and other countries, governments are known to ignore the problem or side with the slave owners. There are groups in different countries trying to bring about its abolition. Groups such as the Gambana, Association de Juristes Maliennes (AJM), Association Regard aux Couches Vulnerables (ARCV), Coalition Malienne des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (COMADDH) and Temedt are continuously working towards freeing people, helping them rebuild their lives and become self-sufficient and uproot slavery in Mali.
Slavery exists in different forms and manners in the Sahel and the fight to end it is only as big as the voices that speak about it. It’s a lucrative business that also empowers the human trafficking pandemic that is rife across the continent. Whilst our continent is being looted of precious minerals, its most precious resource, being its own children, are suffering immensely at the hands of their own.
Insurgency adds much to this great ordeal and one way or the other, we have to join hands in fighting it and ensuring that it does not continue to spread. It may be in the Sahel today but could easily spread into sub-Saharan Africa in no time and maybe only then will the world and the rest of the continent open their eyes to it.
If we are to realize true peace and unity, from Cape to Cairo anytime in the near future, then we must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations and decide on actionable measures to ending the terror that plagues our beautiful continent. Slavery, imperialism and terrorism have never left the continent, since the 7th century we have been reeling and its about time we set measures as to how we are going to free ourselves of these insidious crises.