Published on Monday, May 7, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
African Slavery and Its Denial by Blacks
by Salim Muwakkil
Does slavery still exist in Africa? That question was rudely inserted into
the national conversation last month when a ship from the West African nation
of Benin reportedly was lost while ferrying child slaves. Although that story
turned out to be overblown, it helped pull the cover off one of Africa's
dirtiest secrets: slavery persists.
According to UNICEF estimates, there are 200,000 child slaves in West and Central Africa. Most of those forced into involuntary servitude are in economic bondage, with the boys being sold to cotton and cocoa plantations and the girls ending up as domestic workers and vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
But this kind of slavery largely is a product of poverty, experts say, and is not limited to Africa. In South Asia, for example, parents often pledge the labor of their children as payment or collateral on a debt. This is called bonded labor and Human Rights Watch estimates there are 15 million children involved in India alone.
The slave ship incident may have awakened the U.S. public to the persistence of such inhumane practices, but the discussion about slavery in Africa has been raging just beneath the surface of public discourse for at least a decade. That conversation has focused primarily on the African nations of Mauritania and Sudan, where slavery is less a function of poverty than of tradition and war. What's more, since both countries are "Islamic republics," dominated by Arab rulers, the issue has been aggravated by religious antagonisms, race and cultural rivalries. Further controversy has centered on the lack of protest from the African-American community, especially since condemnation of the transatlantic slave trade is so pivotal to black leadership's critique of the West.
In Mauritania, the country's leadership is dominated by ethnic Berbers who are racially distinct from the indigenous black population. In Sudan, however, the difference is mostly cultural or vaguely "ethnic."
In September, a Mauritanian national born into slavery provided a harrowing account of his life in testimony before a hearing of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. Moctar Teyeb explained that Mauritania's tradition of slavery goes back to the 12th Century when Arab-Berbers invaded the region and created a slave caste. "We became haratines--black Muslim slaves who faithfully served our white Arab masters, the beyadannes. Slaves exist to serve the master's every need," Teyeb told the committee. Slaves also are given as wedding gifts and traded for camels, guns or other coveted items, he said.
Teyeb, who is the outreach director of the American Anti-Slavery Group (the leading group in the anti-slavery movement), said he is a Muslim and does not blame his religion for the practice. "The values and concepts that drive the Mauritanian system of slavery are backed by a wrong version of Islam," he said.
There is a similar tradition in Sudan, but it has been aggravated by an 18-year civil war that pits the Arab-dominated north against the traditionalist and Christian south. The UN Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department all have published reports confirming charges that slavery is practiced in the country. According to the reports, armed militia supported by the Islamic government regularly conduct raids of Christian and traditionalist enclaves in the county's southern region and force captives into servitude.
Because the raids seemingly have a sectarian character, the practice has energized Christian groups in opposition. One group, Christian Solidarity International, actually collects money to purchase freedom for the captives. The Zurich-based group claims to have "redeemed" more than 10,000 captives since 1995.
But many argue that the group's campaign is misguided. Civil war, not slavery, is the real enemy in Sudan, they argue, and offering money to buy captives serves to encourage rather than discourage the practice. Moreover, Human Rights Watch has reported that the rival Sudan Peoples Liberation Army also is engaged in the practice of child abduction and forced servitude.
But increased publicity about the existence of slavery in Africa at last has provoked the African-American community to begin addressing the issue. Black leaders have been reluctant to wade into the controversy for many reasons: African-Americans tend to think of slavery solely as the transatlantic trade; there are moral ambiguities involved in criticizing independent African countries that also are the victims of propaganda seeking solely to discredit them; the pervasive influence of Islam on the black freedom movement and the reluctance to condemn fellow Muslims. But those barriers are falling and many more black groups are joining the ranks of the new abolitionists. It's about time.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune