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
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
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
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