Stamping out the slave trade


Universe Column for July 31st 2005

by David Alton

Last week I wrote about the bicentenary of abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 2007. This anniversary will give us the opportunity to tell the story of how a group of men – black and white – exerted great moral and practical pressure to bring about change. But it also provides us with the opportunity to focus on contemporary forms of slavery – massive exploitation of labour, the caste-based atrocities against groups like the Indian Dalits, human trafficking, and in countries like the Sudan and Niger, the continuation of practices which would easily be recognised by abolitionists like Wilberforce of Roscoe.

Even the word used by the Sudanese Arab governing classes to describe the African tribesmen and women of the Darfur region actually means “slave” which perhaps helps to explain why the Janjaweed militia have behaved as they have.

In Niger, the Government constructively recognised  that the problem of slavery  “has not been totally eradicated” and by taking appropriate legislative action. On 5 May 2003, changes were made to the Penal Code but the reality is that to date no legal proceedings have been initiated by the authorities against anyone for their involvement in slavery during the last year.

A few months ago, through Anti-Slavery International,  I met  leaders of Timidria, a non-governmental  organisation, who have campaigned against slavery in Niger.  Recently the government  recanted on their previous position and denied that slavery exists. They arrested the president of Timidria, Mr. Ilguilas Weila, and his colleague Alassane Biga. Happily, following international pressure they were subsequently released.

Timidria’s research (carried out in 2002-03) is the most comprehensive survey to date, involving over 11,000 face-to-face interviews in six regions of the country (Agadez, Tahoua, Maradi, Zinder, Tillabery and Dosso).

The research showed that those interviewed were able to identify individuals by name as their masters.  Those interviewed generally worked directly for their master in exchange for minimal amounts of food and a place to sleep, which would typically be a shelter that they had built themselves. In response to a question asking who makes the decision on your marriage, 84 per cent (8,310 people) said that their master was solely responsible for the decision, while 82 per cent (6,103 people) replied that that their master was solely responsible for the decision on whether their children attended school.

The 1926 United Nations Slavery Convention defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the rights of ownership are exercised.”   Clearly, the vast majority of the 11,000 people interviewed are slaves under this definition as they have identified someone as their master and that person is in a position to demand their labour for no pay and decide whether or not their children go to school and who they marry.

Following the publication of the study, a further 5,402 people came forward to Timidria and claimed that they were slaves.

Anti-Slavery International has gathered numerous first-hand accounts by slaves documenting the abuses they suffer. Women have spoken of living in constant fear of abuse, and rape is common. The master exerts psychological control by telling his slaves if they do everything he demands they will go to heaven.  Women consider themselves the master’s property and so they submit completely to his demands.  The male slaves are unable to help as they risk serious beatings and believe they would be  excluded from heaven.

Masters also consider they have the right to demand the marriage dowry of their former slaves (which consists of bed, tent, kitchen utensils) and when a slave dies the master can demand the inheritance, even if the former slave has children.  Since Timidria started awareness raising in Talamcis, villagers have begun to refuse to hand over their dowries or inheritance.  However the masters continue to make demands for money or chores.

Aminata (a woman who ran away from her master) told of a woman who had a plait torn from her head and her livestock seized by her family’s former master as she had refused to hand over 80 goats which she had inherited from her father.  Timidria took the case to the local magistrate in Tchintabaraden.  The magistrate ordered the master to return the animals.  Another practice that continues in relation to marriage is when a girl finds a suitor, the suitor has to go to the master and ask for the girl’s hand, often the master will demand the dowry or money in exchange for his consent.

Niger is among the countries that Britain and other developed countries intend to assist by wiping out their debts.  Before we do this, surely we should  be insisting that a trade which we thought we had abolished two hundred years ago is finally wiped out.