A sorry tale of human bondage

Fatima is one of the lucky ones. Every day since she could walk, without exception, she has worked from before sunrise until long after sunset. She has never been allowed to eat, get married or have sex with her husband without someone else’s permission. She doesn’t understand the concept of money because she has never had any. Fatima is 53 years old.

Fatima lives in Niger, a landlocked West African state that was, until famine thrust it to international attention in 2005, one of the least-known countries on Earth. But even in good years, Niger stands on the brink of perpetual emergency, a sand-scoured country whose only natural resource—uranium—is a dirty word on international markets. Green is a colour you rarely see here—hardly surprising given that just three per cent of the country’s land is suitable for agriculture. That three per cent, huddled into the extreme south-west of the country, will soon be engulfed by the Sahara Desert in its southward march.

Niger’s human landscape is no less grim. According to the United Nations, it is the worst place in the world in which to live. The average Nigerien earns less than a dollar a day and 85 per cent of the adult population can neither read nor write. One out of every three Nigeriens is malnourished.

If Niger is, among nations, the poorest of the poor, then people like Fatima are truly the wretched of the Earth.

Until recently, Fatima was a slave, a forgotten vestige of an institution that continues to stalk Africa like a dark spectre of the continent’s past. But even though Fatima spent all but the last few months of her life—more than five decades—in captivity, she is lucky. She managed to escape.

Now she must, like a child, learn what it means to live in freedom. When asked her plans for the future, her answer is simple: ‘I shall try to live by watching what other people do.’ And then she smiles.

Asibit, another former slave in her 50s who managed to escape and whose parents were slaves before her, already knows how to live in freedom. ‘I have never known happiness until this month of freedom,’ she says. ‘Now I can go to bed when I want. No one insults me. Now that I am free I can do as I please.’

In Niger, a staggering eight per cent of the population—870,363 people—are slaves, according to an authoritative report by Timidria, a local anti-slavery NGO with affiliations to Anti-Slavery International (ASI).

Later verification of these figures suggested that some double counting was involved. Studies also found that the final figure included people who are slaves by birth and social status and who are officially owned by masters but who do not live under their daily supervision. Of those who suffer from the worst form of slavery, Timidria found 46,382.

Stories told by slaves to Timidria offer up a bleak vision of hell in describing the world which Fatima and Asibit left behind.

To be a slave in Niger means many things. If you are a woman, it means you will be raped and your children will be taken from you at the age of two to eliminate family bonds. You will most likely never see your child again. If you are a man, you will either be castrated or given the role of ‘stud’, forced to impregnate slave women to produce more slaves for the master. Thus is slavery perpetuated across generations. If you are a child, you are born a slave and you will be set to work from the moment you can walk. You may never in your life enjoy a day of freedom.

All slaves—women, men, children—who were interviewed by Timidria had been beaten. Many had been branded with hot irons like cattle. The denial of food or medical care was routine. Public undressings or other ritual forms of humiliation were cited as common punishments for real or imagined disobedience. Some slaves were tied in chains or to a stake in the sun or to the neck of an animal for days on end. Most knew someone who had been thrown down a well and left to drown.

Tagou Amagal, from Tessaoua in southern Niger, was born a slave. Her parents were slaves. Now 90 years old, she tells of a life in which she has never known freedom. ‘I have suffered torture; as you can see, one of my legs is lifeless. My children are used as bedposts, made to carry the master’s bed throughout the night.’

Islamana, from Gadabeji, can only watch powerless when her two daughters ‘are treated like goats. The master invites men to sleep with them.’

Slavery of this kind has existed in West Africa for centuries. The arrival of European traders in Africa from the 15th century accelerated the trade in slaves, resulting in the mass transportation of an estimated 11 million slaves to European colonies in the Americas.

When the French—Niger’s former colonial rulers—arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, up to three-quarters of the population in some areas of what is now Niger were slaves. The French army and administrators came with lofty ideals—slavery was abolished under French law in 1848—and they did succeed in largely ending the commercial trade in slaves.

They did little, however, to free those already held captive. In some cases, French officers even paid their soldiers in slaves—concubines, porters and domestic workers—from among Niger’s conquered people.
Since the early colonial era, distressingly little has changed. The impoverished governments of Niger since independence in 1960 have had neither the means—Niger is a vast country of poor roads and remote desert settlements—nor the inclination to eradicate slavery. After all, traditional chiefs—Niger’s most powerful slave owners—continue to exercise de facto power throughout much of the country and even serve as the government’s representatives and judges of law.

But it didn’t have to be like this, and for the briefest of periods after 2002 an end to slavery in Niger seemed within reach. That was the year that Timidria began—with the full knowledge and blessing of Niger’s government—to conduct 11,000 interviews nationwide in order to ascertain the full extent of slavery in Niger.

The release of Timidria’s preliminary report in 2003 sparked outrage in Niger’s media and prompted the government to introduce an amendment to the criminal code whereby slavery became illegal for the first time in Niger’s history. Under the new law, slave owners were liable to prison terms of 30 years unless they released their slaves.

A working committee of the government-dominated parliament praised Timidria for its work, called on the media to publicise the report and demanded that government agencies and traditional chiefs actively seek to stamp out slavery.

In December 2003, dozens of slaves were freed in a public ceremony near Tahoua in central Niger. Among those experiencing freedom for the first time, there were tears of joy as Timidria distributed certificates attesting to their status freed slaves, along with money to assist them in starting a new life.

The only sour notes were sounded by government soldiers, who confiscated the equipment of journalists reporting the ceremony, and the grumbling of the local governor, who told reporters that slavery did not exist in Niger.

Then it all started to go horribly wrong. In March 2005, with journalists and local dignitaries already assembled, Niger’s government abruptly cancelled a ceremony in In Ates, close to the Malian border, to free 7000 slaves—95 per cent of the local population. The government human rights commission—the co-sponsors and organisers of the event—said that the cancellation was because ‘slavery does not exist in Niger’. Niger has a caste system, the commission said, which is often mistaken for slavery.

Reports began to emerge from the area where the ceremony was to have taken place that the slaves and their owners were intimidated by government soldiers and told under threat of violence neither to attend the ceremony nor to speak to the media.

Then, in early May, the head of Timidria and winner of ASI’s Global Anti-Slavery Award for 2004, Ilguilas Weila, was arrested along with five other Timidria workers. Six days later, four were released, but Mr Weila and his colleague, Alassane Biga, were formally charged with spreading false information, attempted fraud and falsely eliciting money from foreign donors.

Romana Cacchioli of ASI denounced the arrests as part of ‘a concerted campaign not only to discredit the reputation and work of Timidria, but also to silence efforts to end slavery in the country’.

Niger’s democratically elected president, Tandja Mamadou—who was in 2004 singled out by President Bush as a shining example of good governance in Africa—remained silent on the issue. But it was an open secret among Western diplomats in Niger that those who disrupted slave-freeing ceremonies and arrested Timidria’s activists were doing Mamadou’s bidding. For a man who at the time was president of Ecowas (the regional grouping of West African states) and whose economy is kept afloat by foreign aid, confirmation that slavery was widespread in Niger would have been a grievous embarrassment.

In June, after six weeks in prison—and at a time when Niger was gripped by a famine which Mamadou would also deny existed—Ilguilas Weila and Alassane Biga were finally released on bail. The charges against the men are still pending.

So it is that slavery survives in Africa into the 21st century; that an entire country is held captive by hereditary chiefs whose prestige depends upon the ownership of people and by a president who is as desperate to remain in the international spotlight as his people are to survive; that women like Fatima and Asibit are forced to run for their lives, here, somewhere close to the end of the Earth. 

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.


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