Beginning of the end for Niger slave trade

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The Independent Online

Around 7,000 slaves are to be be granted their freedom in the Sahel desert in Niger today, in an unprecedented ceremony which will be attended by politicians, civil servants and human rights activists.

Around 7,000 slaves are to be be granted their freedom in the Sahel desert in Niger today, in an unprecedented ceremony which will be attended by politicians, civil servants and human rights activists.

Anti-slavery organisations hope that the ceremony, which will take place in the Tillaberi region, in Niger's far west, will mark the beginning of the end of an ancient form of abuse in the country. Slavery is also practised in other Saharan countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Sudan.

According to the Anti-Slavery International organisation, up to 43,000 slaves in Niger perform gruelling work without pay and are routinely subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Activists hope that today's ceremony, which will be attended by slaves and their former masters, will trigger a series of similar events across the Saharan region. Slavery in Niger was outlawed in 1991 and last year a constitutional amendment made slave ownership punishable by 30 years in prison. But up until today, the new rules were largely ignored. In the country's desert regions, government officials in the city and local chiefs in the desert still consider slave ownership to be a symbol of status and wealth.

"The government has been reluctant to move too quickly on a difficult and sensitive issue," said David Ould, deputy director of Anti-Slavery International, which has helped organise the ceremony. "Slavery is deep rooted in this society, and needs time to be weeded out."

Most Niger slaves are born into a slave class and act as unpaid servants, shepherds and porters. Women are expected to be sexually available to their masters. If they become pregnant, the child is welcomed as an addition to the master's stock.

Many families who own slaves justify the lack of wages by saying they provide food, clothes and occasionally medical care in return for the labour. But slaves do not have the right to leave their employers, or decide if their children attend school. Most female slaves cannot choose whom they marry.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear that slavery should be abolished. In 1956 it was extended to include all forms of serfdom and bonded labour. Most countries have clauses that condemn or forbid slavery, but in societies where slavery still exists, the law is rarely used to prosecute slave owners.

"In many cases, local courts have upheld a man's right to own slaves, regardless of what the national constitution says," said Mr Ould. " We want to encourage Niger's legal system to start testing out the law and prosecuting slave owners."

Slavery in Niger, as in many parts of west Africa, evolved as one group of people began to subjugate another. Ethnic groups in areas that eventually became countries such as Niger, Nigeria and Mali began to carry out raids on each others territories, to steal animals, crops and people. Children and adolescents would fetch the best price; they could be trained more easily and were more likely to produce children to form a new generation of slaves.

The people were then put to work, or sold to wealthy families that wanted help in the house or their land. Newly married women often took a few slaves to their in-laws' house as part of their dowry. Slaves made up the main labour force in warlike societies. In Say, on the Niger river, studies show that in 1904-1905, three quarters of the population was made up of slaves.

The French, as a colonial power, ended the most visible institutions of slavery such as the slave markets, but slaves still worked, unseen and unheard, tending cattle and cleaning private homes.

'THIS IS FREEDOM'

Until last June, Assibit was a female slave to one of Niger's nomadic tribal leaders. Her day began at 5:30am, pounding millet and milking camels.

Her food was the leftovers of what she prepared for the master and his family. She moved a heavy tent four times a day in order that her mistress could sit in the shade. She received no pay and rarely saw her husband, who is to be freed tomorrow. "I was my mistress's slave," she says now. "We got no money. No means to feed or clothe ourselves. I was only given one-tenth of the camel milk I milked."

Assibit's younger sons decided they could bear no more of such a life. They ran away and begged their mother to do the same. Helped by the anti-slavery Timidria organisation, she walked 20 miles to the town of Abalak. When she went back, accompanied by aid workers, to find Anatoye, she was chased off the land by the master's sons. But she has no regrets. Assibit is desperately poor, but, assisted by Timidria, she now decides her own destiny.

"I have never known happiness until this," she says. "This is freedom."

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