Independent Appeal: Niger and the victims of an old and cruel trade

Slavery is illegal in this African country, but the authorities turn a blind eye. Tens of thousands are born into servitude each year, and freed slaves face a second-class existence. Yet the battle for liberation goes on, despite threats and intimidation. Leonard Doyle reports from Konni
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Darkness was falling across the plain as we arrived at the slave compound owned by Usmann Gamagé. A "white" Tuareg chieftain aged 70, he rules over a scattering of mud huts with his 36 wives, children and henchmen in this desperately hungry land.

Soon Gamagé himself and his son arrived in their battered estate car, complete with cracked windscreen. Pale-skinned with aquiline features, the two are from a long line of slavers. They and the people before them have been working their grim trade in this part of landlocked Niger for centuries. Now that slavery has been criminalised, it is a less blatant feature of life in Niger. But rather than disappear overnight, it has simply gone underground.

We were ushered into Gamagé's compound where his son Sahnoun was keen to explain that they were no longer proper slave owners. It was true his father had many more wives than the four permitted by the Koran, but they were free to go should they choose. They stayed to work, receive shelter and have enough food to eat for their children: "It's not true that people are forced to stay here," he said, caressing the head of a young boy, one of either the son's or the father's many offspring. "They are all our friends," said Sahnoun, who is 37. "We protect them when there are troubles with other tribes. Our problem here is poverty."

Sahnoun's description of the slave's life as essentially a happy one was in sharp contrast to the picture painted by a group of recently freed ones I had met earlier in the day. Amie Ilitimine, a beautiful 14-year-old who has been free for just two years, described how the family who "owned" her forced her to work as a domestic servant. She was contacted by a local anti-slavery activist called Tutu who offered to help her secure her freedom. Now she is being looked after by his family and learning a skill.

Another young Arab girl is attending the local secondary school, and is being sponsored by a French documentary maker.

Another woman, Hadizou Karou, was freed in August 2005 after eight attempts to get the courts to intervene. She pulled out a certificate proving she was a free woman and then showed me the welts the slave owner had left on her shoulder. The certificate is three lines long and reads: Certificat D'affranchissement (Esclave). Le soussigné M. Chadys Soulyman Nara de Louhoudou a libéré Mme. Hadizou Karou le 18 août 2005. Elle est libré et n'est esclave de personne. ["Certificate of Freedom (Slave). The undersigned M. Chadys Soulyman Nara of Louhoudou has freed Mme. Hadizou Karou on 18 August 2005. She is free and is no one's slave."]

At the age of 22 Hadizou was finally free of the physical and sexual abuse she had suffered much of her life. But like all freed slaves she remains discriminated against. She is unable to vote and treated as a second-class citizen in Niger.

The mother of two children, she now finds herself free but impoverished. "He beat me and made me work in the fields and look after his four wives," she said. She was in effect the slave owner's concubine and had borne him two children.

"She needs lots of help," said Almou Wandara, an anti-slavery activist. "She has nothing, not even a few sticks of furniture in her hut."

Almou, 51, is himself a freed slave, and the illegitimate son of another Tuareg chieftain. He told me how, because his slave mother was the fifth wife of her husband, she was treated as inferior by the first four wives. "After the first four, he can have more than 20 wives, but they are all servants. I saw the pain these women suffered. In the home they were all considered slaves.

"This is what pushed me to win my freedom and since then I have freed almost 20 women from bondage. There have been many difficulties, my family has been attacked here. I have been held and taken to court countless times.

But Almou is undeterred by such incidents. "Here we just live day to day," he went on, gesturing around his small compound. "We are often threatened by those in uniform and we are often hungry. But if I had the means, I would try and liberate all the women who are enslaved like my mother."

There are five or six freed slaves with their children in his compound. They weave mats which are sold in the markets. Thanks to a tiny one-off grant from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the freed slaves were able to buy two goats, a sheep and enough material to make 10 mats.

Anti Slavery International - one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal - helps underpin the work of Timidria, the local organisation fighting slavery in Niger. This year it supplied a car, which is in constant use, criss-crossing this vast land. Anti Slavery International has sent some laptops, but the need is vast, as Timidria tries to foster a basic knowledge of human rights in a population of 12 million that is 83 per cent illiterate.

Niger, always teetering on the edge of famine and disaster, is one of the most impoverished African states. But very little of the aid sent here is devoted to the fight against slavery. "I have a small field to grow millet and I sell water from my well," said Almou, "but it is barely enough to survive on. With the right resources I could free hundreds of slaves." His friends from Timidria nod their assent.

"My family has rejected me and if I'm hungry no one helps me. But if I have the means, even if they put me in prison I will carry on this struggle," he said. "There are more than 300 villages in this canton alone and I need to travel around to uncover the secrets and bring the slavers to court."

In the past slaves were bought and sold openly after being kidnapped by nomadic raiders or captured as the spoils of war. Their children were born into slavery and the cycle continued. Today the practice is banned under the 1999 constitution and penal code, with stiff jail sentences of up to 30 years for those convicted. But slavery is winked at by the establishment.

Slavery is a taboo subject here and the anti-slavery activists face violence and intimidation from the slave owners, who have political power and are embedded in the traditional chieftain system. They maintain that slavery is a cultural hangover that provides a way of life to people who, they say, know no other way to survive.

Below the radar of the international community, tens of thousands of those born into slavery in Niger still do not even know their rights. Slaves are owned and controlled by their masters, receiving a meagre amount of food and a place to sleep in return for their labour. The master decides who a slave marries and whether their children go to school. Many are subjected to violence, rape, degrading treatment and threats

Slavery is tolerated here. The police react only when a formal complaint is made by a slave against a master - a rare occurrence in this land of poverty, ignorance and deprivation. Many elected members of Niger's multi-party democracy are themselves slaveholders in their home regions, and through their extended families.

With slavery banned, Niger's multiparty democracy and free market economy is viewed by Washington and the World Bank as a role model for best practice in Africa. But decades of development programmes have failed to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. A year ago the world had to rush food aid to the country to save 250,000 malnourished children as famine stalked the land. Thousands still died of hunger-related causes.

The tragedy is that Niger's economy is kept alive by exporting uranium to France and Japan, international assistance to its government and massive ongoing humanitarian efforts by international charities. One year on, the food emergency aid agencies are still here - and outraged by the deprivation they find in the harsh desert environment. Subsistence farming never produces enough to feed the population, yet cash crops are exported while families go hungry.

Meanwhile the agencies dig wells, build schools, weigh thousands of malnourished babies and supply their mothers with high-protein food. But all that expertise and aid barely scratches the surface of the country's problems. And Niger, the poorest country in the world, is where - under the nose of the international community - slavery on a massive scale is effectively condoned by the outside world.

The slaver Gamagé told me that he and his 36 wives had once had a visit from Unicef, but to his dismay the agency did not stay long or set up a feeding station in his village. "The problem here is poverty," Gamagé said. "We need electricity, we need roads, we need food when our crops fail. Unicef saw all that."

In the jet black of the evening Gamagé ordered lamps to be brought out. As the conversation continued, he proffered a gift of leather slippers. "Before, we had more than 36 slaves here, along with their kids," he said, "but today I have freed them all and yet they are with us - they are our friends." He even complimented the Timidria activists, Ibrahim and Mohammed, who had driven me five hundred miles from the capital, Niamey, to confront him.

"Do not believe a word he says," warned Ibrahim. "He knows how dangerous it is to admit to being a slaver - we just need one of his slaves to condemn him."

None of the slaves, adult or children, have birth certificates or other state records. This, Ibrahim explained, makes them especially vulnerable to being trafficked or otherwise exchanged or sold to other slave owners. Timidria recently prosecuted a case in which a woman who was falsely told her child was being married off realised what had really happened when no dowry arrived. Timidria had police arrest a merchant from Nigeria. Shortly afterwards the child herself was freed.

"We believe that hundreds of children are sold over the border to Nigeria each year," said Ibrahim. "They have no protection and do not know where they are, it is a desperate situation."

Niger is the size of Britain, France and Germany combined. Last year it ranked last out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme's human development index. Most live on less than $1 a day and even when harvests are good, 40 per cent of children - one million - suffer chronic malnutrition. Niger's under-five mortality rate is the highest in the world. UN workers say it is the most dangerous place on earth to be a child. If that child is also a slave, then he or she is also doomed to exploitation and abuse.

Ibrahim and Mohamed, like the activists in America's civil rights movement in the 1960s, are determined to break the grip of an exploitative system.

"We need to liberate these women, educate their children, teach the parents to read and write and help them develop economically viable lives," said Mohamed.

"But first give us the means, then we will achieve results."