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by Edward Brynn

Several forms of human slavery persist today in the Sahel region of Africa. This study explores their nature, their history, and some of the reasons for their stubborn persistence. – Ed.

Few Americans are aware that human slavery remains a significant instrument of social control in certain societies worldwide.  Fewer yet would buy into the proposition that slavery appears to be growing, a response that counters traditional mores. Two recent developments may help explain slavery’s durability:  One sidebar of globalization appears to be the marginalization of some of the world’s poorest people; and with the diminished ability of some Third World countries to enforce bans against slavery in their jurisdictions, local supporters of slavery are left largely unchallenged.

Evidence of the persistence – perhaps even the expansion – of slavery in Sahelian Africa is largely anecdotal.  Anecdotal evidence drawn from observers in Sudan, Niger, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mauritania has begun to attract international interest in a way that UN statistical compilations have failed to do in the past.  In the Sahel, we may be looking at some 300,000 people who live in conditions that fit the definition of human servitude used by Paul Lovejoy in his Transformations in Slavery:  Slaves are property;  they are outsiders by origin or denied their heritage through juridical or other sanctions; coercion can be used at will;  their master can dispose of slaves’ labor power at will;  they are denied the right to their own sexuality and to their own reproductive capacities; and their servitude is inherited.

But anecdotal or even hard data on human slavery in itself sheds little light on this ancient institution.  In Sahelian Africa, the contours, character and historical development of slavery are little understood.  The metamorphosis of slavery in the Sahel within the last century is even less understood.Defining Human Slavery
There are five tendencies in the African context:  chattel slavery; household slavery; service-provider slavery; permanent indenture; and child slavery.

Chattel slavery, which we associate most closely with human exploitation in the Western Hemisphere, became a major factor in West Africa only after the decline of the transatlantic slave trade, as will be discussed later.  Chattel slavery exists in uncommon instances in the Sahel, where several conditions coincide:  access to water sufficient to grow crops on a large scale, such as peanuts and cotton; sufficient remoteness from public scrutiny;  a government unable or unwilling to enforce anti-slavery legislation;  and a slave population understandably reluctant to face the dangers posed by flight or unable to find refuge elsewhere.

In 1984 I had an opportunity to see chattel slavery in southeastern Mauritania.  Slaves maintained the bunds that served as a catchments basin for large scale peanut production.  The nearest town, Mongel, lay 30 miles to the west.  I saw the slaves at work under the hot sun, but could not talk to them.  Fencing surrounded their mud huts.  I saw no signs of gardens or children or community life.  The owner, a Hassaniya Arab and a former Mauritanian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, explained that two or more generations of the same family worked together in the fields, as had their forefathers for several generations.  All the workers were Black.

Household slavery remains a part of the landscape in rural Sahelian Africa.  Most observers of the West African scene point out that household retainers straddle the line between slavery and family.  In Mauritania, where household retainers are most often tied for life to certain families, and whose children are expected to fill the same role, three legislative initiatives designed to abolish slavery have prompted (among other responses) a protest among household retainers that their relationship to their masters is contractual:  The master cannot dismiss them without providing commensurate financial support when and if the household retainers are set free.  And indeed, household slavery’s diminution reflects economic hard times; many slave-owning families complain that they cannot support the household retainers, and want to let them go.  An infusion of new money from Mauritania’s oil prospects is already creating a class in Nouakchott’s burgeoning upscale suburbs that may give new impetus to household servitude.

Tuaregs in Niger

But household slavery’s long-term durability certainly rests with the nomadic peoples, such as the Tuaregs, whose life style and independence were challenged during the high tide of French imperial expansion in Sahelian Africa.  The Tuaregs resisted accommodation by negotiation, by violent and passive resistance, and by withdrawal to remote areas.  Now, as central control mechanisms vested in the postcolonial regimes weaken, Tuaregs are once more virtual masters of their Sahelian environment.  In Niger their dependence on household servitude remains considerable, and they find in successive Nigerien governments a willingness to accommodate Tuaregs’ insistence that household retainers are not slaves, and want to remain attached to their masters’ households.

Pressure to stamp out household slavery is balanced by certain political realities:  Niamey’s declining authority in the hinterland prompts a desire to accept Tuareg leaders’ willingness to serve as agents in place for the central government, which cannot otherwise maintain a modicum of law and order far removed from the capital.  But the price is high:  Niamey must not challenge the Tuaregs’ own system of social control, a system founded on servitude of the Black Africans drawn historically from the south.

Service Provider slavery has its origins in recruiting war captives to serve as soldiers and functionaries.  They were given considerable power in return for loyalty to their new masters.  They were valued for their relative immunity from corruption.  They owed nothing to entrenched interests, and they enjoyed no protection if they transgressed the loyalty line.  But today this quasi-honorable form of slavery has degenerated into prostitution and drug transactions no different from what one finds in major cities worldwide.  Sahelian Africa is not wealthy enough to sustain this type of servitude on a grand scale.

Indentured servitude is closely associated with Koranic schools in the Sahel.  Small children work the corners of most Sahelian cities, trained to beg for small coins, and fleet of foot when the gendarmerie arrives on the scene.  In his seminal work, Controlling Knowledge:  Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society (2001), Louis Brenner provides a thoroughly dispassionate analysis of the relationship between Koranic masters and their child clients.  The ostensible trade-off – memorization of the Koran in return for personal service – is now seen as a thinly disguised form of child exploitation verging on slavery.  Sahelian cities are full of street urchins schooled in the art of begging and petty thievery.  Each evening the children retreat to their Koranic masters, where they are congratulated or berated for their success or failures in working their target audiences.  The “urbanization” of the teacher/pupil relationship emerged at the moment when the plantation system contracted sharply after World War I.  International competition, desertification, and efforts to extinguish slavery undermined chattel slavery but inadvertently encouraged the growth of this quasi-religious form of clientage and exploitation.

The role of parents is vulnerable to criticism. Many children are consigned to religious leaders because impoverished families have too many children to feed.  Indeed, the ancient adage still holds true:  Return the child steeped in the Koran, or do not return the child at all.

This exploitation constitutes servitude for a term because at some point the children are released from their obligations to the Koranic master, some back to their families, others to street gangs in the cities.  All Sahelian governments have tried to curb this practice.  But declining per capita income in Niger and Mali, combined with rapid urbanization in Senegal and Mauritania, means that this teacher/pupil phenomenon remains widespread.

Islamic leaders decry the relationship; progressive elements in Islam condemn the practice whereby parents commend their children to a sterile and exploitative relationship ostensibly as a means to spiritual enlightenment.  A new and more sophisticated Wahhabbiyya presence in Sahelian Africa sees the Koranic street schools as a distraction from pure Islam.  The Wahhabbiyya condemn the Koranic rote system, taking the theologically oriented position that these children are exposed to a system of rote learning that mocks the richness and complexity of Islam.  But parents who entrust their children to these self-taught Islamic scholars are prompted by more pressing material considerations: There will remain one fewer mouth to feed at home.

Indentured labor usually terminates when the child has mastered Koranic texts, or when parents can accommodate the child financially, or indeed when the teacher no longer can manage the fee for scholarship barter system, or when the child no longer brings home sufficient revenue from street begging.

A more commercialized form of indentured labor appears on coca plantations in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where migrant laborers from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have long been employed under conditions now recognized as bordering on slavery.  Côte d’Ivoire’s recent troubles have opened a long-closed window on plantation indenture.

Child slavery in its commercialized form is so new to the historical Sahelian African experience that legislation – the first step towards addressing this pernicious practice – is only now appearing on the legislative agenda.  Authorities in Ghana maintain that government efforts to stamp out the sale of small children to work on commercial fisheries on Lake Volta is an anomaly.  But certain evidence suggests otherwise.  The sale of children, some as young as three to five years of age, is a practice of quite ancient vintage.

A more modern phenomenon is the globalization of child slavery, driven by four developments:

  • poverty in the Sahel, which sustains the practice of entrusting children to masters who can feed the children;
  • the growth of a new plantation system requiring menial labor to harvest cocoa, cotton, bananas and other crops;
  • improved transportation facilities, allowing children to move long distances;  and
  • the decline of the span of effective governance by central authorities in certain West African states.

We are working in large measure with anecdotal evidence, some of it suspect when programmed to promote applications for political asylum or refugee status in Europe or America.  But in some cases documentation is compelling.  In the case of Sudan, thousands of young children have been captured during attacks on settlements in southern and eastern Sudan.  In Ghana many children sold by impoverished parents along the coast were pressed into employment under intolerable conditions inland.  We are well aware of the fact that hundreds and probably thousands of boys were forced into military groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone and recently, albeit to a lesser extent, in troubled Côte d’Ivoire.  Child slavery flourishes where state sovereignty has effectively collapsed or where large regions are no longer under the control of the capital.

Slavery is an ancient institution worldwide, and globalization of the means of production has played an unanticipated role in breathing new life into human slavery.  Much of sub-Saharan Africa is poorer in real terms today than was the case 40 years ago.  In the Sahel per capita income has declined substantially in real terms, and slavery on occasion reflects a desperate effort by impoverished parents to save themselves at the expense of their children.  On a more universal scale, wages for unskilled labor in many third world counties, most of them in Africa, have declined substantially;  labor in these countries is desperate to command work at rates well below subsistence levels.  Even at these levels, however, workers cannot compete with the large labor pool in India and China, because India and China offer well organized transportation systems to compete effectively against the even lower wage rates prevailing in Sahelian Africa.

Slavery’s Historical Imprint on Sahelian Africa
We in the Western Hemisphere tend to view slavery in its trans-Atlantic context. Small numbers of Africans were brought to Europe from the 1450s onwards, where they reversed a long-term trend towards the extinction of slavery north of the Mediterranean.  But enslavement in Eastern Africa was already centuries old.  The Sultanate of Oman had long ago extended its political power south to Zanzibar, the Comoros Islands, Mozambique, the eastern Congo Basin, and Madagascar.  The Sultanate superintended a sustained and important slave trade from these areas north and north east into the Middle East.

Slaving expedition observed by Henry Morton Stanley

Portugal quickly exploited its early discoveries on the Bight of Benin and southwards to the Angolan coast to establish sugar plantations in Sao Tome y Principe, well before the transatlantic commerce in slaves developed.  Powerful indigenous kingdoms along the Bight of Benin ramped up their long established slaving expeditions northward in order to meet Portugal’s plantation labor requirement.  The Ashanti exploited their military predominance to bring slaves to coastal forts established first by Portugal after 1480, and then soon afterwards by the Dutch, Danish, and English.  The slaving network quickly expanded deep into the Sahel, where the Mossi diverted an ancient slaving trade away from the Mediterranean towards the Gold Coast.

For 300 years after 1500, 12 million Africans were shipped westward. After 1800, however, the slave trade gradually diminished under pressure from anti-slavery forces with decisive assistance from the British navy.  The emancipation of slaves in the British Empire began in 1833 and concluded quickly and peacefully.  The collapse of slavery in the United States at the end of the Civil War was soon followed by emancipation of slaves in Brazil and Cuba.  For most Americans, slavery as an institution was a historical memory by the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Not so in Africa.  As Paul Lovejoy has demonstrated convincingly in Transformations in Slavery, the extirpation of slavery in the Western hemisphere precipitated exactly the opposite experience in Africa, especially in Sahelian West Africa.  While the East African slave trade northwards into the Middle East gradually declined under pressure from the British, the enormous enslaving engine that had for centuries fed the Atlantic trade reacted to the loss of maritime markets by simply creating new markets – in Africa itself.  Ironically the intervention of French and British colonial administrators favored the rapid spread of slavery in the Sahel.  Colonial authorities provided a modicum of security.  The extension of railway lines from Dakar east and Abidjan north allowed peanuts, rubber, gum Arabic, and cotton to reach European markets.  North of the Bight of Benin enormous plantations sustained by slave labor transformed the demographic and social landscape.  One the eve of World War I slavery in West Africa had attained an unparalleled level of prominence.

Then, just as suddenly, slavery in Africa suffered a sharp reversal.  Afflicted by qualms of conscience, British and French administrators signaled slave owners that colonial policy would no longer enforce slave owners’ claims on chattel slaves.  Slaves quickly realized that they could abandon the fields.  They congregated in Sikasso, Bobo Dioloso, Dakar, Bamako and elsewhere, creating large urban entities almost overnight.

Chattel slavery collapsed.  But that was only half the story.  Beneath the overlay of chattel slavery sat household slavery based on a prescriptive right of clans of Arab origin to retain under compulsion the services of Black Africans.  After independence, West Africa saw an anomalous development:  household slave masters of Arab, Berber, and Tuareg origin in states now under the control of Black Africans.  The exceptions, of course, were Mauritania and Sudan, where the Arab-dominated state was reluctant to challenge household slavery.  In Niger successive regimes also effectively marginalized the Black African population.  In Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, and the northern regions of the coastal states (Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and Nigeria) household slavery no longer benefited from gentle protection.  In northern Mali and Niger, household slavery remained, and remains, largely intact.

Pressure by human rights organizations to free bonded household staff has faced several daunting challenges.  For hundreds of years domestic slaves have cultivated an intimate contact with their master families.   Their loyalties are conflicted.  Some younger members have been exposed to considerable education and have been asked to provide essential services to the master family and clan in areas as exotic as information technology and finance.  Older members are sometimes closely bonded to their masters.  All are persuaded that manumission might well leave them without any visible means of support.  In each instance where the government of Mauritania offered all Mauritanians freedom, there was stout resistance from the masters, but also considerable reluctance on the part of the slaves.  The slaves maintained, understandably, that their relationship to Maur families was contractual; no manumission without a visible means of support thereafter was palatable.

There is a second factor:  governments that deny slavery exists.  A recent incident in Niger encapsulates the dilemma.  After sustained pressure by human rights organizations and the United Nations, a prominent Tuareg chief agreed to the manumission of thousands of household slaves.  An elaborate celebratory ceremony was planned, and the media were alerted.  On the day of the event, however, the chief announced that there were no slaves, and thus no manumission was called for.  A subsequent investigation revealed that Nigerien government officials had intervened to apply heavy pressure on the Tuaregs to cancel the ceremony.

All sorts of rationalizations govern the exercise in denial.  Koranic practice, now discounted by most Moslems, holds that slavery was justified as a vehicle for converting pagans and infidels to Islam.  Once converted, however, slaves were free.  A subset of this formula discourages conversion.  Household slaves are often admitted to the margins of Islamic life, but do not participate fully in family and clan rituals.

In some respects household slavery presents a gentler face, in that abusive behavior by masters is constrained by generations of intimate contact and hidden behind the walls of the compound and the isolation of the rural setting.  More notorious is the emergence of a globalized system of prostitution.  For centuries enslavement along Africa’s Indian littoral favored women, who were transported north to the Middle East for household service and concubinage.  Men were less marketable, for the Middle East lacked the plantation economies requiring large reserves of manpower.  In northwestern Africa the reverse obtained:  the plantation economies of the Niger, Senegal, and Gambia Rivers required men more than women to work the fields under severe climatic conditions.  Today international prostitution networks are active recruiters in Southeast Asia, and the importation of Black African women to staff Europe’s red light districts is one source of traffic.  Traffic in prostitutes also touches on drug cartels and other forms of smuggling.

In 1983 the British Anti-Slavery Society commemorated the 150th anniversary of the manumission of slavery in the British Empire by dispatching investigators to parts of the world where slavery persisted.  Mauritania was one target.  The gentleman sent to Mauritania apprised me (in my capacity as Chargé, and thus informally responsible for the welfare and whereabouts of the British in Mauritania) that his visit would coincide with an anticipated slave auction in a remote region north of Nema in the southeastern extremity of the country.  At the conclusion of his visit he returned to London and published a report, fortified by film footage, documenting the commercialized exchange of two dozen slaves and the existence of household slavery on several remote oases.  The Mauritanian government immediately and hotly denied the veracity of the report, moved to outlaw slavery for the third time, and assured itself that the slavery issue had not attracted much international attention.

The Mauritanian government read the situation correctly – for more than a decade.  Indeed, until the early 1990s anecdotal evidence suggested that residual slavery had entered a half-life condition.  The triumph of democracy in Mali lent weight to efforts to open the country to international organizations advancing human rights.  In Burkina Faso and Niger, United Nations agencies saw their mandates enhanced.  In Mauritania, after Ould Taya replaced Haidalla in December 1984, he promised to listen to grievances pressed on him by the Hassaniya-speaking Blacks who were formerly slaves, and inferentially by Blacks still in various degrees of bondage.  In Senegal the Moslem Brotherhoods, whose power base rested in part on a gentle tolerance of Koranic authorities indulgent towards the exploitation of young people consigned to the Koranic “hedge” schools, faced a serious challenge from secular authorities on one hand and from a rising Wahhabbiyya force on the other.

Predictions of an early demise of slave practices proved premature.  Five factors may help explain the survival and indeed recrudescence of several manifestations of slavery:

  • decline of a state funded educational system;
  • strengthening of certain manifestations of religious fundamentalism;
  • contraction of the presence of the central government in the hinterland;
  • flagging of interest and energy on the part of international organizations focused on human rights issues;  and
  • intensification of poverty in much of rural Sahel.

Education:  Tying the contraction of secular education to the slavery issue is inferential.  Prior to independence, in Francophone West Africa state schools recruited as students the children of the indigenous elite.  This elite was largely comfortable with household slavery.  But products of the Francophone scholastic experience, especially those whose talents and good fortune promoted them through secondary schools in Africa and on to higher education in France, imbibed French egalitarian ideas (in principle more than in practice).  To them the residue of slavery was embarrassing, and they contrived to redefine the reality of dependence to escape charges of slavery.

These schools are now vastly diminished in importance.  The rise of the medersas schools presents a conflicting situation.  Many Wahhabbiyya schools are supported by emerging middle class Moslem entrepreneurs deeply opposed to slavery and to traditional Islamic precepts defending slavery;  purified Islam, in their estimation, admits no place for slavery.  But these new Wahhabbiyya schools are largely urban phenomena.  In rural Sahelian Africa schooling has diminished, replaced by a Koranic experience much less sensitive to the proposition that slavery, at least slavery stripped of its grossly punitive aspects, is reprehensible.

Religious Fundamentalism:  A sidebar of myopic tendencies in education outside major metropolitan areas touches on a hardening of Islam against a traditional African religious syncretism.  Islam does not preach in favor of slavery.  It does, however, promote the world view that secular authorities carry no mandate to define the contours of institutions of social control.  Slavery in its less egregious manifestations gets a pass when it comes to scrutiny at the bar of human rights.

Contraction of Central Government:  This has largely escaped the notice of those taking the temperature of slavery in Sahelian Africa.  The decline of the parastatal enterprises after 1990 and the diminished role of military garrisons in the Sahel’s rural regions are illustrative.  My own perambulations across West Africa before 1990 invariably involved amicable rendezvous with officials in charge of state enterprises collecting local agricultural produce (cotton, peanuts, etc.), imposing taxes on produce retained by cultivators, and distributing government largesse.  These officials, and the notoriously corrupt institutions they represented, are now largely dismantled.

The connection to slavery is intimate.  Parastatals exploited agricultural production, and many of these producers exploited servants in turn.  But the presence of officials representing the parastatal corporations and by extension the central government tended to subdue the enthusiasm of producers to wax obscenely exploitative.  Now this leavening element has diminished.  Private entrepreneurs have intervened to reshape the procurement process.  They keep producers and purchasers at considerable distance one from another.  They interrupt the accounting process.  The role of enforced labor is marginalized.  Investigators, international or indigenous, cannot arrive at a remote site confident that a local préfet or other competent authority will be on hand to offer them a modicum of help and hospitality.  Slavery in its indigenous context is protected.

International and Indigenous Fatigue:  International human rights organizations and UN agencies find themselves deploying increasingly limited resources to monitor the slavery agenda in Sahelian Africa.  In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, resources once dedicated to monitoring human rights conditions behind the Iron Curtain were available to take on the Third World agenda.  But Africa was marginalized.  Gross abuses of human rights were acknowledged but little considered.  Somalia’s civil war and genocide in Rwanda dulled a U.S. commitment to pursue the slavery issue.  Failed states and Iraq have compounded the impression that the United States is too heavily engaged elsewhere to confront the slavery issue in Africa on a proactive basis.

Poverty:  Sahelian nations such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger rank virtually unchallenged as the world’s poorest.  Mauritania and Chad are favored with recently discovered commercially exploitable oil reserves.  These countries have gained traction on the per capita income ladder, but the largesse does not touch their rural populations.  In all these countries slavery, especially household slavery, remains a significant instrument of social control.  At the end of the day household slaves in these countries retain few options to servitude:  They cannot purchase their freedom; their governments either cannot afford a manumission program or deny the existence of slavery; educational opportunities for skill development are remote; employment opportunities in the broader economy are almost impossible to find.  Absent alternatives, slavery, repugnant in so many respects, provides a necessary refuge for a profoundly circumstanced population.

The global economy’s rising tide does not lift all boats.  Africa’s poorest countries have seen real per capita income decline by one-third since the 1960s, and at present prospects are dim that this retreat can be reversed and the losses recovered.   A constellation of circumstances will protect slavery in certain manifestations for a generation:  entrenched poverty;  the resurgence of fundamentalist religious tendencies in the Sahel;  lack of sustained pressure from outside in the context of distractions posed by the Middle East and the rise of India and China;  and a quiet consensus that absent an alternative to servitude the best that can be done is to monitor the practice and ameliorate its most egregious aspects until global fundamentals promise something better.

There is a broad U.S. interest in seeing slavery diminished.  To date American diplomacy has focused on certain manifestations of slavery, especially those connected to instances of severe racial and ethnic persecution bordering on genocide.  But a long term commitment to reporting on slavery in Sahelian Africa, to advising host governments that the United States is aware of the existence of this institution, and to promoting the emancipation of slaves at a pace that acknowledges real challenges for slaves and their masters alike, seems appropriate.  Sahelian slavery, especially household slavery, hides itself within certain institutions of social control endemic to values and lifestyles in these ancient and economically challenged cultures.  It lacks the notoriety, the brute exploitation, and the international fabric of other manifestations of slavery, but it deserves closer scrutiny and more emphatic efforts to bring this sad chapter in African history to a close.End.


Edward Brynn is Teaching Professor of History and was formerly Associate Provost for International Programs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Previously, he was a Foreign Service Officer, with several posts in Africa including Ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ghana, and was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department Bureau of African Affairs.


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