The Niger government has been found guilty of an embarrassing failure to protect an individual from the insidious practice of slavery. That was the verdict of the Court of Justice of the West African regional body Ecowas, on October 27, in favour of one-time slave Hadijatou Mani. Mani had been sold when she was 12 to a man by the name of Souleymane Narua for $US500. She was subsequently abused, both physically and mentally, through the course of the union.
Niger is not the only state responsible for allowing this 'peculiar institution' to persist, a term coined by American scholars who examined the intricate workings of slavery in the Deep South. Other West African states - Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso - continue to either condone or turn a blind eye to the practice. There was very little peculiar about keeping it going on in Niger after its independence in 1960. Slavery is very much a case of economic self-interest and the preservation of racial inequalities. Scholars can't quite agree on what came first: racism or economic justification, but the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
In Niger, the institution persists as if it were genetic - those whose ancestors were slaves bear the mark of it for their lives. The mark, like Cain, is virtually impossible to shrug off. As the people who assumed power after independence came from a slave-owning pedigree, there was little surprise in its durability in Niger. A country blighted by military regimes and a dominant agricultural sector did little to eliminate its perceived worth.
In 1999, the country's Constitution and the Penal Code prohibited slavery, but various forms of it persisted. This continued even after its criminalisation in 2003. A survey done by the anti-slavery organisation based in the country, Timidra, and Anti-Slave International, claim that the number of slaves in Niger lies somewhere upwards of 43,000. They are engaged in the most rudimentary tasks: the work of domestic servants, farming the land, herding cattle.
The institution remains sophisticated and diverse in its cruelty. It can be found amongst the Maure (Berber Arabs), Peule (or Fulani, Pulaar), and the very caste-conscious Tuareg ethnic groups. Masters continue to approve or disapprove of marriages even amongst former slaves, seeking, for instance, the resulting marriage dowry. A marriage curiosity that is otherwise not allowed in Islam is permitted in Niger: that of taking a fifth wife, a wahiya. The Tuareg and the Hausa tend to permit this.
It then comes as a remarkable feat that we have the astonishingly brave Mani to thank for in further exposing the system to legal scrutiny. Once she became cognisant 'that slavery had been abolished' she refused to accept it. Her master did release her in 2005, providing her with a 'liberation certificate'. Anti-Slave International then assisted her in putting forth her case.
It is hard to measure the repercussions of the case. While it punished the Niger government with an award in favour of Mani valued at 12,000 pounds for a failure to protect her, the court refused to tackle the issue of customary laws which do much to legitimise slavery. That sacred cow will be allowed to live just that much longer.
It is certainly significant that the verdict came from within the West African legal system, shaming the government of Niger into action. Commentators have latched on this, arguing that it's significance parallels the defiance of Rosa Parks who refused to move from her front seat in a segregated bus in Montgomery City in 1955. We can always hope.
But it is also fitting to remember that slavery in its modern form is protean. Hundreds of thousands of workers across the globe also exist in some conditions that amount to slavery, though the architects of spin are always present to dust away the realities of it. Neo-liberal market specialists call this mobility in a global marketplace - contractually bound workers with little or no rights who work far from home. Others, for example, the New York millionaire couple Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani, directly imported Indonesian maids in conditions that amounted to slavery. The battle, it seems, continues even in the West, but the Mani case will do much to challenge the institution in West Africa.
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