One thing that hasn’t been mentioned about the current conflict in Mali (and neighbouring Mauritania) is slavery. For centuries Tauregs have kept slaves and I remember reading about this many years ago.
The practice of slavery long has been a cultural norm in many Malian communities. As in neighboring Mauritania, slaves and slave owners are often described in terms of “black” and “white,” since slave descendants tend to have black African roots and their masters are typically of lighter-skinned Berber ancestry. But in fact, members of both groups have varying skin tones, and ethnicities are sometimes mixed due to masters raping female slaves.
According to Temedt, a Mali-based advocacy program, about 200,000 people are currently enslaved in the country and about 600,000 more are slave descendants under some form of control even though they live separately from their masters. Temedt works with Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights organization, to help free victims of slavery and then assist them in the transition to independence.
“The slave population is already defenceless; it will become even more so as the conflict intensifies. We are like the straw that will be trampled underfoot when elephants fight,” said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, an activist who received the Anti-Slavery International award in London last Wednesday.
Slavery was formally abolished in Mali in the 1960s, after the country gained independence from France. However, although slavery is not allowed under the constitution, there is no anti-slavery law and descent-based slavery through the maternal bloodline still exists in northern regions.
People descended from slaves remain the “property” of their “masters”, either living with them and serving them directly, or living separately but remaining under their control.
While slavery was abolished in the 1960s, the practice continues particularly in Mauritania where it is officially illegal.
Whilst there has been no definitive research on the extent of slavery in the country, SOS Esclaves estimate that approximately 18 per cent of Mauritania’s population (over half a million people) live in slavery today.
Slavery has existed in Mauritania for hundreds of years and is deeply rooted within society across the country. The Haratine are the group most affected by slavery practices and are traditionally owned by Bidane, or white moors, the minority ruling elite of Arab-Berber descent in Mauritania. Historically the white moors raided and enslaved people from the indigenous black population and today, all cases of slavery in Mauritania involve people whose ancestors were enslaved before them.
Slavery status is an inherited status. This age-old distinction underpins the very nature of slavery in Mauritania whereby individuals are assigned to a ‘slave caste’ which is ascribed at birth. Those in slavery are devoid of all their fundamental human rights, are owned and controlled by their masters, and are treated like their property. They are forced to work for their masters throughout their lives and are never paid for their work. They do what their masters tell them to do or they are threatened and abused.
A new law criminalising slavery was passed by the Mauritanian Parliament in 2007 but it is not clear how many people have been prosecuted for keeping slaves if, indeed, anyone has been prosecuted at all. It seems that slavery is still taking place in Mauritania in spite of the law.
In 2011,Biram Dah Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist, was arrested on trumped up charges. The Guardian reports,
Abeid originally went to a police station with two girls, aged nine and 13, who had been forced to work as servants for the family of the local police commissioner, according to the press release published by the NGOs. An argument took place, which allegedly ended with Abeid being injured. The “mistress” of the girls was charged but released on bail.
A 2007 law made slavery illegal in Mauritania. “But in fact no one has ever been sentenced. Charges are dropped because the courts are under constant pressure from traditional, religious and tribal forces, all of which tolerate this practice,” said Fatima Mbaye, head of the Mauritanian Human Rights League.
Abeid was eventually released on bail last September. The charges, as far as I know, have not been dropped. However he was granted freedom of movement and visited Europe to raise awareness of the issue of the continued practice of slavery in Mauritania.
According to this blog, Abeid narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott on 5 January. Other anti-slavery activists have also been harassed.
While Cameron, Hollande and other Western leaders talk about “Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” and “Jihadists”, they deliberately elide the region’s other problems. The situation is not as clear cut as “good guys versus evil terrorists”. Yet our media continues to ply us with this grog.
Slavery is still alive in the Sahel and thousands of French troops in the region will do nothing to end it.