Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2004
Issue No. 720
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Set my people free

Seven per cent of Niger's population still live and die in slavery. Jeremy Landor in London reports on the activities of an NGO that is working for their emancipation

In the grandeur of London's Saint James Square, built when slavery was filling the pockets of the British aristocracy, powerful elites sip vintage wines in exclusive gentlemen's clubs. On a recent clear November evening, white men in suits are making decisions which will affect lives around the globe. On the north side of the square, at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, an African, wrapped in robes designed for protection against heat and desert sandstorms, stands to address an audience of supporters of the world's oldest non-governmental organisation: the Anti-Slavery Society.

Ilguilas Weila has been fighting slavery in Niger since 1991, when the fist of military dictatorship began to loosen, and trade unions and students were demanding democracy. Along with friends he founded an NGO called Timidria -- meaning "solidarity" in Touareg. Their aim was to free Niger's estimated 870,000 slaves, who represent some seven per cent of the country's 12 million population.

With 300,000 members in Niger, and 10 schools, Timidria is now a force to be reckoned with, having successfully campaigned for a law banning slavery. It will soon take the first of the slave owners to court. But in the world's second poorest state, a Muslim country bordering Algeria and Libya, where will the freed slaves go?

Niger's slaves are descendants of people taken in battle many generations ago, most of them from the area now occupied by modern-day Mali. Some nomads still use slaves to tend their huge herds of camels, sheep and cows. Other slave owners use slave labour on agricultural land in the west of the country.

In delivering his acceptance speech at the ceremony for this year's Anti-Slavery Award, Weila told his audience in St James Square that "slavery is the most violent form, the most inhuman and degrading alienation of the freedom of a human being." Most slaves are women, lacking the most basic rights. They are subjected to forced marriages and rape by slave owners. Children of slaves are taken from their parents, indoctrinated to a fatalistic acceptance of their condition, and often sold or given as wedding gifts. "They traumatise the young children of slaves so that they will consider themselves inferior beings who are born to serve others and accept all the humiliation inflicted on them. They are often told that God wanted them to be slaves so that they become fatalistic," Weila explains. Hard physical labour and abuse are all a slave can look forward to. No wonder some of them try to escape. Timidria helps them to do so, providing shelter and education within their limited resources.

Weila's explanation of slavery's persistence in Niger begins with French colonialism at the end of the 19th century. The French authorities, while exerting their control through traditional leaders, put a stop to slave markets early on, and in 1905 decreed total abolition -- primarily due to pressure from reformers in France. But this decision was never applied. And with the outbreak of World War I, France was in dire need of help from her African colonies.

"France needed men, and above all livestock," Weila explains. "There is plenty of livestock in Niger. The colonial powers called in the traditional leaders to discuss a compromise. The traditional leaders said 'We will provide you with sheep, camels and cows. But if slavery is abolished who will raise the sheep?' France replied, 'Alright, we will close our eyes.'"

This policy continued through World War II, and the lack of interest in changing Niger society persisted even beyond 1960 and the country's independence.

The policy of abolishing slavery was dead, shot through with hypocrisy as the colonial power practised its own form of forced labour. Young men were rounded up to work, without payment, on road building and other construction projects. "Nobody was free," Weila recalls. "It was slavery. They could order anyone to do forced labour. Of course, the children of the traditional leaders were exempt."

In 1945 a law was passed in the French parliament to end all forced labour in French colonies. But in Niger, when independence came, slavery was still in place. The traditional leaders and their sons, who had been educated in the schools built by the French to create a middle class which would help them rule, took over the government. Until the first military coup in 1974, 60 per cent of those in government were from this traditional elite who benefited from slave labour.

Lt Col Seyni Kountché who led the 1974 coup was himself the son of a traditional leader, and was motivated by personal ambition, rather than by political ideals. Thus the old system remained in place for a further 14 years under his dictatorship.

However, when General Ali Seybou, succeeded him peacefully in 1988, there was an opening up of political life. French President François Mitterrand made a speech in 1990 linking aid to democratisation. This in turn motivated a growing movement of public sector trade unions and students, who brought their own demands for democracy.

Elections were held in 1993, but in 1996 Colonel Ibrahim Baré Mainassara overthrew the democratic government of Mahamane Ousmane. In an effort to neutralise the trade unions by drawing them into politics, Mainassara offered union leaders money, jobs and privileges. "Then he split them, so that instead of one centre there are now four centres competing with each other," explains Weila.

This sabotage of the country's nascent trade union movement not only condemned the hopes for a general liberation of slaves, but also cleared the way for economic liberalisation backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Services were privatised and industries sold off. Weila explains, "the unions were unable to mobilise to prevent privatisation. It was done in a corrupt way. The country's milk production industry, for example, was sold off to the colonel's sister at a knock-down price. Wages have been pushed down over recent years too."

Despite the return of democracy since 1999, French companies now control much of the economy. Water distribution is run by the French multinational Vivendi, and the uranium mining industry -- Niger is the world's third largest producer of the radioactive element -- is also controlled by a French company.

How can slavery exist in a country where 98 per cent of the population is Muslim? "For Islam to get rid of slavery, all of us Muslims would have to read the Qur'an in the same way. Which is not the case," Weila sighs.

In a country where 82 per cent of the population is rural, and 84 per cent illiterate, the interpretation of the Qur'an falls mostly to the thousands of marabouts scattered throughout the country who weld together Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs in their teaching. "They are very conservative and they translate the Qur'an very badly. They understand nothing about Islam. The way they maintain the system is to keep people ignorant," says Weila. With most religious teachers supporting the dominance of the traditional leaders, Islamic associations which might provide an alternative interpretation are confined to the cities and have no influence over the rural majority.

Since the opening up of the political debate in Niger in 1990, there has been a sustained offensive against the Sufi movements associated with the traditional power structures. According to Adeline Masquelier at Tulane University, USA, "the aggressive anti-Sufi reformist movement that has swept Niger over the last 12 to 14 years has worked to democratise knowledge and erase hierarchies. Precisely because the proponents of these Muslim reforms are perceived as a threat to gerontocracy and the power of marabouts, they have been severely criticised and vilified by their foes."

Weila and those who support Timidria are challenging a power structure which combines obscurantist marabouts associated with Sufism and an ageing traditional leadership that dominates Niger's numerous ethnic groupings.

Timidria will soon take the first cases against slave owners through the courts. But success depends on an independent judiciary. According to Weila, that is not currently the case: "The person who pays gets the favourable judgement." His expectations of bringing slave owners to book are correspondingly pitched low.

Still, a successful outcome to the campaign could free thousands of people from a demeaning and humiliating life. Already, Timidria is expecting one nomadic leader to free 7,000 people. But there is nowhere for these people to go. Indeed, some may well choose to stay with their former owners as wage labour because there is no alternative. "At the moment there is almost no structure to support people who are freed -- no wells, schools, health care or food," says Weila. It is in this dark, but not hopeless context, that Timidria is appealing for international aid to help the organisation achieve its aims, and mark the end of slavery in Niger.

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