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Traditional slavery in the Sahel

November 10, 2009
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The Sahel Blog has a post up about slavery in Mauritania, a major but neglected human rights issue in the West Africa and Sahel region, where millions of people are still subject to various forms of hereditary social discrimination, ranging from outsider status to outright slavery. While there is a black/white element to it in some areas, one shouldn’t confuse this with US traditions of skin-color based labor slavery among captured peoples. It’s more an outgrowth of traditional tribal culture, local adaptions of ancient Islamic rulings on slavery, and hereditary social stratification in nomad communities, and it has existed in various forms as a fact of life for hundreds of years. It’s quite repugnant nonetheless, of course, but understanding the context is important to realizing how deeply-rooted and hard to destroy these notions are.

Also, it’s not only among the Moors of Mauritania. The caste-like traditions that underpin these practices also apply to varying degrees to the closely related Sahrawi and other communities in Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria (including among the Tindouf refugees, as this report from Human Rights Watch makes clear) as well as among non-Moorish, non-Arab Touareg communities in the wider Sahara, and also among several African peoples in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, etc. This is not to mention how traditional practices sometimes mix with modern slavery practices, tied to labor exploitation, warlordism, and such phenomena.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2009 05:05

    I’m glad you weighed in, Alle, because you all know more about this than I do. Do you think the problem of slavery is more serious in Mauritania than in the other Sahelian countries and communities you mention, or do you think Mauritania is singled out inappropriately?

  2. November 11, 2009 07:53

    I don’t know a lot about this, and I’m not sure where it’s worst, but I suppose it could be Mauritania. In the end, though, I’m think local variations are probably more important than national borders. Every government formally bans slavery, but writing it in your constitution is not the same as having dissident tribes in some far-off corner of nowhere change their habits.

    For example, the Touareg have traditionally had some very unpleasant social caste rules and slavery in their own society, and I’m not aware that the states they live in have been very sucessful in eradicating it. Algeria and Libya are their strongest governments, and I know Algeria gave it a try immediately after independence, when Ben Bella & BoumĂ©diene sent the army to basically occupy the Tamanrasset slave markets, round up slaves and physically remove them from their owners (conveniently, this also gave an opportunity to clamp down on independent tribal elites and fortify the south). But I’m sure a lot of old attitudes must have remained whatever the state decreed. In Libya, I don’t know what’s been done, and in Mali, Niger, I imagine state control has been too weak to deal with it fully even if they really wanted.

    It’s not just what the governments do either, but a lot of other factors have great impact, eg. sedentarization/urbanization and migration (offers an escape route), war & civil war (loss of government control and/or increased dependence on slave-owning local elites), work opportunities (for ex-slaves otherwise still dependent on their “owners”), new modes of production (slaves may help with agricultural labor in a subsistence economy, but they’re no good to you if you work in a factory), and so on.

    • Alex Thurston permalink
      November 11, 2009 21:23

      That all makes sense, thanks for the response.

    • November 14, 2009 04:58

      The southern Mauritanian black population also has a form of slavery very similar to the Moors, related to those of the Senegalese ethnic groups over the border as well.

      As per Algeria, the post-slavery stigma still exists the farther south you get. One notices it starting around rural Biskra. People in the army (people from the South and people from the north who’ve been stationed in the South) say it still marks people socially and there is discrimination, but the actual practice is pretty much gone.

      You get a pretty good image of the Moorish practice in Paul Marty’s books (French, and there is an Arabic translation as well; early 20th century, I think, or a little earlier). He also wrote some stuff on Senegal, too.

  3. November 13, 2009 02:03

    I know only a little about Maure traditions (apart from the reading I did during the 1989 war/events), but everything I’ve read suggests that it is worse than in Mali, Niger, Burkina. That’s simply because we’re talking about slave holding cultures make up a much larger part of current society.

    I would suggest Martin Klein’s work on French colonial expansion and slaver from about ten years ago. The French, kinda despite themselves, precipitated major slave caste and bonded communities to rise up or relocate in massive numbers around 1903-5. Note they had little presence in much of Mauritania, and more importantly, were more hands off when they eventually did have sway. But colonialism put paid to Fulbe, Songhai, and Bambara traditions of bondage. Some of these — notably in parts of modern Mali, Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, and Guinea were occasionally of a quite industrial scale.

    Some Tuareg communities are big bleeding sores, and the bruising experience of Niger’s “Black Tuareg” run Timidria NGO is proof that there’s still a problem. The 2003 penal code changes in Niger backfired spectacularly for the government, drawing more attention to the problem than fixing it. The northern insurgency — largely amongst communities not as touched by human rights concerns — has pushed this debate back some time. Mali is is a similar position, but is dealing with smaller populations of bonded communities or Ikelan/Bella castes, and more former bonded communities who now identify as Songhai (hence a factor the violence of the 1980s by the Ganda Koi there).

    As an aside, Malam Shehu Sani, Kaduna’s professional gadfly/anti-Muslim (depending on your perspective) has drawn the attention of the BBC today with his demand that African rulers apologize for the Atlantic Slave Trade. He’s looking directly at contemporary Hausa-Fulani leaders and the history of the Sokoto Caliphate while saying this, I am certain.

  4. November 30, 2009 09:53

    The work-slavery is just the same. In Kidal, for example, all the work in the home is done by Dogon girls. Aside from the discrimatory biases (which are rather standard between ethnicities in Africa), they recieve pitiful salaries, standard of 12,500 CFA per month, but as low as 5,000 per month in brousse.

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