Slavery In West Africa: Mali’s Last Slaves Break Silence

Written by Soumaila Diarra

Her slim body wrapped in a dark staff, a young lady named Tamizwaqt Bouba looked deeply sad, while talking about her experience of slavery in West Africa, more specifically in Mali northern region of Ansogo.

“I never knew my parents; I grew up out of my family with some relatives of my master”, she told AFKInsider, discussing slavery in West Africa while standing in the corner of a conference room in Bamako, the Malian capital.

The young lady doesn’t talk enough, as if she fears people, those who were taking part to a forum on slavery in the Malian capital. She is a living testimony of slavery surviving, doesn’t know how old she is, but just remembers how tough her life of shepherdess was in the abandoned desert of her country.

“I spent most of my time far from the camp with cattle. One of my masters used to join me there; and I got my three children with him without being married”, she said, bearing a little girl on her back.

The forum- that took place between April 10 and 12-was organized by Temedt, an association of slave offspring in Mali. According to that association, the scope of slavery in West Africa goes as far as Mauritania and Niger Republic, and the victims are black communities living under the control of nomadic groups of ethnic Tuareg and Arab.

According to Oumar Sidy Traore, an antislavery activist at Temedt association, surviving slavery- which he describes as an awful phenomenon banned by the world, an insult to humanity and a tremendous violation of human rights- still exists in Mali.

“A country that is one the resistance spots of slavery in its classical forms, despite Mali ratified the universal declaration of human right,” he told AFKInsider.

No respect for the law against slavery in West Africa

Mali doesn’t respect this declaration which article 4 states that no one should be enslaved, or exploited; it also forbids any kind of slave trade, according to Temedt association. In fact, cruel cases of slavery in West Africa exist in north of Mali, but the practice is surviving in all the Malian communities dominated by traditional Muslim values.

Yet, Traore thinks slavery is a taboo in Mali, as the issue isn’t discussed publicly, resulting in the lack of a political will to promote human rights by criminalizing slavery. Hence, Temedt association initiated since its creation in 2006 forums to promote dialogue inside Kel Tamasheq-ethnic Tuareg – community which has an Islamic domination.

Activists would like the Malian government to pass a law criminalizing slavery in 2014, though analysts say just laws are not sufficient. In neighboring Niger Republic, a law criminalizing slavery exists since 2003, but the first trial occurred in 2010, according to Goge Maimouna Gogibo, the director of National agency against human trafficking and affiliated practices in Niger.

Though, Gogibo told AFKInsider that slavery survival in West Africa is partly linked to economical reasons in addition to religious misunderstanding.

“Passing a law isn’t sufficient; we have to look after the application of the law. Another important thing is to include in the law the creation of fund to compensate the victims of slavery. This will be helpful, as many slaves say they don’t have where to go out of their masters’ homes,” she said.

The slaves who are charged of the most difficult labors are poor and feel discriminated, as authorities sometimes refuse to assist them, according to Mohamed Bousoum, a Niger Republic activist.

“Slaves sometimes experienced prison instead of their oppressors. Kadiatou, a woman who has been slave in Niger, complained to judiciary services but she was jailed because of that.

Being part of Temedt’s struggle

Activists decided to bring her case to the Court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which finally condemned in 2010 Niger Republic, said Boussoum in a debate during the forum.

About Mali, Temedt said the cases of attempts to enhance slavery exist since light-skinned ethnic Tuareg’s rebellion started in the war-stressed regions of the northern part of the country. “I don’t have the words to say how I’m happy to be part of Temedt’s struggle. I have seen what means being a slave”, said old man Ousmane Lalla, a member of the black Tuaregs also called Bella in Mali.

When the Malian insurgency started, his former masters forced him to leave the head of the village of Dari, near Nianfunke, a northern city of Mali.

“Before the war, they wanted to register my community on their family document but refused. Even now I receive phone calls from them threatening to kill me if I return with my community to the site,” he said during the forum.

The village of Dari was founded in 1962 and Ousmane’s father was its chief, as he has been released from slavery by the authorities. Activists say the tiny black community wasn’t delivered from their masters of ethnic Tuaregs; and in 2008, they made a plot with local authorities to be in the local council.

Lalla announced his community is just claiming its rights, but the prefet- the state representative- who is also black defended the former masters. “He said he had never seen a black man becoming the chief of a white man,” he added.

“Our brothers who are still slaves don’t want to follow us because they know those of us who refused slavery continue to suffer from our former masters, even far from them.”