On 5 March 2005, there was to be a ceremony held in the border region of Inatès in the West African nation of Niger. It would be something of a celebration for many of the region's people. It would be attended by government and local officials and human rights workers. It would celebrate freedom. Were these political prisoners? Prisoners of war? Hostages of some rebel force?

They were 7,000 slaves. About 95% of the population of Inatès. They didn't show up.

This despite slavery having been officially criminalized in 2004 (it carries a five to 30 year prison sentence). Why didn't they show up? Perhaps it was related to the arrests two members of the Niger's prominent antislavery group Timidria less than a month later (four others were detained—including the local mayor—and released shortly after). They were accused of "propagating false information on slavery and attempting to raise funds illegally."

See—according to the government, slavery doesn't exist in Niger.

Asbit's experience is typical of many former slaves in Niger. She was a slave for 50 years. She was born a slave, her mother, husband, and children were all slaves.1

Niger is a landlocked country in West Africa just slightly smaller than twice the size of Texas. It has a population of almost twelve million people, over 80% of whom live in rural, undeveloped areas. It is in these large areas of territory where slavery can still flourish. It is one of the poorest nations in the entire world with only 70,000 of its citizens receiving a regular wage/salary (2002 estimate). About 90% of the population is tied to agricultural work of one kind or another (this would include most of the slaves) and a 1993 estimate found over 60% of Nigeriens below the poverty line.

Asbit is now 50 years old. She is mother to four children—three boys and one girl, with one son and her daughter the result of rape by her master, despite the fact that she was married to a slave of the same master. Asbit decided to leave following a difficult night during which her master forced her to serve as a tent post, supporting the tent her master and his family were sleeping, in the violent winds and the driving rain....2

Slavery is deeply rooted in the history of Niger (as it is, in various forms, in the history of most countries). While under colonial rule by France, it was abolished in 1905 (largely due to advocacy back at home). Working with traditional leaders, the markets were shut down and much of the overt trappings of slavery and the slave trade (how successful it was, especially in remote and rural areas, is questionable).

Then came World War I and with it the need to draw resources from France's colonies. Then, as now, Niger is primarily agricultural and France put a premium on its sheep and camels, and cows for the war effort. Those same traditional leaders who had helped shut down the slave markets said that the demands required more manpower which led to an unofficial policy of looking the other way. This continued until World War II and, despite a decree in 1945 that abolished forced labor in France's colonial possessions, through disinterest and neglect lasted through Niger's independence in 1960.

Exempt from any legislation were those traditional leaders and their descendants whose power and wealth were built on the backs of their countrymen (women...children). They continued to rule after independence, making up about 60% of the government. A coup in 1974 did nothing to change the status quo (the leader of that coup happened to be a member of that same traditional leadership class). The concern was for personal and political power.

The successor to the colonel who overthrew the government came to power peacefully in 1988. Political life opened up a bit and a certain amount of freedom was allowed. This stirred some of the population and in 1990, France's then-president François Mitterand tied aid to democratization. This further emboldened students, labor unions, and other parts of the community. It was around this time (1991) that Timidria was formed.

While there were elections in 1993, there was another coup in 1996. The government under the coup co-opted and corrupted the growing trade unions (which were a bastion against slavery in many areas), throwing money, gifts, and token power into the mix. It was divide and conquer leading to the unions competing against each other and against their own interests. It allowed in International Monetary Fund and World Bank "reforms" that led to privatization of almost every industry and utility (even water and milk). The combination drove down wages and increased poverty. When democracy returned in 1999 most major industries were controlled by French corporations.

Despite the new constitution expressing equal rights, human and civil rights, and labor rights, there was no specific language concerning slavery. There are also some vague and nonspecific areas concerning bondage as well as discrimination based on being a slave or the descendant of a slave.

Following hard work, advocacy, and pressure by Timidria and Anti-Slavery International (and others), there was specific legislation making slavery criminally punishable for up to 30 years passed in 2004. Unfortunately, in a nation where most of the victims are illiterate (the literacy rate for the total population is less than 20%) and in no position to learn these facts, slavery continues.

Unless you ask the government.

The master indoctrinates his slaves and keeps them in complete ignorance and far away from the town centres.

This indoctrination consists of separating the child from his parents from a very young age, in order to traumatise the child, so that he sees himself as an inferior person, born only to serve others and to accept the humiliation that will be inflicted on him throughout his life. A slave does not have a family. Left in obscurity, he is often told that God has willed this to happen, in order to accept the fatalistic acceptance of being a slave.2

Slavery in Niger
Children are often taken from their parents at an early age (parents who are often slaves, themselves) in order to break the bond of the family and to begin conditioning the child to the acceptance of a life of servitude. Many families grow up in what is something like a slave caste where they have been slaves for generations. This also creates a stigma even for those who are released or escape. These descendants, still viewed by others as slaves, are discriminated against and excluded from the greater community culturally and politically (most don't even consider them citizens). This also sustains the cycle where by those discriminated against come to identify themselves as 'slaves' and cannot integrate even when given the opportunity and support.

Most of the slaves work as livestock tenders, cooks, cleaners, and general physical labor that the masters wish not to dirty their hands with. Disobedience or deviation from orders are dealt with harshly, usually by beating or flogging. Women are also subject to rape (arbitrary, as forced concubines, or as punishment) and sexual humiliation. They are also traded or given as gifts to other masters or their relatives or friends. Forced marriage is common regardless of the age of the female and even if a mother is allowed to raise her children, she must maintain the same level of work as when she was childless. This leads either to punishment or neglect. Men who disobey or threaten to escape/rebel are beaten or flogged. Some face castration if the master thinks the transgression justifies it.

While some of the trappings that are conjured up by the word "slavery"—like chains and stocks or slave markets—are not present, the people truly are slaves. They are property and have none of their own. They have no "family" in any accepted sense but are chattel thrown together to be used as the master sees fit. And in a country where it is difficult enough to survive on subsistence farming or nomadic herding, being without money, education, or contact with a world outside the slave world they inhabit makes things much worse. These victims grow up with a learned desperate dependence upon the master for whatever meager food and protection they might scrape from beneath his table.

Slavery is the only world and identity they know and other options are not always apparent to many who have come to accept this reality. Others are simply too afraid to leave or believe it when they are told that it will get them their place in heaven or that escape is an affront to Allah (over 80% of the population is Muslim). These things also make some who escape return to the life of bondage. Some return because they simply have no experience or means to look after themselves. And, kept in such communal isolation, many do not even know that what they are being subjected to is a crime punishable by Nigerien law.

There are three forms of slavery that are practiced in Niger. The classical one, in which humans are essentially used as beasts of burden. A somewhat milder form involves allowing the slaves to work land owned by the master, thus allowing a certain amount of self-support. But the land and the fruit of the labor (as well as the people) are still the property of the master and when the harvest comes, he may take as much or as little as he chooses. There can be no protest. If they are left with nothing, nothing is what they have. Not as much day to day abuse and humiliation but still undeniably slave labor. The third involves young girls sold into concubinage. Rich or powerful men, slavemasters, or Quaranic teachers. The children do household chores and serve their master. This can also involve sexual relations.

All the types are shameful and reprehensible. And, remember, do not exist in Niger.

Timidria's objective is to work towards eradicating all forms of discrimination, particularly slavery.3

Created in 1991 during a period when society was beginning to open up, Timidria has grown to be the largest human rights group in Niger with thousands of members and several hundred local offices. The group, whose name means "solidarity," was started by students, intellectuals, and former victims as an organization dedicated to ending the "most violent, the most inhumane, and most degrading type of alienation of the freedom of a human being."2

Though a thoroughly indigenous organization, Timidria has formed partnerships with Anti-Slavery International, Oxfam Netherlands, and Oxfam Great Britain. It raises awareness both domestically (where even discussing the issue is something of a taboo) and abroad, bringing pressure on the government to act according to the precepts of Niger's 1999 constitution and the 2004 law (which was partly, if not mostly, the result of Timidria's vigorous advocacy).

On the local level, members work to tell victims of their rights, help negotiate release, and help the former slaves with legal issues and reintegration. Slaves have no property—they are property—and without outside support, often have extreme difficulty trying to survive on their own. Liberated slaves are given food for a year, given literacy classes (these new students have been known to walk many kilometers to attend), and shelter until they are ready to move out on their own. They are given loans (often as a group rather than individually) with which to start up small businesses or to buy livestock to support themselves. When the loans are repaid (with some interest), the money cycles back into the program as loans for the next set of ex-slaves eager to start a new life. Sometimes farming equipment is provided, as well. Over the years, the organization has educated thousands of former slaves and established dozens of schools. It also helps enroll the children of slaves in schools

Timidria is not a simple, unsophisticated organization. It uses poetry and drama at large meetings to highlight issues and ideas for Nigeriens. It also lobbies the government to use the media as a means to increase awareness and discussion. Timidria also has a contingent of lawyers who look out for the rights of the victims and pass on complaints about abuse and the existence of slavemasters—local officials tend not to take action without formal complaints.

That said, just how bad is slavery in Niger? In partnership with Anti-Slavery International, Timidria did a survey in 2002 of over 11,000 Nigeriens (most were slaves), finding there to be a minimum of 43,000 slaves. The actual numbers could reach several hundred thousand. And that doesn't count the numbers of former slaves rejected and discriminated against by a society that chooses to look away and ignore the problem.

Another example is Boulboulou. This young girl, torn from her parents at the age of four in 1984, was sold for a few kilos of semolina, tea, and sugar.

.... Just as when she was a baby, her young daughter, at barely three years old, was taken and given as a wedding gift to her master's daughter.2

"Fraud" and denial
Back to the story that began this piece. The ceremony was to be quite an occasion. Attendees would include the president of Niger's Commission for Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties as well as Ilguilas Weila, president and one of the founders of Timidria, representatives from throughout the region, other human rights organizations, and even some government ministers. As noted, the slaves didn't show up. Why? When the groups returned to Niamey (capital of Niger), they reported cases of "government intimidation" of region officials and masters that resulted in them keeping the slaves from attending. There were also reports of senior officials in the government (unnamed) that had threatened masters with punishment if they released the slaves (or if they did, not to do so officially).

These alleged actions are not without precedent. In 2003, another ceremony was to be held in which dozens of slaves were to be released. Local police disrupted the ceremony and confiscated journalists' equipment. This is part of the problem. In order to present a better image to the world—especially with President Mamadou Tandja in the high profile position as head of the Economic Community of West African States—the Nigerien government (as well as local leaders, as was the case with the 2003 incident) denies slavery exists except as some dim part of the country's past.

In an interview for a 24 June 2005 article on the subject for IRIN news, the governor of the Tahoua region, Mahamadou Zeti Maïga (the same governor who sent police after journalists in 2003) categorically stated that "I deny that slavery exists in Niger," going on to add that "In the six years during which I have traveled across Tahoua, I have never seen a single case of people who feel oppressed or who have gone to the authorities to complain." See: it's because "This country respects the rule of law." It is interesting that the masters are being told that if they officially release their slaves (out in the open where it can be subject to outside scrutiny and publicity) they could be given up to 30 years in prison—a bitter irony given that is also the possible sentence for owning slaves...according to the rule of Nigerien law.

He also made allusion to the arrests by saying "Some smart Alecks hand in files so they can make money abroad." Just what about those charges. The charge concerning spreading false information about the practice was dropped shortly after the arrest but the other charge remains. In another matter of painful irony, it is the National Human Rights Commission of Niger that is accusing Weila and Alassane Biga, (Timidria's secretary general) of defrauding Anti-Slavery International of 3.5 million euros (about $4 million US dollars). The money was to be used for help reintegrating the victims. But since slavery does not exist in Niger, it must be fraud.

Anti-Slavery International must surely be glad to have the Nigerien government looking out for their interests. So glad that it immediately put out press releases stating emphatically that it had not been defrauded and calling for immediate release for the two men. A letter was also sent directly to the president of Niger. The allegedly duped human rights organization stated that "We condemn the Niger Government's treatment of Ilguilas Weila and Alassane Biga and demand their immediate and unconditional release."

In May, after being denied bail, Anti-Slavery International reiterated its objection, stating that "Anti-Slavery International demands the immediate and unconditional release of Ilguilas Weila and Alassane Biga; we are very concerned for their welfare and categorically refute the charges against them. The Government's actions appear to be a concerted campaign not only to discredit their reputation and the work of Timidria, but also to silence efforts to end slavery in the country." It would seem there is a disconnect between the charges and the reality of Timidria (which won Anti-Slavery International's Anti-Slavery Award in 2004 for its "pioneering work against slavery in Niger"). On 19 May, the day after that news release, between one and two thousand people marched in the streets of the capital to protest the arrests.

After being denied bail a second time, bail was finally granted on 17 June, the magistrates having determined that the two men "did not pose a threat to public order and would not tamper with any evidence." The fate of the two men is, as of early July 2005, still unclear. As is that of those still living in bondage.

A long way to go
In the wake of the opening up about slavery and the new law has come a backlash by those masters who have power or connections. There is also fear that some of the armed masters could band together and openly rebel. Though it exists primarily in rural Niger, even in the capital there are "servants" who have no rights and are unpaid for their labor. Perhaps not as harsh but, like torture, there is no "good" or "not so bad" slavery. It is wrong in all its forms regardless of the level of abuse. Unfortunately, a problem that is preferably ignored and denied by a government reluctant and unwilling to act is going to be extremely difficult to resolve.

Especially when members of the government are slaveholders themselves. A final quote from the IRIN article (aptly titled "The government says slavery no longer exists, the slaves disagree"). This time from an opposition party politician:

Last month in parliament, not one of the MPs took the floor for the debate on slavery. Yet there are nine white Arab slave-masters and a dozen white Tuareg slave-masters in the chamber.

Everyone knows they own slaves but no—one wants to talk about it.

They say that if we discuss this, it will smear the government.

And in politics image is everything. No slavery here.

afrol News:
"Niger govt to free 7,000 slaves" (4 March 2005) http://www.afrol.com/15830
"Confusion over Niger govt stand on slavery" (7 March 2005) http://www.afrol.com/15847

Al-Ahram Weekly: "Set my people free" http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/720/in7.htm

Anti-Slavery International:
1 http://www.antislavery.org/homepage/antislavery/award/nigerbackground2004.htm
2 http://www.antislavery.org/homepage/antislavery/award/weilaspeech2004.htm
3 "Slavery in Niger: Historical, legal and contemporary perspectives" http://www.antislavery.org/homepage/resources/PDF/PDFslavery.htm

BBC News:
"Drama as Niger slaves are freed" (19 December 2003) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/africa/3334099.stm
"Niger anti-slave activist charged" (5 May 2005) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/africa/4515857.stm

CIA - The World Factbook -- Niger http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ng.html

Guardian Unlimited "Cry freedom, quietly" (10 May 2005) http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,,1480553,00.html

In These Times "Arrest the Messenger: The government of Niger imprisons anti-slavery activist Ilguilas Weila" 15 June 2005

IRIN News:
"Leading anti-slavery activist imprisoned" (5 May 2005) http://www.irinnews.org/print.asp?ReportID=46967
"The government says slavery no longer exists, the slaves disagree" (24 June 2005) http://www.irinnews.orgprint.asp?ReportID=47813

Oxfam Netherlands "Freed slaves in Niger start new lives" http://www.novib.nl/?type=Article&id=4592