Anti-slavery activists allege that anywhere between 43,000 to 800,000 people live in bondage in Niger, mostly among the Tuareg and Arab communities who live on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert.
The government recently tightened up the law to outlaw and punish slavery, which was once an accepted tradition in local society. It insists that slaves no longer exist in this vast land-locked West African nation and is sensitive to suggestions that they still do.
On 28 April, for instance, the government detained two anti-slavery campaigners who had been preparing a ceremony to mark the liberation of 7,000 former slaves, on charges that they were trying to defraud a British non-governmental organisation of 3.5 million euros (US $4.3 million).
The leaders of the Niger anti-slavery organisation Timidria were quietly released on bail six weeks later.
People who describe themselves as former slaves are to be found everywhere in Niger.
And they talk openly about their friends and relations who are still condemned to unpaid servitude, beatings and sexual abuse.
In the hamlet of Kawassa, a cluster of straw huts in southwestern Niger, Tafoussoussat Machar gazed at the nearby sand dunes and recalled the first 30 years of her life that she spent as a slave.
“In the morning I’d pound the millet, go to the well, fetch the wood, cook the meal, return to the well, and in the evening I’d pound the millet again, and I was never paid,” she said.
“If I didn’t obey I was beaten,” Machar added, speaking in Tamasheq. “I never thought I’d be free one day.”
Born into bondage, like her parents, to a Tuareg family in the Tahoua region of southwest Niger, she was sold at the age of 20 to a second master for the price of 100,000 CFA francs (US $200).
Machar said this man, who already had four official wives, used her as a concubine.
Many men in staunchly Islamic Niger have up to four wives, as allowed by the Koran, but local custom also permits them to take a fifth woman as a concubine for their sexual pleasure.
Machar's ordeal came to an end four years ago . She was found by her uncle, Ilibad Bilal, who threatened her new master with legal action unless he agreed to the woman’s release.
He decided to let Machar go.
“A long time ago I too lived under white Tuareg masters, along with my parents, but finally I ran away,” said the uncle, his head wrapped in a white turban commonly worn by Tuaregs in the region. “It was after attending a meeting with the people at Timidria that I decided I must help my niece."
Slavery is an ancestral practice
Bilal however did more than just save his niece. He also rescued her first son, who was fathered by Machar's first master, after threatening him too with criminal proceedings.
Currently, Bilal is Timidria’s representative for Kawassa, a hamlet of 160 people near the town of Tahoua, 500 km northeast of the capital Niamey.
Asked whether or not slavery exists in Niger, Machar replied: “But of course! My mother is still there.”
|Two young girls, identified as slaves by Timidria|
Slavery is an age-old custom in Niger, practised by several of its ethnic groups. In centuries past, slaves were openly bought and sold, or kidnapped during armed clashes. They were considered to be part of the spoils of war.
The slaves' children also became the property of the master, who could either sell or give them away to others, Timidria says.
Before independence in 1960, the French colonial administration in Niger took action against the most flagrant forms of slavery. It closed slave markets and cracked down on human trafficking, but behind closed doors, the practice of bondage continued to be quietly tolerated.
During the early years of independence, slavery was outlawed by the constitution, but was not subject to any criminal penalty. And because many of Niger's new leaders were from slave-owning families, little was done to stamp it out.
Timidria was set up in 1991 by a group of young Nigeriens to combat slavery. The organisation claims to have 638 offices spread throughout the country.
According to a study carried out last year by Timidria, with the backing of British NGO Anti-Slavery International, at least 43,000 people still live in bondage in Niger.
Earlier field studies carried out by Timidria estimated that more than 800,000 people in Niger lived in conditions that were tantamount to slavery.
Timidria says most of the slave-owners are local chiefs from the north and west of the country. This is mostly peopled by Tuareg and Arab tribesmen, many of whom still lead a nomadic lifestyle.
About 20 percent of Niger’s 12 million people live in the dry and dusty Tahoua region, where Timidria claims that slavery is still widespread.
In a back yard crowded with goats and hens and donkeys in the town of Tahoua, Sidirali Alisbat, who heads the local chapter of Timidria, said: “Tahoua is the stronghold of slavery, the Tuaregs are the majority here.”
|Sidirali Alisbat is one of the people working to shine a spotlight on slavery|
“The 25 percent of white Tuaregs in the nomad camps are often the masters of the black Tuaregs,” he added.
“The slave-masters have found new ways of exploiting people,” said Alisbat. “They’re not in chains any longer and sometimes they have good clothes. But they still work for nothing and have no right to take their own decisions.”
The master decides whom a slave can marry and whether or not the children can go to school, he said. Some are beaten, raped or subjected to threats.
Authorities deny modern-day slavery
But the government has a different view.
“I deny that slavery exists in Niger,” Mahamadou Zeti Maïga, the governor of the Tahoua region, told IRIN.
“In the six years during which I have travelled across Tahoua, I have never seen a single case of people who feel oppressed or who have gone to the authorities to complain,” he said. “This country respects the rule of law.”
Slavery was finally criminalised in Niger by a law adopted in April 2004. This threatens slave owners who hold people in bondage against their will with jail sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
“Some smart Alecks hand in files so they can make money abroad,” the governor said, in an apparent reference to the two Timidria leaders who were jailed on 28 April for “attempted fraud”, but released pending trial on 17 June.
Ilguilas Weila and Alassane Biga, respectively president and secretary general of Timidria, have been accused by Niger’s National Human Rights Commission of extorting 3.5 million euros from Britain’s Anti-Slavery International group.
|Slaves in north west Niger travel by donkey to collect wood|
The money was aimed at easing the social reintegration of 7,000 people that Timidria had been planning to release from generations of slavery in a Tuareg camp in Inates, northwest of the capital, in the Tillabery region.
But the Human Rights Commission maintained there was no longer any slavery in Niger.
Shortly after the arrest of the Timidria leaders, Anti-Slavery International wrote a letter to President Mamadou Tandja, denying that it had been duped by the two men.
Reacting to the men’s’ release, it said in a statement: “We urge that all charges against them be dropped. Slavery is a significant problem in Niger and we call on the government to work in co-operation with Timidria to end this serious abuse.”
New anti-slavery law fails to break taboos
In the sumptuous entrance hall of one of Niamey’s big hotels, opposition parliamentarian Sanoussi Jackou said the government feared a backlash from the pro-slavery lobby if effective action was taken to stop ancestral bondage.
“Slavery exists in the homes of the Arabs and Tuaregs, even here in Niamey, where you can find young black people preparing tea, doing the housework or keeping shop for their masters without pay,” he said.
Jackou, the son of a Tuareg chief and a Hausa woman, is the founder of the opposition Niger Party for Self-Management.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he added.
“People are afraid of the Tuaregs because they have arms and staged a rebellion, so everyone wants to keep them happy,” he said.
The now-dissolved Air and Azaouak Liberation Front (FLAA) staged a four-year revolt from the northern reaches of Niger along the fringes of the Sahara until a 1995 peace deal.
There was a rise in banditry and attacks on road traffic in northern Niger last year after one of the rebellion's former leaders lost his post in government and was arrested on murder charges. He was subsequently released.
Far from the capital, Machar, the freed slave woman in Kawassa, is working hard to rebuild a normal life as a free individual.
“I’m married now and I’ve had a second child,” she said.
Her first-born, now aged 13, is also happy to be out of bondage.
“Back there I used to take the livestock to the well in the morning, and again in the afternoon, and then go out to bring them back,” he said. “Here too I look after the animals, but here, with my mother, I’m happy.”