New slavery study welcomed by human rights experts

People are still enslaved in Niger, but an announcement that the government has agreed to sponsor an independent investigation into the issue has raised hopes for change among some human rights experts.

Lompo Garba, president of the National Commission for Human Rights and Civil Liberties, the group conducting the new study, said: "Slavery as it was in the past in Niger, for example people owned by other people, no longer exists. Today we see other forms of practical slavery, including child and forced labour... It will take time to eradicate that mentality. That is the purpose of our study."

Slave markets in Niger were closed during French colonisation, but in 2003 when a study was conducted by the British NGO Anti Slavery International, at least 43,000 Nigeriens were still kept as unpaid workers to do domestic tasks, and in some cases perform as concubines. Most live with nomadic Touareg and Arab groups in the north and west of Niger, according to ASI.

"Slavery has been an established practice for centuries in Niger," said Romana Cachiolli, Africa programme officer at ASI. "It won't be eradicated immediately, but a study conducted with support from the government may push us further along, even if it simply brings them to the table."

Niger's government has previously been criticised for its quixotic attitude towards slavery.

In 2003, Nigerien lawmakers reformed Niger's penal code to allow punishments of up to 30 years in prison for keeping slaves. But two years later, a ceremony meant to free 7,000 slaves in Inates, northwest Niger, turned into a farce after government officials apparently warned slave owners at the ceremony that they would be subject to the 30-year term if they released their slaves. No slaves were released.

Later that year, the head of the Timidria NGO, Ilguilas Weila, was briefly arrested and accused of spreading false information about slavery. He was not charged.

Weila remains critical of the government's commitment to ending slavery. "Timidria will not participate in the study," he said. "These actions are simply an empty gesture to satisfy the international community and the money could be better used to help efforts already underway like bringing cases to court and freeing and reintegrating slaves."

However Cachiolli said Anti-Slavery International would "certainly" participate, if asked. "A new comprehensive survey would help us better understand what exactly we're dealing with," she said. "The wider public should be informed that the fight against slavery is still on."

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