July 11, 2005

Cursed at birth, Niger’s slaves strive for equality

By Matthew Green

NIAMEY (Reuters) - He wore a flowing black turban that
revealed only his eyes, but Mariama Oumarou recognized him at
once -- it could only be her master.

Riding up to her mother's hut on a camel, he bound her hand
and foot, slung her over his saddle and carried her back to his
farm where he locked her in a hut and flayed her with a leather
cosh. The teenage girl's crime? Trying to escape.

Describing scenes that sound like horror stories from past
centuries, the testimonies of women once trapped in lives of
servitude suggest slavery is thriving in the West African
country of Niger despite the government's denials.

"My master kept me as a slave," said Oumarou, 20, wiping
away tears as she described what happened before she eventually
ran away for good several years ago. "I'm lucky to have
escaped, I wish everyone in that situation could do the same."

London-based human rights group Anti-Slavery International
says 43,000 people live as slaves in Niger, a vast country on
the southern fringe of the Sahara where nomads wander the
desert on camels and donkeys as they have done for generations.

Sensitive to accusations their nation indulges in a
practice popularly associated with slave markets and manacles,
the government says activists in Niger have tricked foreigners
into giving them funds to fight a largely non-existent problem.

What does seem clear is that a combination of age-old
prejudice, abuse and poverty in one of the world's poorest
nations reduce women like Oumarou to the status of objects to
be used by their "masters," whatever the law says about

"I was given to a man in Nigeria to be his wife," she
explained, continuing her story. "After 11 months I realized I
was not a wife, like his other four women, but that I had been
brought just to work. A few days later, I ran away."


The government dismisses stories from women like Oumarou as
make-believe scripted by the human rights group Timidria -- who
present her to journalists as an example of a former slave --
but the association's leaders make a coherent-sounding case.

A different phenomenon to the slave trade that flourished
from the mid-17th century to early 19th century when Europeans
exported millions across the Atlantic to tend plantations, they
say Niger's slavery is effectively a caste system.

Descendants of slaves seized as war booty by feuding
sultans, modern-day "slaves" in the former French colony suffer
a social stigma that campaigners say indoctrinates them with a
sense of inferiority.

Kept as unpaid servants by landowners or nomads who set
them to work tending goats, collecting water or looking after
children from dawn to midnight, these people have virtually no
choices, often denied rights to inherit property.

Many live as serfs, paying tithes of their harvests to
their masters who claim rights to their land like feudal

As Tamazret Gousmane -- another example presented by
Timidria -- explains, masters do not take kindly to runaways.

"When everyone was asleep I fled. My master chased after me
with his dogs," said Gousmane, 30. "Luckily, I escaped."

While some descendants of slaves build new lives in cities
like the capital Niamey, prejudice often persists -- barring
some from marrying non-slaves, or from certain jobs.


Heavily dependent on donors for support in return for
improvements in its democratic and economic record since it
held multi-party polls in 1999 after years of instability,
Niger's government could do without awkward questions about

President Tandja Mamadou is keen to show Niger's weight
with its current presidency of the Economic Community of West
African States, while the country is hosting the latest games
Francophone countries hold every four years in December.

Anxious to defend Niger's image, ministers say describing
its social system as "slavery" is a misnomer used for shock
value by Timidria's activists to win funds from abroad.

"There's no slavery in the form known in the West, that's
to say somebody treating someone else like his personal
property," Justice Minister Maty El Hadj Moussa told Reuters.

"What we do recognize is that there are certain ancestral
practices that have categorised parts of our society into a
class of people who are noble, and non-noble," he said.

The government passed laws in April 2004 that set sentences
of up to 30 years and heavy fines for people convicted of
keeping slaves, but very few cases have come before the courts.

The argument came to a head in March, when Timidria said it
had organized what was to be the public release of 7,000 slaves
by a tribal leader in the desert near the Mali border.

Instead, the organization says the government panicked at
the prospect of the bad publicity and warned anyone releasing
slaves they would be prosecuted under the new laws.

Timidria's President Weila Ilguilas was charged with
attempting to swindle funds from foreign benefactors --
Anti-Slavery International -- and was only released last month,
although the London-based group says he did nothing wrong.

Timidria says the government can only enforce its writ over
its enormous territory with the support of traditional chiefs,
themselves the very class of people likely to keep slaves.

"The government doesn't want to recognize the problem
because it's held hostage by the traditional chiefs," Ilguilas
said. "They need the support of the chiefs to be re-elected."

For people who consider themselves descendants of slaves
the term used to describe their state is to some extent
immaterial. Trapped by poverty and prejudice on the bottom
rung, they simply want the chance for betterment.

"Others think we're slaves, but we are not the slaves of
anyone," said Harouna Djibo, 60, who lives in a village outside
the capital. "We should have the same rights as everyone."