There are some stories that give one hope that all is not lost in our all too gloomy world. One such story is that of the 24-year-old woman from Niger, Hadjiatou Mani, who has defeated the government of Niger in a slavery case brought before the ECOWAS Court of Justice.
Hadjiatou Mani took the government of Niger to the ECOWAS Court of Justice for “failing to protect her against slavery”. And wonder of wonders, the court found in her favour and awarded her about $40,000 damages. ECOWAS (or the Economic Community of West African States) is a grouping of 16 West African countries that came together in 1975 to promote economic, political and cultural co-operation. It has so far been known more for its involvement in peacekeeping in West Africa, through its military arm, ECOMOG, than its forays into matters of justice or social development.
The landmark ruling that found the Niger government guilty of failing “to protect” one of its citizens from slavery will have far-reaching consequences in other West African countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Guinea. Chad and Sudan are also accused of practising slavery. Slavery, as practised in these countries, is done in a largely secret manner, as part of the feudal heritage of many ethnic groups, and is strongly ring-fenced with religion, especially Islam. Formally, however, slavery is an abomination to Islam.
What happens is that in many West African societies, no one enquires too closely into the exact relationships between people, and slavery can very easily be camouflaged by being transmuted into all manner of otherwise lawful relationships, such as marriage, concubinage or adoption. For generations the children of a slave automatically became the property of their parents’ “master”. Hadjiatou Mani said that one of the reasons she turned to the international court was to secure the freedom of her two children and ensure that they did not have to suffer the same fate. “I hope that everybody in slavery today can find their freedom,” she added. She plans to use the compensation to build a house, raise animals and farm. “I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed as a slave,” she said.
Although the judgement could ease the suffering of tens of thousands of people in West Africa, it has no bearing on the fate of many more in Sudan, which is not a member of ECOWAS, and where Arabs in the north of the country have kept African southerners as slaves for centuries. Mauritania’s Moors have also kept Africans in servitude, sowing the seeds for sporadic and violent rebellions there. Despite international criticism, both countries are in denial over slavery and have consistently refused to take strong measures to eradicate it. Most governments in West Africa are also in denial and claim that they have abolished slavery. And, in fact, they have signed all the UN protocols against slavery. But when it comes to ensuring that there are practical measures in place to prevent slavery being practised in their territories, they fall flat on their faces.
Hadjiatou Mani’s case is very typical of what can happen to people, especially women, in such societies. Her mother had been a slave, and she herself was also sold, at the tender age of 12, and made to work for 10 years for her “master”, a man called Souleymane Naroua. He paid about US$500 for her. She says she was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work for the next 10 years. She was raped at the age of 13 and forced to bear two children for the man.
Hadjiatou said she “was beaten so many times” in the man’s home that she often ran away to her family. But “after a day or two”, she would be brought back. This would be done, no doubt, at the behest of her own family, for it was they who had taken the man’s money and they would consider it a matter of “honour” not to renege on the “contract” which the money was supposed to seal.
The sad bit about these situations is that they involve a lot of ambiguities. First of all, young girls of 12 or an even younger age are permitted to get married in such societies. And in order for a man to be allowed to marry them, the man usually pays a dowry. The trouble arises when one tries to establish the difference between a dowry paid for the hand of a woman in a legitimate marriage, and a sale price paid for a slave.
It is the attitude of the families involved that determines whether the payment is either a dowry or a sale price. If it is a dowry, then the relationship is one between man and wife, which means the woman can legally leave the man, by suing for a divorce. But there is trouble here too: in some societies, the family of a woman who divorces her husband is obliged to return the dowry which was paid for her at the time of the marriage. If the family is poor – which is usually the case – its members won’t be able easily to repay the dowry, and so there can be no divorce.
Hadjiatou obviously thought of her relationship with Souleymane as one between slave and master, for it was after she had heard that the Niger government had abolished slavery in 2003 that she began to try and free herself from him. She said: “At the time, I didn’t know what to do but when I learned that slavery had been abolished, I told myself that I would no longer be a slave.”
Because of the new law, and her clamour to leave him, Souleymane actually freed her in 2005, and gave her a “liberation certificate”. But when she left him and tried to marry another man, he muddied the waters by insisting that they were still “married”. A local court found in Hadjiatou’s favour, and she went ahead with her new marriage. But this court decision was overturned on appeal and the appeal court sentenced her to six months in prison for “bigamy”!
Luckily for her, human rights lawyers in Niger became alerted to her case, and they took it up and cleverly decided that she would only find justice at the ECOWAS Court of Justice. Their argument was that despite its own laws, which criminalised slavery five years ago, the government of Niger had failed to protect Hadjiatou from slavery by allowing her to be imprisoned on the word of her slave master.
After the court, which sat in Nigeria, had pronounced sentence against the Niger government, Hadjiatou said: “I am very happy with this decision. Nobody deserves to be enslaved. We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same.”
The case will attract a great deal of attention not only in Niger but also the other West African countries, where a similar obfuscation of relationships exists between usually rich or powerful men and women from a poorer background. The government of Niger, for instance, claims it has done “all it can” to eradicate slavery. But there are reported to be more than 40,000 people still enslaved in Niger.
If the Niger government is serious in its desire to uproot slavery, it has to take urgent steps to reform the court system that exists in the country, especially in the rural areas. In such places, local religious heads often act as judicial officers, and the abolition of slavery will be just a theoretical concept written on paper but not put into practice unless their power over individuals is strictly supervised by people trained in modern laws of human rights. For in the rural areas, the men of influence often bind together into a powerful caste system into which the poor, and especially poor women, are not allowed.
Yet unless a woman has access to an influential person, especially one who holds a judicial office, she cannot make him realise that the man who worships in the same mosque as himself has a way of life that does not accord totally with the tenets of universal justice, as preached by their common religion.
Only concerned educated people in such societies, especially the lawyers, can transcend their own class concerns and prise open any “cultural practices” within their societies that are shrouded with ambiguity and could amount to a breach of the human rights of their fellow citizens, especially women and children. Meanwhile, the ECOWAS Court of Justice deserves praise for striking such an important blow on behalf of the “wretched of the earth” in Niger. Every West African government owes it as a duty to its people to put measures in place that leave no room for doubt that it truly abhors slavery and all it entails.
In the past, it was Europeans who flocked to our shores to cart away human beings to sell into slavery in other countries. The very mention of that horrendous slave trade sends shivers down our spines. How then can we allow any semblance of the system to exist within our borders? Any people who engage in it in the 21st century must be named and shamed and ordered to put a stop to it immediately. Those that refuse must be taken to the UN and sanctions sought against them – in the same way that we sought sanctions against the apartheid practitioners who used to enslave our brothers and sisters in South Africa.