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Slavery: Landmark case gives hope to thousands held in slavery

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  • Zafar Khan
    Landmark case gives hope to thousands held in slavery A 24-year-old woman who spent her life as a slave has taken the Niger government to court, claiming it
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2008
      Landmark case gives hope to thousands held in slavery
      A 24-year-old woman who spent her life as a slave has taken the Niger government to court, claiming it failed her by ignoring its own laws. Peter Beaumont and Alexander Carnwath report

      Peter Beaumont and Alexander Carnwath The Observer, Sunday October 26 2008


      In one of the most extraordinary episodes in African legal history, a panel of judges from Senegal, Mali and Togo will tomorrow issue a verdict expected to give fresh hope to more than 40,000 people being held as slaves in rural Niger and across the region.

      The landmark case of Hadijatou Mani, a courageous young woman of 24, will be heard in a packed court in Niger's capital, Niamey, which will decide whether Niger's government has failed to protect Ms Mani and tens of thousands like her who have been enslaved, despite the practice being outlawed five years ago.

      If she wins her case, which is being heard by the justice arm of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), she is likely to be awarded compensation of up to £40,000, in a humiliating reversal for the authorities she blames for her lost youth.

      Ms Mani was sold into slavery at the age of 12 and repeatedly raped by her master. Her appalling story is familiar in a country where the ownership of slaves, many from a hereditary slave caste, has been commonplace, particularly in remote rural areas.

      Speaking before the judgment, Ms Mani said: 'It was very difficult to challenge my former master and to speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave. But I knew that this was the only way to protect my child from suffering the same fate. Nobody deserves to be enslaved.

      'We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same as anyone else. I hope that all those who are in slavery today can find their freedom. No woman should suffer the way I did.'

      Helen Duffy, a lawyer who has represented Ms Mani, said: 'I'm really optimistic. It is such a clear case. She has suffered so much. It is just the clearest violation.'

      The life of a sadaka - sexual slave - has been described in detail by Ms Mani in the court, in front of some of the country's most senior political figures. Speaking nervously at first, she told the court how she had been born a slave, been sold and transferred as a child against her mother's wishes to a man named El Hadj Souleymane Naroua. She testified that she had been raped at 13 and constantly forced to have sex with her 63-year-old master, who owned seven other slaves.

      Beatings were frequent and she and other slaves were forced to work unpaid and gruelling hours for Naroua and his four legitimate wives. When she tried to escape, she was punished.

      In 2005, two years after Niger enacted a law forbidding slavery, she was presented with a 'liberation certificate'. This proved to be worthless, as she was immediately forced into a 'wahiya marriage', with the status of a concubine. When she fled and married another man, her master had her arrested and charged with bigamy. She was subsequently imprisoned for two months on remand. It is believed that if tomorrow's verdict goes in her favour, the bigamy charges will be dropped.

      'You could see her grow in stature through her testimony,' said Duffy. 'When she was done we left the courtroom and, for the first time, I saw her smile; an enormous, satisfied smile. She was justifiably very proud of herself.'

      The issue has become a deeply embarrassing one for the government of Niger. Despite introducing the anti-slavery legislation, it has failed to act on evidence of its continuing and widespread existence in rural areas.

      One Nigerien official told the UN committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 2007 that he could prove that 'slavery does not exist in Niger'.

      As well as being banned under Nigerien law, slavery is outlawed under many of the international agreements Niger has signed up to, including the UN Slavery Convention of 1926 and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights.

      But international conventions and national laws count for little compared to the centuries old 'customary law' that holds sway in rural villages and towns. According to Anti-Slavery International, Niger's courts have frequently proved reluctant to enforce law over custom. In one case in 2006, both the sentence and fine against one slave owner, Seidimou Hiya, were massively reduced.

      The case of a 15-year-old girl who sought help from Timidria, a Nigerien anti-slavery group, after fleeing her slave master, was thrown out after the local prosecutor ruled that she was a 'disobedient girl'.

      Ms Mani's case against the government rests on witness testimony, including that relating to her sale to Naroua. The government's witnesses, tribal chiefs, have claimed not to understand the terms of enslavement, then changed their evidence twice.

      'We are hoping for a strong message on this,' said Romana Cacchioli, Africa programme officer of Anti-Slavery International, which worked with Timidria to bring the case. 'It would send out a clear message that the longstanding prohibition of slavery must be enforced.

      'Although it's all well and good that states ratify human rights conventions, we need them to ensure effective implementation. We hope the court will recommend the state trains its judicial staff and raises the issue of slavery through a national publicity campaign. It is not the state of Niger which is perpetrating slavery, it is individuals, but the state has a responsibility.

      'Hadijatou is really impressive. She comes across as very unassuming. She knows she has been wronged. She was in court with her baby strapped on her back. She says she does not want the same thing that happened to her to happen to her daughter. Her vision is in terms of others.'

      Campaigners hope a favourable ruling may herald a major cultural shift on the issue of descent-based slavery throughout the Sahel region. The court's judgment will be binding in Niger and will be applicable in other countries in the Ecowas community where descent-based slavery exists, including Mali.

      Niger ex-slave wins landmark case
      Monday, 27 October 2008


      A West African court has found Niger's government guilty of failing to protect a woman from slavery in a landmark case for the region.

      The court found in favour of Hadijatou Mani, who says she was sold aged 12 and made to work for 10 years.

      A judge ordered the government - which says it has done all it can to eradicate slavery - to pay Ms Mani 10m CFA francs (£12,430; $19,750).

      Despite being outlawed, slavery also persists in other West African states.

      "I am very thankful for this decision. It was very difficult to challenge my former master and to speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave," Ms Mani said.

      "With the compensation I will be able to build a house, raise animals and farm land to support my family. I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed."

      Mossi Boubacar, a lawyer for Niger's government, told Reuters news agency that the government would respect the court's decision.

      BBC West Africa correspondent Will Ross says the ruling is embarrassing for the government of Niger and sends a strong message that it needs to do more to implement the law and end slavery.

      It could also have huge consequences for thousands of other people who have been kept in conditions of slavery across the region, he says.


      Ms Mani, now 24, says she was sold to a man called Souleymane Naroua when she was 12. The price was the equivalent of about $500 (£315).

      She says she was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work for the next 10 years.

      Ms Mani says she was raped at the age of 13 and forced to bear the man's children.

      "I was beaten so many times I would run to my family," she told the BBC's World Today programme. "Then after a day or two I would be brought back.

      "At the time I didn't know what to do but since I learned that slavery has been abolished I told myself that I will no longer be a slave."

      In 2005, her master freed her and gave her a "liberation certificate", reports Anti-Slavery International, which helped her bring the case.

      But when she left him and tried to marry another man, her "master" said they were married.

      A local court found in favour of Ms Mani and she went ahead with her new wedding.

      But this was then overturned on appeal and she was sentenced to six months in prison for bigamy.

      She took her case to the Court of Justice of the West African regional body Ecowas earlier this year.

      Ms Mani accused the government of Niger of failing to protect her from slavery, which was criminalised five years ago.

      A local organisation fighting to end the practice says there are more than 40,000 slaves in Niger.

      But the government has said such figures are exaggerated.


      Anti-Slavery's Romana Cacchioli told the BBC that her group had managed to free about 80 women from slavery in Niger over the past five years.

      The Ecowas court ruling will be binding on all member states and so will have consequences for people being kept as slaves beyond Niger, the BBC's Idy Baraou reports from Niger.

      For generations, the children of a slave have automatically become the property of the slave master.

      Ms Mani says one of the reasons she has taken this court action is to secure her two children's freedom and ensure they do not have to endure the same fate.

      Slavery is also still practised in Mali and Mauritania.

      Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, told the BBC the case would be crucial in highlighting the plight of slaves in Africa.

      "This is very important in terms of the community of nations, and particularly the African community of nations looking at other countries within that region and saying: 'What standard are we expecting each other to be held to in relation to international and national law?'"

      Niger slavery: Background
      Anti-Slavery International guardian.co.uk, Monday October 27 2008 14.50 GMT


      What follows is a background document on slavery in Niger compiled by Anti-Slavery International. It assisted Hadijatou Mani in bringing her landmark court case against the government of the country.

      Slavery was abolished in Niger in 1960 (upon independence from France), prohibited in 1999 and criminalised in 2003.

      How many slaves are there in Niger?
      The minimum estimate is that 43,000 people are in slavery across Niger.

      It is based on research by Timidria, a local human rights organisation, and Anti-Slavery International. The research involved more than 11,000 face-to-face interviews in six regions of the country, constituting the most comprehensive survey of slavery in Niger to date.

      Who practises slavery?
      Slavery remains deeply embedded in Niger society. It exists across the country, in rural and urban areas, and is practised predominantly by the Tuareg, Maure (Berber Arab) and Peule (also known as Pulaar, or Fulani) ethnic groups.

      Some Hausa follow the "fifth wife" practice - a form of slavery (see below). The Hausa (both in Niger and Nigeria) are sold their "fifth wife" by Tuareg masters.

      How do people become slaves in Niger?
      Virtually all cases of slavery documented in Niger concern individuals whose ancestors were enslaved many generations ago. Slavery status is ascribed at birth and passed on through the generations.

      The Tuareg follow a complicated caste system that incorporates slaves at the bottom of society.

      Tuareg culture does not allow people to marry outside their caste. It is significant that, in Niger, slaves identify themselves as Tuareg even if their ancestry technically belongs to African people enslaved by Tuareg raiders.

      Nobles and warriors are at the top of Tuareg culture, and Islamic clerics, or marabouts, come next. Below them are free men, followed by casted groups such as blacksmiths and other occupations.

      Below all these are freed slaves; the lowest rung is reserved for slaves. All these free and casted groups can have slaves - even slaves themselves, if they have the financial means.

      A slave can be freed in Tuareg culture by his or her master, if they wish to appease Allah to make amends for an indiscretion, or simply out of kindness.

      Historically, slaves could be freed if they acted with distinction and valour in battle. Despite this, freed slaves remain near the bottom of the Tuareg caste system, above only slaves.

      What does it mean to be a slave?
      Slaves have no rights and no opportunities in life.

      In Niger, people are born into slavery and forced to work without pay for their so-called masters throughout their lives, primarily herding cattle or working on farmland, or as domestic servants.

      Slaves are denied fundamental rights, and their masters exercise powers of ownership over them. Slaves are inherited, and given as gifts. Children may be taken away from their mothers at an early age.

      Girls are forced to start work as domestic servants at a very young age, and are at the continual beck and call of their masters. They may be sexually abused by men in the household or forced to marry at a young age.

      Women have spoken of living in constant fear of abuse, and rape is common.

      Masters also consider that they have the right to demand the marriage dowry of their former slaves (which may consist of a bed, a tent or kitchen utensils). When a former slave dies, the master can demand the inheritance, even if the former slave has children.

      Even when former slaves have been free for many years, the master will assume the right to approve their marriage or inherit their property.

      Many slaves are not on the electoral roll, and so are not entitled to vote. This political exclusion enables those in power to maintain the status quo.

      Slavery and the misuse of Islam
      Slaves are told that, under Islam, their paradise is bound to their master, and that if they do what the master tells them, they will go to heaven.

      This is a powerful mechanism of control, teaching those who are enslaved to follow orders and accept their fate or they will be forsaken by God and live outside Islam.

      Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that it is Allah's wish for them to be slaves when in reality Islam dictates that a Muslim may not enslave a fellow Muslim.

      'Fifth wives'
      Islam allows a man to take a maximum of four wives. However, in Niger, the practice exists of taking a fifth wife. These women are known as wahiya among the Tuareg and sadaka among the Hausa.

      Sometimes men take several fifth wives. The fifth wife does not receive any of the status benefits of being a wife, as there is no actual marriage. She is, in effect, a slave to her "husband".

      In 2006, Timidria helped release 34 women known to have been sold as fifth wives in the Canton of Douguerawa. A further 12 were released in 2007.

      Anti-Slavery International was able to interview 10 of the women, who complained they had been subjugated to forced and unpaid labour, rape and daily insults.

      Slavery alive and well in West Africa
      by Sebastiaan Gottlieb*


      A woman who spent nearly half her life as a slave has won her legal battle with the authorities in Niger. The West-African nation must pay her more than 15,000 euros in damages and has also been ordered to ensure that its citizens are better protected against slavery.

      The verdict was handed dowen by the ECOWAS criminal court in Niger and is being seen as a major breakthrough in the fight against slavery. Official estimates put the number of people abused as slaves at 40,000 in Niger alone.

      The case against Niger was brought by Hadijatou Mani, a young woman who was sold into slavery as a 12-year-old girl. Her owner paid as little as 300 euros for her. Mani worked in her master's home and on his land for 10 years without receiving payment. She also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her owner and bore him three children.

      Domestic and agricultural slaves
      Because slavery has been a punishable offence in Niger since 1999, Mani's owner was keen to marry her but she refused. According to Lotte Pelckmans, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who is conducting a study into slavery in Africa, this type of servitude can take many forms:
      "Slavery is a very broad concept, encompassing a lot of things. There are house slaves or tent slaves as they are called by nomadic peoples such as the Tuareg or Tamasheq. These are slaves that live with noble families and have to do absolutely all the domestic work. Their burden is much greater than that of slaves who work the land."

      To marry or not?
      In 2005, Mani was officially granted her freedom by her owner, but under Niger's traditional law, she still had to stay with him as his more-or-less legal spouse. However, Mani successfully took her master to court and the judge ruled that there could be no question of a marriage without the consent of one of the partners.

      Mani's former master appealed against the decision when his former slave decided to marry another man of her own free will. He accused her of bigamy and won his appeal at a higher court. She was sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 120 dollars.

      Four attempts at abolition
      Mani then took her case to the ECOWAS criminal court, which oversees compliance with the African Charter for Human Rights. She pressed charges against the State of Niger for its half-hearted implementation of its own anti-slavery legislation. As Lotte Pelckmans explains, the legal abolition of slavery in Africa has always been fraught with difficulty:

      "One example is Mauritania where legislators abolished slavery four times. Needless to say, there's something strange going on if you have to enshrine something in law four times and each time it doesn't work. The difference now is that this woman is the first to take her case all the way to ECOWAS."

      Ms Pelckmans is convinced that this legal ruling is of great importance. People have to become aware of their right to live their own life without depending on others. But she goes on to point out that this is no easy task:

      "You still have mental slavery to contend with. These people still believe that they are worth less than others and that they cannot simply stand up for their rights. That they are not allowed to be critical, that they are not allowed to make demands, that they belong to a lower class of human. Übermensch and Untermensch: that's a psychological process that cannot simply be changed by a news story on the radio."

      Official recognition
      Even if people are able to free themselves psychologically from their position of dependence, it remains difficult for them to build a life for themselves. But Hadijatou Mani is very happy with her newly won freedom and the official recognition that the ruling brings. She wants to use the money she has received in damages to buy a house and some land to support her family.

      Perhaps more importantly, the ECOWAS verdict is binding on all 16 member states of this West African alliance. For in Niger's neighbours, too, there is still a great deal of progress to be made in implementing anti-slavery legislation and hence the battle to stamp the practice out once and for all.

      * RNW translation (dd)
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