Slavery in contemporary Africa

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The continent of Africa is one of the regions most rife with contemporary slavery. [1] Slavery in Africa has a long history, within Africa since before historical records, but intensifying with the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade [2] [3] and again with the trans-Atlantic slave trade; [4] the demand for slaves created an entire series of kingdoms (such as the Ashanti Empire) which existed in a state of perpetual warfare in order to generate the prisoners of war necessary for the lucrative export of slaves. [5] These patterns have persisted into the colonial period during the late 19th and early 20th century. [6] Although the colonial authorities attempted to suppress slavery from about 1900, this had very limited success, and after decolonization, slavery continues in many parts of Africa despite being technically illegal. [7]


Slavery in the Sahel region (and to a lesser extent the Horn of Africa), exists along the racial and cultural boundary of Arabized Berbers in the north and darker Africans in the south. [8] Slavery in the Sahel states of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan in particular, continues a centuries-old pattern of hereditary servitude. [9] Other forms of traditional slavery exist in parts of Ghana, Benin, Togo and Nigeria. [10] There are other, non-traditional forms of slavery in Africa today, mostly involving human trafficking and the enslavement of child soldiers and child labourers, e.g. human trafficking in Angola, and human trafficking of children from Togo, Benin and Nigeria to Gabon and Cameroon. [11] [12]

Modern day slavery in Africa according to the Anti-Slavery Society includes exploitation of subjugate populations even when their condition is not technically called "slavery": [13] [14] [15]

Although this exploitation is often not called slavery, the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their "employers".

Antislavery Society, What is Modern Slavery

Forced labor in Sub-Saharan Africa [16] is estimated at 660,000. [17] This includes people involved in the illegal diamond mines of Sierra Leone and Liberia, which is also a direct result of the civil war in these regions. [18] In 2017, the International Labour Office estimated that 7∶1,000 people in Africa are victims of slavery. [19]

Types of contemporary slavery

Hereditary slavery and corporate child labour in Africa Child labor, Artisan Mining in Kailo Congo.jpg
Hereditary slavery and corporate child labour in Africa

Sex trade

While institutional slavery has been banned worldwide, there are numerous reports of female sex slaves in areas without an effective government control, such as Sudan and Liberia, [20] Sierra Leone, [21] northern Uganda, [22] Congo, [23] Niger [24] and Mauritania. [25] In Ghana, Togo, and Benin, a form of (forced) religious prostitution known as trokosi ("ritual servitude") forcibly keeps thousands of girls and women in traditional shrines as "wives of the gods", where priests perform the sexual function in place of the gods. [26]

Forced labour

Forced labor is defined as any work or services which people are forced to do against their will under the threat of some form of punishment. Forced labor was used to an overwhelming extent in King Leopold's Congo Free State and on Portuguese plantations of Cape Verde and São Tomé. Today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo the indigenous people are usually victims of their Bantu neighbors, who have replaced the positions once held by Arabs and Europeans. [18] [27]

"We must work for the Bantu masters. We cannot refuse to do so because we are likely to be beaten or be victims of insults and threats. Even though we agree to work all day in the fields, we are still asked to work even more, for example, to fetch firewood or go hunting. Most of the time, they pay us in kind, a worn loincloth for 10 workdays. We cannot refuse because we do not have a choice".

Antislavery Society, Interview with an indigenous man in the Congo

Child slave trade

The trading of children has been reported in modern Nigeria and Benin. [28] The children are kidnapped or purchased for $20 – $70 each by slavers in poorer states, such as Benin and Togo, and sold into slavery in sex dens or as unpaid domestic servants for $350 each in wealthier oil-rich states, such as Nigeria and Gabon. [29] [30] [31]

In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students from Chibok, Borno. [32] More than 50 of them soon escaped, but the remainder have not been released. Instead, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, who has a reward of $7 million offered by the United States Department of State since June 2013 for information leading to his capture, announced his intention of selling them into slavery. [33]

Ritual slavery

Ritual servitude (Trokosi) is a practice in Ghana, Togo, and Benin where traditional religious shrines take human beings, usually young virgin girls, in payment for services, or in religious atonement for alleged misdeeds of a family member—almost always a female. [34] [ unreliable source? ] In Ghana and in Togo, it is practiced by the Ewe people in the Volta region, and in Benin it is practiced by the Fon. [35]

Slavery by country


The practice of slavery in Chad, as in the Sahel states in general, is an entrenched phenomenon with a long history, going back to the trans-Saharan slave trade in the Sahelian kingdoms, and it continues today. As elsewhere in West Africa, the situation reflects an ethnic, racial and religious rift. [36] IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) of the UN Office for the [37] [38] Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [39] [40] reports children being sold to Arab herdsmen in Chad by their parents due to poverty. [41]


Debt bondage-like slavery is rife in parts of Congo. [42] According to the Global Slavery Index, [43] approximately, over one million people are enslaved in the region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. [44]


Mahider Bitew, Children's Rights and Protection expert at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, [45] [46] says that some remote studies conducted in Dire Dawa, Shashemene, Awassa, and three other towns of the country indicate that the problem of child trafficking is very serious. According to a 2003 study, about one thousand children were trafficked via Dire Dawa to countries of the Middle East. The majority of those children were girls, most of whom were forced to be prostitutes after leaving the country. The International Labour Organization has identified prostitution as the worst form of child labor. [47]

In Ethiopia, children are trafficked into prostitution, to provide cheap or unpaid labor, and to work as domestic servants or beggars. [48] [49] The ages of these children are usually between 10 and 18, and their trafficking is from the country to urban centers and from cities to the country. [50] Boys are often expected to work in activities such as herding cattle in rural areas and in the weaving industry in Addis Ababa and other major towns. Girls are expected to take responsibilities for domestic chores, childcare, and looking after the sick, and to work as prostitutes. [51] [52]

Ghana, Togo, Benin

In parts of Ghana among the Ewe people, a family may be punished for an offense by having to turn over a virgin female to serve as a sex slave within the offended family. [53] In this instance, the woman does not gain the title of "wife". [54] [55] In parts of Ghana, Togo, and Benin, shrine slavery persists, despite being illegal in Ghana since 1998. [56] This system of slavery is sometimes called trokosi (in Ghana), or voodoosi in Togo and Benin, or ritual servitude. [57] [58] Young virgin girls are given as slaves in traditional shrines and are used sexually by the priests, in addition to providing free labor for the shrine. [59] [26]

Many Chinese prostitutes are trafficked to Ghana to service expatriate communities in the country, the enslavement protection Alliance west Africa (EPAWA) investigation reveal. [60] Accra-based non-governmental organization told citi news victims are recruited under the guise of working as restaurant assistants. [61] They are then confined and forced to provide sexual services. [62]


Domestic servitude and forced labor are a continuing problem and increasing as a result of exacerbated poverty in Madagascar, according to a 2012 mission by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for contemporary forms of slavery. [63] The UN Special Rapporteur identified children as particularly vulnerable and was particularly concerned about the enslavement of youth in mining and sexual exploitation or servile marriages. [64]


Slavery continues to exist in Mali in all ethnic groups of the country but particularly among the Tuareg communities. [65] The French formally abolished slavery in 1905, but many slaves remained with their masters until 1946 when large emancipation activism occurred. [66] The first government of independent Mali tried to end slavery, but these efforts were undermined with the military dictatorship from 1968 until 1991. [67] Slavery persists today with thousands of people still held in servitude; however, an active social movement called Temedt (which won the 2012 Anti-Slavery International [68] [69] award) has been pressuring the government for ending slavery in the country. [70] [71]

Although the Malian government denies that slavery continues, National Geographic writer Kira Salak claimed in 2002 that slavery was quite conspicuous and that she herself bought and then freed two slaves in Timbuktu. [72] In addition, with the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion, [73] there are reports of ex-slaves being recaptured by their former masters. [71]


According to the Global Security Index Mauritania has one of the highest rates of vulnerability to slavery, ranking at number 22 in the region. [44] A system exists now by which Arab Muslims—the bidanes—own black slaves, the haratines. [74] An estimated 90,000 Mauritanians remain essentially enslaved. [75] The ruling bidanes (the name means literally white-skinned people) are descendants of the Sanhaja Berbers and Beni Hassan Arab tribes who emigrated to northwest Africa and present-day Western Sahara and Mauritania during the Middle Ages. [76] According to some estimates, up to 600,000 Mauritanians, or 20% of the population, are still enslaved, many of them used as bonded labour. [77] Slavery in Mauritania was criminalized in August 2007. [78] Malouma Messoud, a former Muslim slave has explained her enslavement to a religious leader

"We didn't learn this history in school; we simply grew up within this social hierarchy and lived it. Slaves believe that if they do not obey their masters, they will not go to paradise. [79] They are raised in a social and religious system that everyday reinforces this idea. [80] [81] "

In Mauritania, despite slave ownership having been banned by law in 1981, hereditary slavery continues. [82] Moreover, according to Amnesty International: [83] [84]

"Not only has the government denied the existence of slavery and failed to respond to cases brought to its attention, it has hampered the activities of organizations which are working on the issue, including by refusing to grant them official recognition". [85]

Imam El Hassan Ould Benyamin of Tayarat in 1997 expressed his views about earlier proclamations ending slavery in his country as follows:

"[it] is contrary to the teachings of the fundamental text of Islamic law, the Quran ... [and] amounts to the expropriation from Muslims of their goods; goods that were acquired legally. The state, if it is Islamic, does not have the right to seize my house, my wife or my slave." [86] [87]

Biram Dah Abeid, often called the Mauritanian Nelson Mandela, "Le Spartacus Mauritanien", [88] an anti-slavery activist and member of the Haratin ethnic group in Mauritania argues that

there is a kind of informal coalition – Beydanes [the slave owning caste], the state, police, judges, and imams – that prevents slaves from leaving their masters. "Whenever a slave breaks free while IRA [his antislavery group] is not aware and not present, police officers and judges help Arab-Berbers to intimidate the slave until he returns in submission". [89]

Biram, along with 16 other activists, since 11 November 2014, is awaiting trial in Mauritania on multiple charges which include "violating public order" and "offending the authorities". [88]

The story of Biram Dah Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist on trial, illustrates the troubled history and continued prevalence of slavery in Mauritania. Yet, Mauritanian human rights campaigners remain hopeful and believe that the trial will ultimately lead to positive long-term changes. [88]


Niger continues to have significant problems with three forms of contemporary slavery: hereditary slavery, what Anti-Slavery International terms "passive slavery", and servile marriages called wahaya. [90] Because of the continued problem of slavery and pressure from the Timidria organization, Niger became the first country in Western Africa to pass a law specifically criminalizing slavery. [91] Despite the law, slavery persists throughout the different ethnic groups of the country, women are particularly vulnerable, and a 2002 census confirmed the existence of 43,000 slaves and estimated that the total population could be over 870,000 people. [90] In a landmark case in 2008, the Economic Community of West African States [92] [93] (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice found the government of Niger responsible for continuing a woman's slave status as part of a wahaya marriage and awarded her US$21,500. [94]


Sudan has seen a resurgence of slavery since 1983, associated with the Second Sudanese Civil War. [95] Estimates of abductions range from 14,000 to 200,000 people. [96]

In the Sudan, Christian and animist captives in the civil war are often enslaved, and female prisoners are often used sexually, with their Muslim captors claiming that Islamic law grants them permission. [97] According to CBS News, slaves have been sold for $50 per person. [98] In 2001, CNN reported that the Bush administration was under pressure from Congress, including conservative Christians concerned about religious oppression and slavery, to address issues involved in the Sudanese conflict. [99] CNN has also quoted the U.S. State Department's allegations: [100] "The [Sudanese] government's support of slavery and its continued military action which has resulted in numerous deaths are due in part to the victims' religious beliefs." [101]

Jok Madut Jok, professor of History at Loyola Marymount University, [102] states that the abduction of women and children of the south by north is slavery by any definition. The government of Sudan insists that the whole matter is no more than the traditional tribal feuding over resources. [103]

South Africa

Despite significant efforts made by the South African Government to combat trafficking in persons, the country has been placed on the "Tier 2 Watch List" [104] [105] by the U.S. Department of Trafficking in Persons for the past four years. [106] South Africa shares borders with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Eswatini. It has 72 official ports of entry "and a number of unofficial ports of entry where people come in and out without being detected" [107] along its 5 000 km-long land borderline. [108] The problem of porous borders is compounded by the lack of adequately trained employees, resulting in few police officials controlling large portions of the country's coastline. [109]

See also

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Niger is a source, transit, and destination country for children and women subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor and forced prostitution. Caste-based slavery practices, rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships, continue primarily in the northern part of the country. Children are trafficked within Niger for forced begging by religious instructors known as marabouts; forced labor in gold mines, agriculture, and stone quarries; as well as for involuntary domestic servitude and forced prostitution. The ILO estimates at least 10,000 children work in gold mines in Niger, many of whom may be forced to work. Nigerien children, primarily girls, are also subjected to commercial sexual exploitation along the border with Nigeria, particularly in the towns of Birni N'Konni and Zinder along the main highway, and boys are trafficked to Nigeria and Mali for forced begging and manual labor. There were reports Nigerien girls entered into "false marriages" with citizens of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates: upon arrival in these countries, the girls are often forced into involuntary domestic servitude. Child marriage was a problem, especially in rural areas, and may have contributed to conditions of human trafficking. Niger is a transit country for women and children from Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo en route to Northern Africa and Western Europe; some may be subjected to forced labor in Niger as domestic servants, forced laborers in mines and on farms, and as mechanics and welders. To a lesser extent, Nigerien women and children are sometimes trafficked from Niger to North Africa the Middle East, and Europe for involuntary domestic servitude and forced commercial sexual exploitation."

Slavery in Mali

Slavery in Mali exists today, with as many as 200,000 people held in direct servitude to a master. Since 2006, a movement called Temedt has been active in Mali struggling against the persistence of slavery and the discrimination associated with ex-slaves. There were reports that in the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012, ex-slaves were recaptured by their former masters.

Slavery in Niger

Slavery in Niger involves a number of different practices which have been practiced in the Sahel region for many centuries and which persist to this day. The Bornu Empire in the eastern part of Niger was an active part of the trans-Saharan slave trade for hundreds of years. Other ethnic groups in the country similarly had a history of slavery, although this varied and in some places slavery was largely limited to the political and economic elite. When the French took control of the area they largely ignored the problem and only actively banned the trade in slaves but not the practices of slavery. Following independence, many of the major slave holders became prominent political leaders in both the multiparty democracy period and the military dictatorship, and so the problem of slavery was largely ignored. In 2003, with pressure from the anti-slavery organization Timidria, Niger passed the first law in Western Africa that criminalized slavery as a specific crime. Despite this, slavery persists throughout the different ethnic groups in the country, women are particularly vulnerable, and a 2002 census confirmed the existence of 43,000 slaves and estimated that the total population could be over 870,000 people. The landmark Mani v. Niger case was one of the first instances where a person won a judgement against the government of Niger in an international court for sanctioning her slave status in official decisions.

Slavery in Haiti Slave labor as a legal institution extant 1492–1804

Slavery in Haiti started after the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the island in 1492 with the European colonists that followed from Portugal, Spain and France. The practice was devastating to the native population. Following the indigenous Tainos' near decimation from forced labor, disease and war, the Spanish, under advisement of the Catholic priest Bartolomé de las Casas and with the blessing of the Catholic church, began engaging in earnest in the 1600 kidnapped and forced labor of enslaved Africans. During the French colonial period beginning in 1625, the economy of Haiti was based on slavery, and the practice there was regarded as the most brutal in the world. The Haitian Revolution of 1804, the only successful slave revolt in human history, precipitated the end of slavery not only in Saint-Domingue, but in all French colonies. However, this revolt has only merited a marginal role in the histories of Portuguese and Spanish America. Moreover, it is to this rebellion in Haiti that the struggle for independence in Latin American can be traced to. However, several Haitian leaders following the revolution employed forced labor, believing a plantation-style economy was the only way for Haiti to succeed, and building fortifications to safeguard against attack by the French. During the U.S. occupation between 1915 and 1934, the U.S. military forced Haitians to work building roads for defense against Haitian resistance fighters.

History of slavery in the Muslim world History of slavery in Islamic lands

The Muslim world initially inherited the institution of slavery from pre-Islamic Arabia; and the practice of keeping slaves subsequently developed in radically different ways, depending on social-political factors such as the Arab slave trade. Throughout Islamic history, slaves served in various social and economic roles, from powerful emirs to harshly treated manual laborers. Early on in Muslim history slaves provided plantation labor similar to that in the early-modern Americas, but this practice was abandoned after harsh treatment led to destructive slave revolts, the most notable being the Zanj Rebellion of 869–883. Slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, and animal husbandry, but most commonly as soldiers, guards, domestic workers, and concubines. Many rulers relied on military slaves and on slaves in administration - to such a degree that the slaves could sometimes seize power. Among black slaves, there were roughly two females to every one male. Two rough estimates by scholars of the numbers of just one group - black slaves held over twelve centuries in the Muslim world - are 11.5 million and 14 million, while other estimates indicate a number between 12 and 15 million African slaves prior to the 20th century.


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