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African slavery past and present

The focus of this article is on contemporary slavery with some remarks about the past. I am not an expert on the subject, but one does not need to be to speak out against suffering and abuse. I believe that people ought to pay attention to and fight against modern slavery. Please do follow some of the blue links in the text if you wish to read more on the topic.

I decided to write this after visiting a small community in north-central Alberta. At the turn of the 19th century black pioneers settled in north-central Alberta in a place called Amber Valley. They were trying to find a more tolerant home than Oklahoma that had enacted laws limiting black rights. Slavery had ended, but not the discrimination. Discrimination and racism sadly still exists in Canada, but not to the extremes of “negative othering” that exists elsewhere.

While visiting the small museum in Amber Valley I was reminded of horror stories from West Africa. While I thought of the horrific trans-Atlantic slavery of the past, I am mainly thinking of Mauritania, Niger and a few other Western Sahara states. In Mauritania, the owning of slaves was abolished in 1981, but laws that actually criminalised slavery were only created in 2007. Despite this there are upwards of 600 000 people in Mauritania still enslaved.

When slavery is discussed it is far too often overshadowed by its history instead of a focus on the present. It is discussed as a past practice that needs to be addressed by western nations. There are still calls for apologies and for reparations. I am not certain that reparations are feasible or possible for slavery. I also worry that this type of a focus on the past gets mired in notions of entitlement and victim-hood. I think that thorny issue is fraught with difficulty. Legally, no crime was committed by those involved in slavery as it was legal at the time and they of course are long gone from the earth. I wonder how would such a programme of redress be performed by all those involved? Who owes and how much and how is it to be paid?

Debt held by poor African nations should not be forgiven because of past injustices and horrors wrought by colonisation. They should be erased because it is the right thing to do. The debts held are often set at usury rates and often seen as one of the largest barriers to economic growth in very poor nations. Canada wiped out 9 million Canadian dollars owed by Senegal, Ghana and Ethiopia as part of the ongoing “Canadian Debt Initiative”. More and more debts have been written off for the poorest nations, and I am interested to see the results of this in the future.

To return to slavery, I am perplexed and saddened by the silence on the issue. The African Union has little to nothing to say on the topic. Documents that I link to here discuss in broad terms that slavery remains a problem but the main thrust is once again on the legacy and the need for addressing that legacy through reparations.

Slavery has been deemed a crime against humanity by the United Nations, but yet the African Union only discusses reparations for western slavery. Why are there no calls for sanctions or demands to stop contemporary slavery in Africa? I worry that the African Union has a difficulty in critiquing its members while condemning human-rights abuses done during colonialism. It should not stop critiquing the past, but needs to adopt a more critical eye on actions taken by African states.

I have mainly been discussing chattel slavery where people are bought and sold like cattle. The focus needs to also be on the sex trade, human trafficking and debt bondage. All these horrific acts need to be given just attention.

Slavery was not just something done to Africans, but is an ongoing human-rights abuse too often unremarked upon. The African Union needs to play a role in critiquing its own as well as actively stopping human-rights abuses on the African continent.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.