By Lekan Oguntoyinbo
A couple of weeks ago, law enforcement officials in Mauritania arrested nine people for doing something the government considers radical: protesting slavery.
In 1980, Mauritania became the last nation in the world to legally abolish slavery, an institution that that had existed in the poor, landlocked Islamic West African country of fewer than 4 million people in the middle of the Sahara for more than 700 years. The operative word here is “legally.” More than 30 years later, the enslavement of Blacks by the ruling Arab Berber class stubbornly persists. It is estimated that about 4 percent of Mauritania’s population, or about 140,000 people, are enslaved.
Over the years, the government has passed additional anti-slavery acts, but they are rarely enforced. For the most part, the government has taken a see-no-evil approach. Senior government officials often deny that the practice still exists – despite glaring evidence to the contrary.
But in recent months, Amnesty International and other human rights groups say the Mauritanian government appears to have maintained a campaign against the nation’s nascent anti-slavery movement.
The activists arrested earlier this month included Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, president of Mauritania’s Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and runner-up in June’s presidential election. Abeid and the other activists had applied for permits to hold anti-slavery rallies and had been denied. Since their arrest, they have been beaten repeatedly, according to press reports and human rights groups. Shortly after their arrests, police officers also closed IRA’s headquarters in the Mauritian capital Nouakchott and arrested the organization’s spokesperson.
In October, four IRA members were arrested in the biggest mosque in Nouakchott while responding to criticisms made against their organization. They were charged with disturbing prayers and incitement to revolt. They remain in detention and have not been tried.
“Anti-slavery activists are subject to never ending harassment and intimidation in Mauritania. Their actions are either prohibited or severely repressed and they are frequently arrested. This general clamp down must stop as it is a clear violation of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association,” Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher, said in a prepared statement.
The government’s campaign against the abolitionists coincides with the recent release of a report by the Global Slavery Index, which is produced by the Walk Free Foundation, an Australian-based organization dedicated to ending modern day slavery. The index says approximately 36 million people are enslaved in scores of countries around the world. These modern-slaves are forced against their will to do things like picking cotton or growing cannabis and working as prostitutes. The report, which covers 167 countries, estimates that modern day slavery results in the production of more than 100 goods from nearly 60 countries. The International Labor Organization says profits from this forced labor hover at around $150 billion each year.
Several countries were singled out for having particularly bad records, including Qatar, a wealthy Middle Eastern kingdom that has a reputation for luring African and Asian immigrants with the promise of good jobs and then exploiting them; India, where approximately 15 million people are said to be enslaved; and Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia where the government forces more than 1 million people to Harvest cotton each year. Other countries cited as having a high prevalence of modern slavery include Haiti, Pakistan, the Central African Republic, Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But Mauritania, where the practice is so deeply entrenched and kept alive by tradition, was cited as the most notorious offender. The report notes that Black African women are particularly vulnerable to the practice. It is not uncommon for several generations of women from one family to serve one Arab Berber family over decades or centuries. Arab Berbers began settling in the country in the 11th Century, overran it and have largely ruled it since then. They control the government, the military and other essential aspects of life in the country.
Most of the enslaved are beaten and treated as if they were chattel. Many of the women are raped and impregnated by their slave masters.
The practice persists in this 21st Century high tech world in part because of teachings of religious leaders in Mauritania that the Koran approves of slavery (sounds familiar?) and because many of the slaves and their descendants have been conditioned to believe that there is no life outside of slavery for people who look like them.
In recent years, slavery in Mauritania has received some attention from several leading news outlets, including CNN, the New Yorker magazine, the Guardian and the New York Times, as well as the United Nations and anti-slavery groups. But the attention has not resulted in the kind of worldwide activist fervor that we saw in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, White minority rule in Rhodesia or in the battle against the enslavement and slaughter of Black Christians and animists in Sudan.
It will take that same kind of fervor to end this inhumane practice in the one place in the world where de facto slavery of Blacks still thrives.
Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a columnist for the L.A. Wave, is a national award-winning journalist. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.