Slavery is alive in Mali and continues to wreak havoc on lives

It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. Young men and women gathered in a circle, showing off their dance moves as they celebrated Mali’s independence day in the western Kayes region of the country.

But things took a dark turn when suddenly a group of people appeared carrying thick wooden sticks and machetes.

The celebrating crowd, people of the so-called “slave” class, were brutally attacked and publicly humiliated by descendants of slave families who consider themselves “noble.”

The late-September attacks in the town of Bafoulabe continued for two days, killing at least one man and wounding at least 12 others, United Nations experts said on Friday.

Although slavery as an institution was officially abolished in Mali during colonial rule more than a century ago, so-called “descent-based slavery” still persists today. Centuries-old historical hierarchies have divided communities into various social castes, such as nobles, chiefs, artisans, and slaves, who are on the lowest rung of society and have simply inherited their status from their enslaved ancestors.

‘Barbarian and criminal’ attacks

Even in a time of relative peace, the lives of enslaved people are heavily controlled in feudal communities. They are not allowed to become mayors or village chiefs, own land, or even marry outside of their class. During celebrations such as weddings or births, they are expected to serve the nobles by sacrificing animals and preparing their meals. According to the descendants of privileged slave families, this traditional practice is entirely voluntary. But the descendants of slaves say otherwise. Experts say they risk losing their homes and access to water and land if they protest against the practice.

Between 2018 and early 2021, more than 3,000 people who were descendants of slaves were forcibly displaced in Kayes. Gambana, a prominent anti-slavery and anti-war organization, estimates that there are 200,000 such people in the region.

Diaguily Kanoute, who runs Gambana (“equality” in the local Soninke language), said those who reject the practice are ostracized. “Either you have to accept being a slave or you have to leave the village,” Kanoute, previously self-enslaved, told Al Jazeera.

However, going against these social customs comes at a high cost. Attacks against those who defy tradition have become increasingly common in recent years: Several videos have emerged on social media of men being publicly beaten and humiliated with their arms and legs tied.

According to the UN, twice as many people were injured in “barbaric and criminal” attacks related to ancestry-based slavery in 2021 compared to last year. Kayes alone has witnessed eight attacks, UN experts said, noting that the perpetrators are rarely held accountable, as Mali has not specifically outlawed the practice.

“The fact that these attacks occur so frequently in this area shows that ancestry-based slavery is still socially accepted by some influential politicians, traditional leaders, law enforcement officials and judicial authorities,” they said. said.

Kanoute said anti-slavery activists held a forum in August in Kayes with state officials and community leaders, where all parties signed a letter to end violence linked to slavery. “However, people were beaten and tortured in the same town, leaders committed to peace,” he said, visibly frustrated, referring to the September attacks.

The increasing number of attacks has spread fear and caused displacement. About 100 people, more than half of them children. he fled his village and sought refuge in the capital, Bamako, last May after refusing to be treated as slaves.

Malian sociologist Brema Ely Dicko says the growing number of attacks shows that the so-called noble caste is not above using violence to uphold the existing social contract.

“The anti-slavery campaigns, particularly that of Gambana, have raised awareness among the descendants of slaves who dared to tell their masters that they are not slaves. And the landowners began to take away their land and deny them access to their water wells, which quickly followed violence and forced displacement, “Dicko told Al Jazeera.

Marie Rodet from SOAS University London agrees, saying that resistance to slavery has been greatly amplified by social media, which has become a powerful tool for questioning the status quo.

“Today, when you know that more than 70,000 people are members of the Gambana anti-slavery activist groups on WhatsApp, it becomes clear that the oppressors have lost the ideological struggle,” Rodet told Al Jazeera. “However, as they cannot accept their defeat, they depend on retaliation to defend what little power they believe they still have.”

Historical roots

This abuse is part of a centuries-old pattern used against enslaved populations in Mali. The slave trade in the Atlantic not only increased militarization, triggered internal wars and restructured societies throughout the Sahel region based on social hierarchies, it also institutionalized slavery.

Although slavery was outlawed by French colonial rule in 1905, the authorities eyes closed to the continuation of slavery which they referred to as “domestic slavery”, fearing that complete abolition would destabilize the economies that depend on the practice and endanger colonial rule. Thus, the socioeconomic model has reinforced the historical hierarchies that persist today.

“What is concerning,” Rodet said, “is the involvement of the younger generation in some of these exactions against victims of ancestry-based slavery with the complicity of politicians and local authorities.”

Unlike its neighbors Niger, Senegal and Mauritania, the country has not implemented legislation to prohibit and criminalize ancestry-based slavery. Two weeks after the attack in Kayes, Mali’s Minister of National Reconciliation, Ismael Wague visited the region and said arrests had been made. But anti-slavery activists believe the authorities lack the courage to end the practice, which provides a degree of impunity for perpetrators to continue abusing those considered slaves.

“The state has been in denial when it comes to slavery,” said Abdoulaye Macko, a founding member of Temedt, the first organization created to fight slavery in Mali. “With the scale of slave abuses in recent years, the discourse is beginning to change. However, the State’s response to the crisis remains timid, “he added, calling for the approval of legislation that criminalizes the practice and holds the perpetrators accountable, as well as” repairing and restoring the rights of citizens deprived of their property. “

Ancestry-based slavery is just one of the many problems Mali faces. Since 2012, a multitude of armed groups with diverse objectives have spread waves of violence in the center and north of the country, terrorizing local communities and exploiting secular tensions between various ethnic communities and exploiting deep-seated grievances.

Although there is no organic link between the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) that is active in the Kayes region and marginalized communities, analysts say there is a risk that victims they can search for a resource. joining these groups.

“If the state does not protect its own citizens and the rule of law, there is certainly a risk that people will take justice into their own hands,” Rodet said. “Joining a militant group is just one option among others,” he warned.

Yvan Guichaoua, from the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent, shared the sentiment.

“As JNIM seeks a broader base, the group is careful not to explicitly pitch one community against another. However, JNIM knows how to capitalize on the cracks in local systems of social stratification, ”said Guichaoua. “He is very pragmatic and seeks expansion through reformist social agendas.”

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