Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another Step in the Fight against Slavery

Hadijatou Mani

Slavery may have been abolished in many states as a matter of law. However in many states slavery is in practice still tolerated.

However a landmark case has just been decided in Nigeria: The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas)

The Court has ordered the state of Niger to compensate a former slave for failing to protect her from slavery.

In Free at last: female slave who dared to take Niger to court , The Times reports on the case brought by Hadijatou Mani who was sold into slavery at the age of 12. She was beaten, raped and even imprisoned for bigamy after she married a man other than her “master"

"Astonishingly her story is not that rare in Niger, but now it has a happy ending. In an historic ruling that will resonate across West Africa, where slavery is still rife, Ms Mani won a landmark case yesterday against the Niger Government for failing to protect her. ...

The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) ordered Niger to pay Ms Mani 10 million CFA francs (£12,400) in compensation. The judgment was embarrassing for a government that said it had done all it could to eradicate slavery, but it offered hope for thousands of other men and women in the Sahel region.

The ruling sent a strong message to other governments that more needed to be done to set slaves free. Niger's neighbours, Mali and Mauritania, are also known to turn a blind eye to the practice. Chad and Sudan, which are not members of Ecowas, also use slaves. ...

A government lawyer said that Niger would respect the ruling.

However, analysts said that the country - one of the poorest on the continent - had showed little determination to enforce anti-slavery legislation adopted only five years ago. ...

Ms Mani was sold to a man called Souleymane Naroua when she was 12 for about £300. For the next ten years she was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work. She was raped at the age of 13 and forced to bear the children of her “master”.

“I was beaten so many times I would run to my family ... then after a day or two, I would be brought back,” Ms Mani told local reporters in Hausa, the language of the Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara. “At the time I didn't know what to do but since I learnt that slavery has been abolished I told myself I will no longer be a slave.”

In 2005 Ms Mani's “master” freed her and gave her a “liberation certificate”, but when she left him and tried to marry another man he claimed that they were already married. A local court found in her favour and she went ahead with the wedding.

The verdict was overturned on appeal, however, and she was sentenced to six months in prison for bigamy. ... Even though slavery has been a crime for five years, human rights groups in Niger estimate that at least 40,000 people are still being kept as slaves.

For generations the children of a slave automatically became the property of their parents' “master”. Ms Mani said that one of the reasons she turned to the international court was to secure the freedom of her two children and ensure that they did not have to suffer the same fate.

“I hope that everybody in slavery today can find their freedom,” she added. ...

Although the judgment will ease the suffering of tens of thousands of people in West Africa it has no bearing on the fate of many more in Sudan, where Arabs in the north of the country have kept African southerners as slaves for centuries.

Mauritania's Moors have also kept Africans in servitude, sowing the seeds for sporadic and violent rebellions. Despite international criticism both countries have consistently refused to take strong measures to eradicate slavery. "