Suffering slavery

Mauritania, Africa Racist Slavery

…blamed misfortunes of #Africa south of the #Sahara… not just the #TransAtlanticSlaveTrade but also #ArabSlaveTrade

By Sadig Al-Mahdi

United Nations Anti-Slavery Day falls on 18 October — a somewhat awkward opportune date to reflect on Arab-African relations. Arabs have as much in common with Africans south of the Sahara as with each other. Arab nationalists love their ideals of exalted uniformity, and so do some black African nationalists. The late first president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, was one such black African nationalist and he coined the term “Negritude” in opposition to colonialism and in the embrace of black identity. The notion of Negritude took root among black intellectuals, writers and politicians in France in the 1930s, and it was not exclusively black African. Indeed, among its most ardent exponents were the legendary Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire from the island of Martinique.

Sweeping narratives of national suffering were, and are to this day, rather seductive among those who espoused Negritude. They invariably blamed the misfortunes of Africa south of the Sahara and among the African Diaspora on slavery, not just the trans-Atlantic Western slavery, but also the Arab slave trade.

Mauritania and Sudan are two members whose peoples, a motley mix of ethnic and racial groups, have widely different religious and ideological allegiances and political aspirations. Mauritania and Sudan are both members of the African Union and the Arab League. They also have a hierarchical social structure with lighter-skinned Africans, especially in Mauritania, treating their darker skinned compatriots with derision, referring to them as slaves, or descendants of slaves, the Harrattin as they are called in Mauritania. In Mauritania, an estimated 20 per cent of the population of 3.5 million live in virtual slavery.

Mauritania appears to be stranded in the morass of the past.

Slavery persists in Mauritania, the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery, and several human rights organisations, such as Al-Hurr, Arabic for “The Free”, Inetaq, Arabic for “Emancipation”, and SOS Esclaves (French for slaves) and the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement are diligent in their anti-slavery activism.

In Sudan, racism and religious bigotry and the absence of democracy led to the splitting up of the country into Sudan and South Sudan. The civil war that lasted intermittingly for five decades, and internecine fighting in many parts of the country, once Africa’s largest before it was split in two, led to the displacement of people and subsequent enslavement. Many members of non-Arab or Arabised ethnic groups in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Kordofan province, Blue Nile province and the disputed oil-rich Abyei enclave were captured and taken as slaves in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and other large urban centres and provincial capitals such as Port Sudan and Al-Obeid, the capital of Kordofan.

The now derelict Red Sea port of Suakin was a traditional medieval “port of no return” for slaves from what is today South Sudan and Kordofan shipped across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.

In more contemporary times, human trafficking through Egypt to Israel and the Levant and even beyond to Europe has become a brisk business and a reminder of the earlier medieval slave trade.

Slavery is a subject that touches a raw nerve and inflames nationalistic passions. “We are part and parcel of the African continent. We are an African people and we are predominantly Arab in culture, Muslim by virtue of our religion and even though slavery was practiced in the not so distant past, and even though in some remote regions of the country forms of slavery might be still practiced, we in the Umma Party do not condone slavery. We are vehemently anti-slavery,” Sadig Al-Mahdi, the leader of the opposition Umma Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The ongoing wars in Sudan have created conditions conducive to slavery,” Al-Mahdi conceded. “Yet, the difficult economic conditions of people in Sudan forces people to work for peanuts, for next to nothing,” he added.

“The lack of democracy also enslaves the people of Sudan. Slavery can take many different forms. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes enslave the people and this is the sad situation in Sudan today,” Al-Mahdi extrapolated.

There are no public auctions of slaves in Sudan today and no branding of slaves. Yet, the proliferation of arms and armed militias, economic stagnation, rampant unemployment, and widespread political corruption and cronyism create conditions conducive to the enslavement of impoverished people.

UN reports note that “displaced” Sudanese, including 250,000 ethnic Nuba, are forced into government “peace camps” under the regime of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, where they become internees.

It provides an opportunity to draw attention to this prickly subject and to pressure government, local authorities, public institutions and private and public companies to address the scale and scope of human trafficking.

Memories are still fresh of Mahdist rule in the 19th century Sudan, when Arab slavers held tens of thousands of non-Arab slaves, and exported tens of thousands more to Egypt and the Arab world.

Al-Mahdi’s detractors claim that in 1986 his then Defence Minister Othman Abdallah, in the civilian government led by Al-Mahdi as prime minister, initiated a “security belt” against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Al-Mahdi, his critics claim, proceeded to arm the Arabised pastoralist Baggara militias who in turn terrorised ethnic Dinka peasants.

“There has been an alarming increase in the number of reports of slavery, servitude, the slave trade and forced labour. I regret the total lack of interest shown by the competent Sudanese authorities,” reported Gaspar Biro, UN rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, in February 1996.

“The [Sudanese] government has been unable with its limited wealth and law enforcement resources to eliminate all instances of rural abductions and ransoms stemming from tribal conflicts.”

“Human rights in war zones and areas outside government control are not fully respected,” confessed Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, Sudan’s then ambassador to the United States, in August 1996.

Rezeigat and Dinka representatives have negotiated for the release of hundreds of Dinka children in return for access to fresh pastures and water controlled by the Southerners — underlining how ecology affects the conflict.

“In the ‘mentality of the enslaver’, Southern Sudanese are seen as ‘less worthy’ individuals whose rights could be violated at random,” Lawrence Tung, a Sudanese human rights monitor, elucidated in September 1996.

Mauritanian society is strictly divided into a rigid caste system that flies in the face of the country’s supposed march towards democratisation and political liberalisation. The lighter-skinned Arabic-speaking Moors, after whom the country’s name is derived, and who have in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence eras monopolised power in Mauritania, are not prepared or willing to relinquish power.

The stultifying grip on political power (and the Mauritanian military) by Arabs or Arabised Moors distinguishes the country from its neighbours. In June 2003, Mauritania promulgated a law that punishes slavery with specific penalties in case of violations.

Mauritania is a multi-racial country in which the only common denominator is the Islamic faith. The country’s large black African population has long been politically suppressed and socially and economically marginalised. And, human rights groups warn, an unofficial apartheid system similar to that of Sudan operates in the country, a member of the African Union.

“21 October is a very special day for us Sudanese democrats and freedom lovers. We celebrate the Golden Jubilee anniversary of what is known in Sudan as the 21 October 1964 Revolution. The Sudanese people revolted against oppression. It was the first Arab Spring uprising. And, this victory of the Sudanese people was a victory over slavery,” Al-Mahdi concluded,

The peoples who were traditionally enslaved in Sudan spearheaded the 21 October 1964 Revolution. The Nuba Mountains Front, the Drafur Renaissance Front, the beja People’s Front and the Sudan People’s African National Union were at the forefront that brought the Umma Party to power.

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