SLAVE TRADE IN AFRICA: PAINS OF THE PAST, NIGHTMARES OF THE PRESENT.
by Oluwole Sheriff Olusanya
The Encarta Dictionary of English defines a slave as somebody who is forced to work for somebody else for no payment and is regarded as the property of that person.
Alternatively, Wikipedia provides a detailed and more comprehensive explanation of human servitude and what it generally entails - Slavery is a legally recognized system in which people were legally considered the property or chattel of another. A slave had few rights and could be bought or sold and made to work for the owner without any choice or pay. Slavery under this definition does not include other forced labour systems, such as historical forced labour by prisoners, labour camps, or other forms of un-free labour, in which labourers are not legally considered property. Slavery typically requires a shortage of labour and a surplus of land to be viable.
It is important to note that the social, economic, and legal position of slaves was vastly diverse in different systems of slavery in different times and places.
Historical Development of Slavery in Africa
You would not sound out of place if you argue that the history of slavery is as old as man because it predates any particular period of time and it spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion, from ancient times to the present day. Most historians believe that the absence of abundant records at that time makes it cumbersome to ascertain the exact period it begun.
However, Slavery can be traced back to the earliest records, such as the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), which refers to it as an established institution. Unarguably, Africa played a key role in the history of slavery and transcontinental slave trade was a common practice among Africans. French historian, Fernand Braudel noted that slavery was endemic in Africa and part of the structure of everyday life.”Slavery came in different disguises in different societies: there were court slaves, slaves incorporated into princely armies, domestic and household slaves, slaves working on the land, in industry, as couriers and intermediaries, even as traders” He noted.
The Encarta Encyclopaedia elucidates that slavery existed in some of Africa’s earliest organized societies. More than 3,500 years ago, ancient Egyptians raided neighbouring societies for slaves, and the buying and selling of slaves were regular activities in cities along the Nile River. Early Africans were held in involuntary human servitude for two distinct reasons; most were enslaved as a result of two warring parties taking captives – prisoners of wars and others were held as a symbol of wealth and social status. (Slavery in Africa- Encarta Encyclopaedia, 2009)
Arab Muslims- The spread of Islam after the religion’s founding in the 7th century affected the practice of slavery and slave trading in Africa but Arabs had long been involved in slavery before the founding of Islam. Arab Muslims would enslave Christian captives and vice versa in times of war, most of these slaves were forcefully enrolled in Muslim armies.
Europeans- The massive industrialization of most European powerhouses in the 15th century proliferated the demand for market and cheap labour. The first major group of European traders in West Africa were the Portuguese, followed by the British and the French. The Europeans preferred to source for their slaves in Africa because of two distinct characteristics; African slaves were relatively cheap, they preferred to trade with the African slave owners and traders because large numbers of slaves were exchanged for petty items such as cloths, rums, firearms etc. and African slaves were not susceptible to diseases and ailments.
Slavery, serfdom and other forms of human servitude was renounced by the British in the 18th century but as the topic suggests; there are wrongs the horrible act has inflicted that has not been totally corrected. They would be discussed extensively in subsequent paragraphs.
- Human Trafficking- Although slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world, human trafficking remains an international problem because an estimated 29.8 million people are living in illegal slavery today. It is unfortunate that most of these dehumanizing acts are carried out in African countries partly because of the harsh economic situation of these countries. In Mauritania for instance, it is estimated that up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population, are currently enslaved, many of them used as bonded labour but slavery in Mauritania was criminalized in August 2007.
The scourge of illegal human trafficking is a manifestation of modern day slavery; most of these vulnerable girls and boys are taken from their families with the promise that a better life awaits them in their destination only to find out that the reverse is the case. The CNN Freedom project has abundant references to authenticate my argument.
- Overdependence- When the history of slavery and slave trade in Africa was discussed, one of the points established was that slave trade blossomed with the entrance of World powers and the economic prosperity of most African societies depended largely on how well they could trade slaves with the Europeans but the bad news is that this is still obtainable today.
You would remember vividly that about 2 years ago, Britain and the United States promised to cut humanitarian support in countries that are against the gay rights campaign and it sent chills down the spine of some African countries that were over-dependent on such gestures.
III. Massive Exploitation- In my previous article titled THE TIME FOR AFRICA IS HERE: THE TIME FOR ACTION IS NOW, (http://dailyindependentnig.com/2015/09/time-to-unleash-african-economic-potentials/) this point was addressed. “Africa is blessed with great human, material and mineral resources; it is home to some 30% of the world mineral reserves but does it in any way benefit the average African? Most of these extractive and exploitative companies are owned by foreigners” (Olusanya, Oluwole S. 2015)
- Dumping Ground- An editorial published by Businessday on November 13th 2015 titled, Tackling E-Waste Import explains in broad terms how Africa (Ghana and Nigeria in focus) have become dumping grounds for used products and the disadvantages of these acts. “Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the environment in Africa is highly neglected and part of the tragedy of this reality is that the rest of the world is taking advantage of this neglect to further improve and free its own environment, putting the black continent at risk and at war with itself. In West Africa particularly, two of the sub-region’s economic powerhouses, Nigeria and Ghana, are fast becoming thriving electronic graveyards as tonnes of discarded appliances from all over the world, including the United Kingdom (UK), are being dumped here every year”
During the course of putting this entertaining and educating piece together, I stumbled on something that beat my imagination. The fact that there were some legendary African leaders that blatantly refused to deal in slavery and slave trade of any form – either by selling criminals, captives or their kinsmen. King Jaja of Opobo, a former slave himself, completely refused to do business with slavers and the Ashanti King Agyeman Prempeh also sacrificed his own freedom so that his people would not face collective slavery.
Evidently, the only solution lies in the fact that the current crop of African leaders need to wake up from their slumber and take responsibility but we (Africans) should make sure our leaders are held accountable for their actions and inactions because the future of this great continent is in our hands.
Moussa Faki, African Union Chair