Early in March, the government of the West African nation of Niger canceled a ceremony designed to give 7,000 slaves their freedom. The human rights group Timidria planned to release the slaves in a region near Niger's border with Mali, but none of them appeared at the ceremony. The organization said Niger's government intimidated the slaves to keep them from showing up, a charge the government denies.
Niger officially banned slavery two years ago, but human rights groups say about 43,000 people remain in bondage in the country. And about 200,000 people are believed to be enslaved along ancient Arab-African Saharan trade routes.
The London-based organization, Anti-Slavery International, says the problem goes well beyond the borders of Niger. Romana Cacchioli, the Africa program officer, explains, "The issue of slavery, the problem of slavery in Niger, is probably quite unique to West Africa, but also is happening in countries like Mauritania. This type of slavery is an inherited status, where people are born into slavery and have inherited that status from their grandparents and their great-grandparents."
Slavery in Niger is now a crime that carries a 30-year prison sentence, and authorities are beginning to prosecute those responsible. But Ms. Cacchioli says Niger's government missed an opportunity to publicly show the practice will not be tolerated.
"And the message was that slavery is now illegal in Niger, and its newly defined and criminalized in law," says Mrs Cacchioli. "And we hoped that the message would be that people who are suffering slavery practices would be able now to access the law and that they are now equal and full citizens in the republic of Niger. Regrettably, due to pressure from the authorities, victims of slavery were unable to attend the ceremony."
In addition to Niger and Mauritania, slavery has been documented in Chad, Mali and Sudan. This is accompanied by trafficking of women and children on the African continent. Recently in Nigeria, police arrested a woman suspected of smuggling children packed into a shipping container. Police believe they were to be sent to homes in Lagos to work as forced laborers. The United Nations Children's Fund says child trafficking is widespread on the African continent.
Romana Cacchioli of Anti-Slavery International says poverty often forces parents to surrender their children to traffickers, who often trick them into giving away their children, with the promise of an education or a good job. "Children are being trafficked from countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin to countries like Gabon in central Africa, and these children, mostly girls, are being trafficked into domestic work, into domestic service. But of course, boys are also being trafficked into the construction industry, into the fishing industry, so it's really affecting children of all ages," says Ms. Cacchioli.
Ghanaian lawyer Edna Kuma is executive director of the African Women Lawyers Association and has been working to stop the trafficking of women and children. She says the danger to these victims is considerable.
According to Ms. Kuma, "A lot of children have been trafficked within Ghana. And we hear there are a lot of children going into the fishing industry to help fisherfolk; I mean help as young as two, three, four, five. And my only appeal is for parents is to do what they can to tell these children, instead of giving them up for trade like fishery or whatever, because a lot of them die in the process."
Women are also trafficked, into prostitution. The African Women's Lawyers Association is supporting legislation in the Ghanaian parliament that would ban the trafficking of women to other countries. Edna Kuma cites the problems.
Ms. Kuma says, "You go to Ivory Coast, you find a lot of the Ghanaian girls there. Or maybe in the west coast, the sub-region, all over the place. And either for gain, economic gain or whatever, they go there and they practice all kinds of prostitution, and at the same time some also go outside Africa, maybe to Europe, to work, because there's quite an amount of unemployment here, and a lot of them are not skilled."
Prostitution also contributes to Africa's enormous AIDS crisis, according to Ms. Kuma. She says Ghanaian lawmakers are aware of it and support legislation, which would prevent trafficking.
"The HIV pandemic is all over Africa, and it's a risk to be practicing prostitution, definitely," Ms. Kuma says. "So everybody's very sympathetic, and we just hope that the bill will be passed, I mean, before the middle of this year."
The enslavement and trafficking of Africans are disturbing and persistent problems for a continent already battling political, economic and health concerns. But growing international awareness of the crisis, and new laws, may limit the exploitation of Africans.