Facing jail, a chieftain in western Niger offered to free the 7,000 slaves held by him and his clansmen in a public ceremony, due to take place on Saturday March 5th. But in the week leading up to the event, Niger’s government came to fear that a massive release of slaves would draw unwelcome attention to slavery’s existence in the country. The government declared that slavery does not exist in Niger, the ceremony was cancelled and the slaves left as slaves. Far from avoiding a public embarrassment, Niger has multiplied its worldwide shame.Ant-Slavery International says (in a non-permanent link)
Following the positive moves by the Government on 5 March when it held an historic ceremony to end slavery throughout the country, officials are now sending out confused messages over the slavery situation in Niger.So the message to slave holders is (paraphrased as) "slavery in Niger does not exist but were you to release your (non-existent) slaves you will be jailed for upto thirty years".
Anti-Slavery International has had reports that the Government is saying slavery no longer exists in Niger and that senior government officials are warning slave masters not to release their slaves officially stating that if they do, they will be subject to 30 years in prison.
Timidria, Niger's pioneering anti-slavery organisation, and others also report government intimidation prevented slaves in In Atès from attending the 5 March ceremony.
It is very worrying to hear the Niger Government is now declaring that slavery does not exist and of its intimidation of the population. The enactment of legislation that criminalises and penalises slavery does not automatically mean it has been eliminated. It is vital the Niger Government acknowledges that slavery is a serious problem throughout the country and ensures that those in slavery are made fully aware of the new law and released.
The shift in position by the authorities is striking as Anti-Slavery International has seen letters from the Prime Minister and from the former Minister of the Interior clearly stating that they feel slavery in Niger is a problem.
At least 43,000 people are in slavery across Niger. They are born into an established slave class and are made to do all labour required by their masters without pay, including herding, cleaning, moving their master's tent to ensure he and his family are always in shade. The masters do nothing. Slaves are inherited, given as gifts and babies may be taken away from their mothers once weaned. They are denied all rights and choice.
It is crucial the Government of Niger acknowledges the reality of slavery in the country and that elimination requires a long-term approach. The Government must work with local and international NGOs in the development of assistance and support programmes for former slaves as well as in the creation of a monitoring body to ensure freed slaves are not exploited.
In May 2004 a new law came into effect making practising slavery punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The Government's move was in response to the publication of the first national survey of slavery, which was jointly carried out by Niger's pioneering anti-slavery organisation Timidria and Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest international human rights organisation. The report established the extent and countrywide existence of slavery, having interviewed over 11,000 people, most of whom were found to be in slavery.
So it goes. So goes the world. The first time as tragedy the second as farce (if farce was a word strong enough to encompass the horrors of slavery).