Slavery Still Lurks in the Shadows

MDG : Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, President of Temedt, an organization working to end slavery in Mali
Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat is president of Temedt, an organization working to end slavery in Mali. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Slavery was formally abolished in Mali in the 1960s. Although slavery is not allowed under the constitution, there is no anti-slavery law.  Descent-based slavery through the maternal bloodline still exists in northern regions of Mali. There are approximately 800,000 people of slave-decent in Mali, 200,000 of whom are under direct control of their masters. People descended from slaves are considered the “property” of their “masters”. They live with them and serve them directly, or they live separately but remain under their control. Those who live in villages hundreds of miles away from their masters can expect the occasional visit to collect their share of crops or take children away to be household servants.

In 2006, Ag Idbaltanat, an activist who received the Anti-Slavery International award in London, set up the anti-slavery group called Temedt, which means “solidarity” in the Tamasheq language.  Ag Idbaltanat, himself a descendant of slaves, has seen the abuse and struggles first hand.  In 1976, he saw a former slave, who had spent years working to amass a herd of cattle, have his animals taken from him by his master. The master told the court that the cattle belonged to him, even though the entire community knew this was not the case. Also, 18 children of slaves were kidnapped recently by traditional masters of their families and taken to be servants. In 2004, a slave was shot in both knees by his former master and needed emergency amputation. The local doctor refused to treat him because he did not have enough money. He finally agreed to operate after Ag Idbaltanat paid him, but by then it was too late and the man died.

Temedt has more than 30,000 members, and has helped to free and support dozens of enslaved people. It provides legal advice to victims of slavery, trains magistrates on anti-slavery legislation and lobbies for legal reform to criminalize slavery practices. The organization is the first to dare to come out and say that slavery persists in Mali, along with Niger and Mauritania. Ag Idbaltanat says the government continues to deny this in fear that official acknowledgment may lead aid donors to withdraw. The government has accused anti-slavery activists of being unpatriotic for airing dirty laundry in public. But Ag Idbaltanat insists that he and fellow activists are the genuine patriots. “We believe we are the patriots to talk about a central problem in Mali,” he said. “It is something that pervades society, it has an impact on democracy, it excludes people from basic services and it is a factor in the conflict now.” “In a society where slavery exists, there is no justice and the law of the strongest prevails. Where there is slavery, there is stratification of society, subdivisions, frustration and tension. The state pits different groups against each other and the Islamists exploit the frustration against the feudal system.”

Despite the current crisis, Ag Idbaltanat is optimistic. He says, “My hope is that stability will return.”

Is it shocking that slavery still exists across the world? Since slavery in not allowed under the Constitution of Mali, why haven’t they enacted an anti-slavery law? Are they trying to keep it a secret in fear of public ridicule, or are they simply fine with allowing slavery to exist in Mali? Should the UN intervene to stop these atrocities? If so, what course of action should they take?

SOURCE: The Guardian


  1. While not all societies are as liberal and open as the United States, slavery is something that now, in 2012, should not be an issue – the fact that Mali’s constitution prohibits slavery demonstrates its knowledge of this. However, the fact that Mali not only has no law prohibiting slavery, it clearly has not enforced its constitutional provision, and is accusing Temedt of being unpatriotic, Mali’s true feelings have come to light. The inhumane, degrading, and atrocious treatment that these people are receiving due to outdated feudalistic ideas needs to be stopped, and the UN needs to step in, if only to bring more attention to Mali for this horrendous standard.
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN has adopted, most certainly prohibits Mali’s allowance of slavery, and is a basis for commencing action against Mali. While Article 4 explicitly bans slavery (“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”), Article 1 states:

    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

    These are serious human rights that are being violated, and the UN as well as international human rights groups around the world should be pulling together to put an end to this. Hopefully, by “airing [Mali’s] dirty laundry in public,” Temedt has taken the first steps to ending slavery there.

  2. Reading this article deeply saddens me. The progress our world has made is remarkable but there are some parts of our world that are lacking, especially in the area of protecting human rights. The fact that slavery still widely occurs in some countries, and there are no laws in place to stop these practices, is truly disgusting. The slavery issue in Mali seems as if it stems from the higher, more influential society’s reluctance to do anything about it. I may be assuming, but these influential and wealthy people are probably the “masters,” and do not want to stop their exploitation of free labor because that contributes to their wealth. This scenario resembles the makeup of the South in the United States pre-Civil War. The majority of the South was reluctant to abolish slavery because of its reliance on it and its fear of change. Slavery was abolished in America because of other influential people, mostly from the North, who believed that slavery was inhumane. This is what Mali and other countries living with slavery need: a powerful, influential force against slavery. I commend Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat for his efforts but his organization needs influential players to pressure the Mali government. Once there is support from the Mali government in the form of anti-slavery laws, I believe society’s view of slavery will finally change in Mali.

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