Sep 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Analysis

By Mordi Ifeanyi Michael

Above: a slave market in Rio de Janeiro. The drawing appeared in a book published by Maria Graham who lived in Brazil during the early 1820s. Brazil proved to be a serious problem as the British Royal Navy began its effort to end the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Above: a slave market in Rio de Janeiro. The drawing appeared in a book published by Maria Graham who lived in Brazil during the early 1820s. Brazil proved to be a serious problem as the British Royal Navy began its effort to end the Atlantic Slave Trade.

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves” … Abraham Lincoln

“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally” … Abraham Lincoln


The above quotations were some of the numerous words of the then President of the United States showing his desire for slaves to be free. This desire resulted in the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Years later, other countries followed suit. Emancipation was even supported by the general assembly.


On the surface it would seem that the abolition of slavery was accepted by all and sundry, Africans included. But the question begging to be answered is ‘was slavery truly abolished completely?’ In the past slavery was practised in different forms which include chattel slavery, debt bondage, forced labour, serfdom and several others. Under chattel slavery, slaves are considered to be property and can be traded as such. They have no rights and are expected to perform labour and sexual favours at the command of a slave master.


Debt bondage, also known as peonage, involves the use of people as collateral against debt. Labour is provided by the person who owes the debt, or a relative who is typically a child. Africa had its own unique version of debt bondage known as ‘pawnship’. It also involved the use of people as collateral to secure repayment of debt. Slave labour is performed by the debtor or a relative of the debtor (usually a child). It involved the pledge of a person or a member of that person’s family to service another person providing credit.


There was also domestic slavery. Under domestic slavery, many slaves worked primarily in the house of the master but retained some freedom. Domestic slaves could be considered part of the master’s household and would not be sold to others without extreme cause. The slaves could own the profits from their labour (whether in land or products) and could marry and pass the land on to their children in many cases.


Every one of the methods stated above points to the fact that slavery was a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold and were forced to work. They were held against their will, from the time of their capture, purchase or birth and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation. Historically, slavery was institutionally recognised by many societies. It was abolished on the surface and everyone rejoiced but about one hundred and fifty years down the line, traces of slavery still exist. In the words of His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, “what most people do not know is that slavery still exists, it is not a thing of the past”. Although there is no longer any state which recognizes or which will enforce a claim by a person to a right of property over another, the abolition of the slave trade does not mean that it ceased to exist. Today slavery is still practised in a more refined form known as “modern slavery”, also known as contemporary slavery. It refers to the institution of slavery in our present society that continues to exist in the present day. Normally when we think about slavery, what comes to mind is the transatlantic slave trade in which Africans were transported to the West Indies and America to work mainly in the sugar plantations. Although its modern forms are different, when we talk about slavery we do not use a metaphor. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 20.9 million women and children around the world are in slavery and you can be sure that a large part of this figure are Africans. The number of slaves today remains the highest in human history. In the twenty-first century, people are still being sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the complete mercy of their employers.


Contemporary or modern day slavery is exhibited and practised in various forms which are very much visible. These forms include; bonded labour, early or forced marriage, forced labour, slaves by descent, trafficking, child labour etc. Many forms of slavery may involve more than one of the forms or elements listed above. For example, trafficking often involves advanced payment for the trip and organising a promising job abroad. There are many different characteristics that distinguish slavery from other forms of human rights violations; however, only one needs to be present for slavery to exist. People are in slavery if they are

  1. Forced to work through mental or physical threat.
  2. Owned or controlled by an employer, usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse.
  3. Dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as property.
  4. Physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.


Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all gender, ages and races. Slavery is often seen as a by-product of poverty. Countries that lack education, economic freedom and the rule of law and with poor societal structure can create an environment that fosters the acceptance and propagation of slavery. Most African countries and communities all possess the above-listed characteristics and are in fact tagged ‘third world’ or ‘underdeveloped’ countries. Evidence or signs of modern or contemporary slavery are seen everywhere in almost all countries or cities of Africa. In Africa, slavery is extraordinarily common for field workers, house slaves, sex slaves and several others. It has been argued at different quarters that not everyone was completely in support of the abolition of slavery and beliefs being as contagious as any other disease have somehow managed to flow into the minds of different individuals.


One can also argue that even those countries that were colonised by other foreign countries were given their desired independence because their colonial masters understood the weaknesses of the nations they were colonising and knew that they could capitalise on such weaknesses in order to still be in indirect control. This could be strongly argued because Abraham Lincoln, who later signed the Emancipation Proclamation, first claimed not to be in support of slavery, judging from his statement while serving in the Illinois General Assembly: “resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of same”. Today Africa has been besieged by all sorts of evils, from racism to kidnapping to child soldiering to corruption and every sort of unthinkable evil under from one country to the other.


Since the mid 1990s, the central government of Botswana has been trying to move the Bushmen out of the central Kalahari game reserve even though the national constitution guarantees the Bushmen the right to live there in perpetuity. As of October 2005, the government was visibly employing every tactic in the book against the Bushmen. This was still evident up until 10 December 2010 to date. This is a clear cut case of racial discrimination.


Just yesterday in Nigeria, there was news of the kidnap of a renowned lawyer and activist, Mike Ozekhome. In addition to all of this, there has been an upsurge in cases of kidnapping. No one is spared, be you an adult, teenager, toddler, foreigner, local etc. as long as it can translate to money in the bank. Kidnapping is fast becoming a means of livelihood. In countries like Sierra Leone and Congo Dr, children are daily being used as soldiers during wars and riots. Children and teenagers are daily being exposed to killing, shooting and bloodshed. In the words of Ishmael Beah, a child soldier during the Sierra Leonean civil war who now works as a UN goodwill ambassador for children affected by war, “shooting became just like drinking a glass of water”.


Corruption in Africa is now a household word. It is everywhere on the streets. It manifests in different forms and has hampered the growth and development of the continent. The above-stated signs and several others have made me ask if Africans truly are free from slavery. Do we still have the proverbial ‘hidden fingers’ of our colonial masters working behind the scenes? Today there is even talk of some leaders being used as pawns in a game, drug peddlers, gunrunners etc., all in a bid to cause instability in selected countries. The above-stated questions, and more, are begging for answers.




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