MARIE RODET, PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON
”It is urgent to advocate a law criminalising slavery…and its effective application’
Marie Rodet is Professor of African History at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London. For over 15 years, she has been researching the history of slavery in the Kayes region. She analyses how the resistance, rebellions and mobility of the enslaved disrupted supposedly fixed gender relations and power hierarchies, leading to complex renegotiations of kinship, marriage, religious practices and, more generally, notions of belonging in West Africa. In this interview, the Professor of African History examines the practice of slavery
Le Challenger : You’ve done a lot of research into descent-based slavery. How do you explain the persistence of this phenomenon more than 60 years after the end of colonisation?
Marie Rodet : Descent-based slavery is still prevalent in many West African communities. It must first be defined. The people concerned are assigned “slave” status on the pretext that their ancestors were captured and that their family has since “belonged” to families considered “noble”. This status is transmitted mainly through the maternal line, to ensure that the children of women considered to be “slaves” are born into slavery. Some of the people involved, who did not even have ancestors who had been captured and sold into slavery, were given “slave status” after moving to a new community. Indeed, foreigners who sought refuge in a context of war and slave raids were often given an inferior status by local landowners. Children “pawned” in times of famine remained in the creditor’s family when the debt could not be repaid, and their descendants could be given “slave status”. Today, the hereditary nature of slavery persists. Slavery was legally abolished during colonisation, but the abolition was not effective. The colonial administration itself tolerated slavery by descent and systematically recruited former slaves for forced labour. At independence, these subjects remained taboo and discrimination linked to “slave” status continued. This includes restrictions on access to education and health care, bans on marriages between people considered “slaves” and “nobles”, and certain religious bans. If people refuse to accept “slave” status, they face embargoes on access to their community’s essential assets (schools, markets, health centres, wells, fields, etc.), sometimes extreme violence and are often forced to leave their village if they do not submit to slave discipline.
Tensions surrounding slavery are dormant or reactivated depending on the time and place, but the status does not disappear.
This is why it is crucial to raise awareness and to advocate the adoption of a specific law criminalising descent-based slavery in order to put a definitive end to this phenomenon, which has serious repercussions at multiple levels and hampers the social and economic development of the regions concerned.
Le Challenger: In Mali in recent years, there has been violence linked to the practice of descent-based slavery in certain villages. What do you think is behind this violence?
Marie Rodet : Violence erupts when people assigned “slave” status refuse to submit. Simply refusing to be called a “slave”, for example, can be enough to trigger extremely violent reprisals. Since 2020, several people have been murdered for refusing to accept slavery. A year ago, in July 2022, in the village of Lany-Mody in the Kayes region, a 71-year-old woman, Diogou Sidibé, was murdered in her field. The “nobles” wanted to deny her access to the field, even though the courts had recognised her right of ownership. She refused to stop working there, and that’s why she was murdered. Since 2020, more than 3,000 people have been forced to flee their villages in the Kayes region, particularly at Mambiri near Kita. These people are forced to seek refuge elsewhere, where they live in extremely precarious conditions. This violence often stems from a simple refusal to accept slavery and the discrimination associated with this status.
Le Challenger : While some people are opposed to this practice, others find it convenient. Don’t you find this paradoxical?
Marie Rodet : What the field research shows is that, most of the time, the discourse that makes slavery just another custom with no major consequences and supposedly well accepted by everyone is held by the majority of people considered to be ‘noble’ and who defend these practices. What’s more, it’s a risk for those considered to be ‘slaves’ to express a contrary opinion. Even in villages where tensions around slavery seem to have calmed down, the simple refusal to be called “slaves” can trigger a new wave of violence.
Le Challenger : In which areas of Mali does descent-based slavery still persist?
Marie Rodet : Our study of descent-based slavery has focused on the Kayes region, but in reality descent-based slavery persists throughout Mali, as well as in other parts of West Africa, for example in Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Niger, etc.
Le Challenger : Are the responses provided by the national authorities living up to expectations?
Marie Rodet : The Malian authorities seem to be taking greater stock of the phenomenon and the importance of tackling the problem for the country’s stability and development. Nevertheless, the responses are not yet commensurate with the efforts required. Efforts to raise awareness must be maintained and the process of adopting a specific law criminalising slavery must be speeded up so that those who still practise it can be prosecuted. Without such a law, it will be extremely difficult to eradicate the phenomenon.
Le Challenger : Do you think there is a slave lobby in Mali that influences decision-making?
Marie Rodet : It’s difficult to talk about an organised slave lobby as such. But the ‘noble’ families who traditionally owned slaves are often still in positions of power and influence today. Over and above the direct interests that some people may have in continuing slavery practices through descent, for material gain or to maintain a social position, many ideas persist in society and in the spheres of power, such as the idea that slavery is no more than a tradition, which tends to minimise its consequences or even legitimise the phenomenon. This ideology is one of the factors that perpetuates these practices, which have theoretically been abolished and condemned by the international treaties that Mali has ratified.
Le Challenger : Does the recent organisation of an Assize Court in Kayes on slavery-related practices reflect, in your view, a real desire to combat impunity?
Marie Rodet : This is certainly an encouraging sign, and the role of justice is absolutely crucial in the fight against this phenomenon. It is vital that the victims are recognised and compensated, and that there are legal repercussions for the perpetrators of slavery and violence.
Le Challenger : On 8 May, UN experts urged the Malian authorities to adopt legislation to criminalise slavery in the country. What do you think of this recommendation?
Marie Rodet : This is essential if descent-based slavery is to be effectively abolished in Mali. Although the country has ratified several treaties prohibiting these practices, and slavery is abolished in law, there is no specific law criminalising descent-based slavery. Victims can only seek justice on the basis of other parallel offences or crimes, such as violence to persons, attacks on property, etc., but there is nothing in the law to allow them to do so. But there is nothing in the Penal Code to punish the practice of descent-based slavery itself, as this crime is neither named as such nor defined. In the new Penal Code, slavery is defined and criminalised, but the definition used does not correspond to the definition of descent-based slavery, which cannot simply be reduced to a state of property. The law needs to recognise the specific nature of descent-based slavery, which is more a matter of psychological and physical control and exploitation than of ownership per se. The current state of the law still does not allow judges to deal with these cases appropriately.
Le Challenger : After several years of research, what do you recommend to put an end to the practice of descent-based slavery?
Marie Rodet : The adoption of a specific law criminalising slavery is a decisive point, but the legal aspect is not enough to put an end to the phenomenon of slavery. Awareness-raising is needed at several levels. At the legal level, once an appropriate law has been passed, it is necessary to ensure that the law is properly applied, by guaranteeing that magistrates and local authorities are properly informed about these practices. It is also crucial to raise awareness among the general population via various media (TV, radio, newspapers), particularly among young people, to alert them to the consequences of descent-based slavery and eradicate these practices.
Interview by Chiaka Doumbia