by Leah Durst-Lee and Nolwenn Marconnet
To discuss anti-slavery movements in West Africa, we must first discuss against what they are resisting. Around the world slavery has been legally abolished, but yet it is estimated that globally there are more people living in forms of slavery than ever before, and in Mali at least 200,000 people are subject to exploitative forms of descent-based slavery today. The internal slave trade was legally abolished in Mali in 1905 by the French colonial authorities. They convinced themselves that the legal abolition of slavery would end its practice by itself. This is known as the abolitionist bias. Yet, abolition ended only the legal and political supports for the institution of slavery, but not the social, cultural or economic practices that have allowed its continuance.
French colonial authorities were slow to enforce abolitionist laws except when it allowed them instead to recruit ’emancipated slaves’ into forced labor and military conscription. Slave owners adapted to this new legal reality by hiding slavery, labeling ongoing exploitation with benign terminology, such as domestic work, fosterage practices or customary marriage arrangements. Slavery thus continued to exist in Mali regardless of its illegal status and well beyond the independence of 1960.
Descent-based slavery is still a reality in Mali today, yet under the radar. Victims are being forced to work without pay, can be denied schooling, access to basic social services and lack several political, economic, and civil rights because of their social categorisation as “slaves”. They inherit this status as they are considered by the local elite as “descendants of slaves“.
In French-speaking West Africa, resistance against slavery has a long history but organised grassroots anti-slavery movements fighting against descent-based slavery can be identified since the late 1970s, and gained in significance in the 1990s. There are countless local African organisations, some examples are El Hor, SOS Esclaves Mauritanie, Saafaalbe Hormankoobe, Fedde Pinal, Balagoss, and IRA (Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement) in Mauritania; Semme Allah in Benin; Timidria in Niger; Temedt, Rassemblement Malien pour la Fraternité et le Progrès – RMFP and the Association de lutte contre la domination et l’esclavage (Association against domination and slavery) in Mali. Some are NGOs, some cultural movements, and some political groups recognized by state authorities, but while each anti-slavery movement is different, all work towards the end of the practice of descent-based slavery and a more equitable society for its victims through awareness raising campaigns, legal assistance, political lobbying, education and brokering development.
These days, anti-slavery activism relies heavily upon social media to fight against slavery. For instance, a Malian blogging campaign #MaliSansEsclaves (Mali Without Slaves) was launched in June 2020. Social media is also a way to connect and rally activists from different West African countries and West Africans living outside the region (commonly called the West African diaspora), in particular through the international movement Ganbanaaxun Fedde, commonly known as Gambana in Mali, a transnational network initiated by the organisation ARMEPES-France and who heavily uses and used WhatApp to campaign against descent-based slavery among the Soninke people in West Africa. This transnational movement also led to the creation of sister organisations in Mali (RMFP Gambana), in Senegal (Association des soninkos du Sénégal pour le progrès – Assep) and in the Gambia (Ganbaana), who actively use social media to fight against descent-based slavery.As part of its research, the SlaFMig project is collaborating on developing durable solutions for the victims of descent-based slavery in Mali, especially with the historical Malian anti-slavery organization called Temedt to understand local needs. The SlaFMig researchers also analyze historical and contemporary mobilizations against slavery in Mali and in the diaspora, engaging the Gambana network, to understand the distribution of power and control of resources. Please join our work by engaging with us on our website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.