Some of the worst enemies of the Tuareg people are Westerners who make their livelihood by spreading fear and hatred for an entire population that they do not know. Several days ago, USA Today published an article [Feb. 14] by a young American reporter who wrote that “Tuaregs have long kept slaves,” and implied that Tuaregs are still “taking slaves” today and holding them captive. This is incorrect. The Tuaregs do not own slaves today, and do not capture people or hold them as slaves. The reporter based her article largely on propaganda she heard from one individual in southern Mali.The key to understanding why people in southern Mali are spreading such propaganda is contained in the USA Today writer’s own observation: “Human Rights Watch said the Malian army and black African civilians are holding all Tuaregs and Arabs responsible for the recent months of terror and human rights abuses, whether or not they participated in the crimes.” In order to report truthfully on the situation in Mali, the writer should have taken her cue from the fact that the Bamako government, the Malian army, and various people in the south are vilifying “all Tuaregs,” who live mainly in the north.The stigmatization of an entire population of hundreds of thousands of people is a propaganda war. It can lead to genocide. In Rwanda, the action began unrolling as Hutus started publicizing hate messages about Tutsis. The Tuareg people are fearful of genocide.
The Malian army and government are dominated by ethnic groups in southern Mali that are opposed to the Tuareg people. Various people in the south have been spreading fear and hatred of Tuareg people in order to gain Western financial, military, and political support—and to justify the Malian army’s gross abuses and atrocities against the Tuareg civilian population, which have been documented throughout this past year by human rights organizations.
Mali has often played the “slavery card” against the Tuareg people to sway Western support against them. However, we must keep in mind that raiding, trading, and keeping slaves was practiced by many peoples of Africa, and by ancestors of practically all the cultural groups in Mali. The predominant Bambara culture in southern Mali was no exception. [Tuareg Culture and News, July 2012]
The “slavery card” is a propaganda tool that is used to stigmatize a people unjustly, to motivate Westerners and others to sympathize with the accusers, and to downplay or ignore the legitimate grievances of the people who are accused.
Slavery in Mali was formally abolished in 1905 after the French colonized the region where Mali is today. Raids by the Bambara, Tuaregs, and others to capture people and enslave them ended in the 1800s, and some slaves left their masters after the 1905 emancipation. Tuaregs no longer own slaves, and the inheritance of slaves stopped decades ago.
Some people—in nearly every ethnic group in Mali—continued to maintain slaves for some years during the colonial period. The term “Bella” is a Songhay term for “slave” that was applied by the French to slaves in every ethnic group in Mali. The Tuareg term is iklan. The French did little to enforce the anti-slavery law. There were few options for slave-status people to obtain work elsewhere. Slaves were emancipated. But iklan remained a recognized social status in a residual social system that included nobles, vassals, marabouts, blacksmiths, and slave-status members, all of them considered Tuaregs.
By the mid-1940s, the majority of emancipated slaves had left their masters and began living independently. Other freed slaves continued to live in a patron-client relationship with their associated families, who provided them with work and income or payment in kind. The political turmoil of the 1960s, and especially the drought of the 1970s greatly impoverished the Tuareg populations. Many Tuaregs fled Mali to escape government oppression and army massacres. Nomad populations, including the iklan, were denied food aid during the drought, and many Tuaregs lost their livestock in the disaster.By the mid-1970s, the vast majority of Tuaregs, no matter what their social class, were living in abject poverty and could no longer afford to support servants. Members of the “noble” social class were performing domestic chores such as grinding grain and hauling drinking water. In some cases, descendants of freed slaves continued to live in proximity to the families of their ancestors’ former masters. They did so by choice, because some Tuaregs treated iklan like friends or members of the family, and the iklan had special roles to play in family gatherings and rituals.
The Tuareg social system has gradually evolved over the past 100 years since the abolition of slavery. Tuaregs have welcomed the transition to democracy, recognizing that all Tuaregs, including descendants of former slaves, have equal rights under the law. The social system that recognized “slaves” as a social class is in decline.
In a video documentary titled “Modern Day Slaves — Niger” [YouTube] a Niger government official says it is a falsehood to say that “slavery exists.” Social status terms like iklan exist as artifacts of the evolving social system, but the practice of slavery does not. The film also shows that some iklan continue to live with their associated families, in patron-client relationships.
The director of the Niger anti-slavery association Timidria [website] explains: “You will not find a slave market in Niger; nor will you find a shackled slave, and even less a slave transaction. On the other hand, what the type of slavery we experience shares with the former slave trade is humiliation, stigmas, the labels of persons who are considered sub-human.” In other words, the practice of slavery does not exist—it’s the stigma of being descended from former slaves that exists, at least in some places. In the film, a Timidria agent tries repeatedly to coerce a Tuareg family to admit that they are “slaves” working for a “master,” and they repeatedly deny it. The film’s narrator says, “That has made it a problem for Timidria to prove that there are 870,000 slaves… The central government’s representative here…says there are none.” The governor of Tahoua then says, “I can tell you that to my knowledge as the Governor of the Tahoua region which I have been leading for almost six years, I have never been made aware that slavery exists in the region.” The film’s narrator says, “The government has long accused Timidria of inventing claims of slavery, to get money from international donors.”
It is possible to make a comparison with the US, following abolition, when slaves were freed but many Americans in the south continued to think in terms of the old social system. It takes time for a population to make a full adjustment to a major change in social organization. African-Americans today still feel the pain and stigma of their ancestors who were once slaves, and discrimination has not disappeared.
Slavery was formally and legally abolished in America over 150 years ago, and in Mali over a century ago. Social change is an ongoing process, as people continue to adjust to a different social system, and different ways of thinking. There is a difference, however, between a “slave” social status and “keeping slaves.” Both are repugnant, and all of the ethnic groups in Mali and Niger are gradually making the transition that Americans and Europeans have had to make to achieve a more truly democratic society. Democracy is relatively recent in Mali and Niger, since the early 1990s. The fact is that Tuaregs today do not capture, own, or keep slaves, and they recognize the value of democracy.
The United States, and many European countries, also had a long history of slavery. Slavery is a sad part of our history that we share with many African peoples. Like Americans and Europeans, African peoples are making the effort to move past that history.
Many Tuaregs are dismayed by the falsehoods reported in the USA Today article. Tuareg voices are being expunged from the media by a powerful propaganda campaign promoted by various political voices in the south, reinforced by Western journalists who do not understand the political dynamics in Mali. We must help the Tuareg people communicate the truths of their suffering – and the vilification of their population by people in Mali and by Western reporters who do not even know them.
We aren’t sure what to make of this. Clearly, there is a threat that Mali is appraoching a “genocidal threshold,” with the Tuaregs portrayed as barbarous marauders and fundamentalists. The Tuareg practice of slavery was invoked by one skeptic of the separatist movement on this website a few months ago. The persistence of slavery has been well documented in Mauritania, despite very similar requisite denials by the government there too. That doesn’t necessarily mean slavery similarly survives in Niger or Mali.
Slavery—and actual chattel slavery, not the traditional “retainer” model described above—certainly existed in Sudan as recently as 10 years ago, and perhaps still does.
We note that enemies of Tibetan freedom have employed the tactic of portraying the Dalai Lama’s followers as nostalgic for a feudalistic slave state.