Maradi, Niger

African Court Finds Niger Guilty in Slavery Case

October 28, 2008 09:30 AM
by Josh Katz
A West African regional court is punishing Niger for allowing slavery, shedding light on the centuries-old practice that persists among some tribes.

Niger Guilty in Slavery Case

In a landmark case, the regional Ecowas Community Court of Justice ruled that the government of Niger must pay about $19,000 in damages to Hadijatou Mani, for not protecting her from slavery. Anti-slavery organizations helped Mani to bring the case against Niger.

Mani, who was born into a slave caste, was sold to Souleymane Naroua when she was 12 years old for about $500. Although slavery is prohibited throughout Africa, it still exists in parts of countries like Niger, Mali and Mauritania, according to The New York Times.

Naroua forced Mani to work in his fields for about 10 years and also raped her repeatedly, according to Mani’s court testimony. Naroua granted her freedom in 2005, but then took legal action against her when she attempted to marry another man, claiming that she was his wife. The Niger courts ruled that Mani was guilty of bigamy, and handed her a six-month jail sentence, of which she only served two months, The Times reports.

After the landmark ruling, Mani said, "I will be able to build a house, raise animals and farm land to support my family. I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed as a slave,” the BBC reports.

Anti-slavery organizations claim that Niger has about 43,000 enslaved people. The groups assert that nomadic tribes, such as the Tuareg and Toubou, have enslaved other ethnic groups for hundreds of years, according to the Times.

The court did not back a second argument from the prosecution in the case, however, and rejected the claim that certain Niger laws were “legitimising slavery through customary laws that campaigners say discriminate against women,” Reuters reports.

The Community Court of Justice, the legal body that ruled in Mani’s favor, “is a judicial arm of Ecowas, a political and trade group of West African nations,” according to the Times. It was established in 2000 and can sit in any of the nations that comprise the entity. However, recent rulings have demonstrated that the court lacks strength to enforce its rulings. In another case earlier this year, Gambia disregarded the court’s ruling to free a missing journalist allegedly detained in the country.

Niger, however, has suggested that it will follow through with the court’s orders. "We are law-abiding and will respect this decision," said Mossi Boubacar, a lawyer for Niger's government, according to Reuters.

Background: Slavery in Niger and West Africa

Slavery is still a major concern throughout West Africa, the BBC reports. “The ruling could have broad implications for countries nearby where slavery is still practised, including Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali, according to observers,” reported the BBC.

Romana Cacchioli, Africa Programme Coordinator for Anti-Slavery International, told the BBC that the form of slavery currently practiced in West Africa emerged centuries earlier when North African Berbers and Arabs forced the black Africans in the south into slavery. In the past five years, Cacchioli claims that Anti-Slavery International has helped to release more than 80 women in Niger from slavery.

Niger called for an end to slavery in 1960 after the country won independence from France. But the practice continued, and it was banned in 1999 and made punishable by law in 2003, according to an Anti-Slavery International document provided by The Guardian.

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