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Niger - Modern Day Slavery -

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Niger - Modern Day Slavery

Broadcast: 05/07/2005

Reporter: Eric Campbell


CAMPBELL: In a mud brick village in the desert of Niger, a mother nurses her newborn baby. Halima's
child is sick and malnourished but she lives in hope of giving her a better life than her own.
Until she escaped six months ago, Halima was a slave. Her baby daughter, like her other three
children, was born of rape by her master.

HALIMA: There were too many humiliations. Even in broad daylight, while I was cooking or washing
clothes, my master would call me to have sex with him. We did it in the kitchen. I didn't even have
the right to go into his room. I was always wearing tattered clothes which reflected my status as a

CAMPBELL: Niger is one of the world's most arid and poorest nations. A land-locked desert country
north of Nigeria, it is home to 11 million people, most of them nomads or farmers scratching a
living from the parched soil.

Hereditary slavery has long been an intrinsic part of its culture. The French colonial rulers
tolerated the practice, the post-colonial dictators ignored it. It was only international pressure
that finally persuaded the parliament to outlaw it in May 2003.

But the abolition has not meant the end of slavery, rather it's given the government a premise to
argue the problem no longer exists. Over the past 9 days, we've travelled to some of the most
remote parts of this country and what we've found is that slavery is out of sight but still very
real and a murky fight between those trying to free slaves and those trying to ignore them may have
extinguished their best chance for freedom.

Our journey began in the capital, Niamey, the headquarters of the anti-slaving group Timidria,
meaning brotherhood.

CAMPBELL: Timidria's leader, Weila Ilguilas, has long embarrassed the government with startling
claims of continued slavery.

WEILA ILGUILAS: We found that more than 870,000 people were affected by this phenomenon today.
Politically nothing is done to eradicate this slavery phenomenon. On the contrary, there is a
tendency to deny it.

CAMPBELL: The reason for the silence, he argues, is this. Niamey is preparing to host the
Francophone Games, a mini-Olympics for French speaking countries to be held in December.

WEILA ILGUILAS: Many of the countries who are to participate in the Francophone Games, who are the
true democrats - who are really democratic republics - would not accept to come to a country where
today, slavery is still in existence.

CAMPBELL: To find out the truth for ourselves, we set off north across the desert to the district
of Tahoua, widely seen as a heartland of slavery. It's a vast region of mud-brick villages and
nomadic camps on the edge of the Sahara. The central government has long relied on the support of
traditional chiefs here to enforce its edicts, chiefs who have traditionally owned slaves.

Prince Moustapha Kadi is the son of a powerful chief and a former slaver, he is also a human rights

PRINCE MOUSTAPHA KADI: We decided to release our slaves because we consider that the time has come.
We actually inherited our slaves at a time when there was no official abolition in Niger.

CAMPBELL: In December 2003, seven months after slavery was outlawed, he publicly freed the family's
slaves - five adults and two children who had been born into lifetime bondage.

PRINCE MOUSTAPHA KADI: So today it is very clear that each Nigerien must stand up and recognise
that slavery has to end.

CAMPBELL: But having just outlawed slavery, the government denies that the practice continues. The
Tahoua governor, Zity Maiga, who attended the liberation, now claims it was a stunt to discredit

ZITY MAIGA, TAHOUA GOVERNOR: These people told us afterwards when we investigated that they had
been forced to come to the meeting. They collected this information in order to tell those who
accompanied them that these were slaves in such and such a place. But this is totally false.

CAMPBELL: We found one of the men who took part in the ceremony still living in the village. Abdou
confirmed that he had been raised as a slave. While the others left to build new lives, Abdou has
chosen to remain here, continuing to groom the horses of the Prince's father.

ABDOU NAYOUSSA: I don't get money, only food. God knows I am free, but I really feel I should work
for him because my mother is away and I feel that I should stay here.

CAMPBELL: Slavery in Niger has long been like a caste system, where dark skinned members of certain
tribes worked in unpaid servitude for lighter-skinned masters. It was not so much a trade as a
brutal social hierarchy.

WEILA ILGUILAS: 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

CAMPBELL: The difficulty is proving how much of it still goes on. These days, nobody will admit to
owning slaves. The law carries a penalty of up to 30 years in gaol. But how many continue to have
slaves secretly and how many continue to live in bondage by a different name?

We travelled further north to find some answers, guided by a Timidrian activist, Algamisse Amalouz.
There are not even roads here between most of the villages. It is barren, unsentimental country
where people do whatever they can to survive.

Most of the people here are slaves?

ALGAMISSE AMALOUZ: Yes, here most of these people in the village are slaves. The drought problem
affects everyone, slaves and masters. When one talks of the pleasure of farming it rests on the
animals. If the animals are lean, then so is the owner, who is very sad.

CAMPBELL: It didn't take us long to find people who identified themselves as slaves. The people
here told us they all worked for masters in a nearby village. They were dark-skinned Tuaregs, the
main ethnic group in Tahoua. This woman, Hilethay, said she had been born a slave, as had her two
year old daughter, Zaynaboo.

HILETHAY: When I grew up, I found my parents in bondage. She will do what I have been doing since I
can't prevent her from being a slave. Someone who works like this cannot claim to be equal to his
master. A slave is only breathing, but is a sick-living person.

CAMPBELL: All of them had heard of the law abolishing slavery, but with no money and no family
outside the village, they saw no way to escape.

HILETHAY: Because I don't know where to go - and if I dare to go to Tchintabaraden I might lose my
way. I could be tortured. So I pound grains and I fetch water.

CAMPBELL: But some have found the courage to flee. Assibit Wanagada told us she and her five
children escaped from their master last year, after a lifetime of rape and beatings. Her family now
ekes a living from this wind-blown settlement helped by Timidria.

ASSIBIT WANAGADA: The worst thing was doing work I did not choose to do. I did whatever the master
wanted me to do without rest. I am better now, thank God. I realise I am my own mistress.

CAMPBELL: But not everyone Timidria took us to see agreed they lived in servitude. At a nearby
watering hole, we saw dozens of people doing traditional slave tasks - tending animals and fetching
wood and water. Amalouz insisted the people here had told him they were slaves but when we turned
our camera on, they denied it.

ASSIBIT WANAGADA: She says the water is for her. That's what she says, but before she said it was
for her master. Now she says it is for her. So she did not say the same thing.

CAMPBELL: He tried again and got a different answer.

ASSIBIT WANAGADA: Tell me your tribe or race.

WOMAN: And you, what is your ethnic group?


WOMAN: Therefore, we too are slaves.

CAMPBELL: And later they denied it again saying they had never been enslaved. It was impossible to
know if Timidria was exaggerating their plight or if they were simply scared to speak freely. The
sons of a reputed slave master stood near us listening to their answers.

It's difficult for Timidria to know how many slaves there really are here.

ASSIBIT WANAGADA: Yes, it's difficult because there are slaves who won't admit to it but just the
same, when you ask them they will say "yes, I am from the slave race but now I work for myself".
But that's not true - many do not work for themselves, many work for a master. That's the problem.

CAMPBELL: That problem has made it impossible for Timidria to prove its claim that there are
870,000 slaves. The London-based movement, Anti-Slavery International puts a far more conservative
figure, estimating there are at least 43,000 slaves. The central government's representative here,
Zity Maiga, says there are none.

ZITY MAIGA, TAHOUA GOVERNOR: 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.

CAMPBELL: But we have met many people in your region who told us they were slaves.

ZITY MAIGA, TAHOUA GOVERNOR: If those people told you that, have not those people been
psychologically prepared? As you know Timidria is active - it sensitises people to get some
financing, maybe external financing.

CAMPBELL: The government has long accused Timidria of inventing claims of slavery to get money from
international donors. In March, it stopped Timidria holding a ceremony to release 7,000 slaves,
claiming this letter from a traditional chief offering to free them was a forgery.

WEILA ILGUILAS: I refute all these allegations. I have never received a single franc from anybody
to organise such a ceremony.

CAMPBELL: At first glance, Niger appears to guarantee basic freedoms. Since military rule ended in
1999, the government has allowed opposition parties, civil rights groups and free trade unions. All
can march on International Labour Day to call for workers' rights. But it's democracy with strict
limits. Shortly before our visit, Prince Moustapha spent ten days in prison for leading a protest
against rising food prices. And while we were filming back in Niamey, the authorities struck again.

One man who can't march today is the Timidria leader, Weila Ilguilas. He's just been arrested over
his stated plans to release 7,000 slaves and charged with propagating false rumours to make money.

Five other Timidria activists were also thrown in gaol.

PRINCE MOUSTAPHA KADI: Weila was arrested simply because the Timidria association is a hindrance.
It seriously hurts the government, therefore the government can't let it continue with its work.
Yet the work it's trying to do is a responsible one, a democratic one.

CAMPBELL: Weila was released six weeks later after a court found there were no grounds to hold him.
Even so, his detention and the criminal charges he still faces have severely stymied Timidria's
activities. Suggestions of fraud have given the government a means to discredit all Timidria's
claims. But what we saw during our journey left us convinced that thousands continue to live as
human baggage; working for masters for nothing more than food, their children destined to grow up
in servitude.

PRINCE MOUSTAPHA KADI: Slavery thrives. But it is an attitude about which only the government holds
the secret. We Nigeriens cannot understand why the government still resists an issue that is
concrete and real. Slaves are here, present, they live with us. For me in Niger, there should be no
slaves. One slave is too many.

CAMPBELL: As the Francophone Games approach, Niger's government is stepping up its denials.
Recently challenging outsiders to find a single slave market. It is a subtle but perhaps effective
way to conceal its dark secret. The chains and markets may be gone but in 21st Century Africa,
human beings are still being born as slaves.