Bound by invisible chains

In the last country in the world to formally abolish slavery, old habits die hard. 

EVER find yourself getting confused by place names? Like Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Papua New Guinea and Guyana?

Basically, four different parts of the world, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau being next to each other. Took me a while to sort out the difference between those places, I can tell you.

I even got confused between Maldives and Mauritius and, Mauritius and Mauritania. It is that last country, that I’ve been watching this time around, and I have to tell you, things aren’t really moving as one would wish.

At a time when the fight against human trafficking is given a lot of lip service if not truly represented by genuine political will, Mauritania is still showing signs of sluggish progress.

Would you believe that this desert nation, which conversely boasts a lengthy coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, only moved to abolish slavery in 1981, and made it a crime in 2007.

The caste system that operates in large swathes of India is well known, but Mauritania’s own vile system is a much better kept secret.

Essentially, there are castes of slaves born into servitude for generation after generation. Imagine that. And no amount of superficial political changes can undo a social fabric dating back centuries.

Human rights groups operating in the region estimate that a whopping 800,000 of Mauritania’s population of 3.5 million actually exist in a state of permanent indentured labour.

I just studied the sad case of a pair of Haratine brothers who were enslaved at birth by a wealthy family.

The Haratine are a group of black Africans who are at the bottom of the societal structure. Haratines have been enslaved by the dominant Moorish and Berber groups for at least four centuries. Brought from lower West African regions, they have eventually grown to form 40% of Mauritania’s population but are still viewed as conscripts for forced labour.

Ironically, if Mauritania was a democracy, the former slaves would form a sizeable voting bloc, but it is anything but. For most of the 57 years since independence, Mauritania has been ruled by one of three authoritarian Rulers. They are Moktar Ould Daddah (president from 1960-1978), Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (1984-2005) and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (2008-present).

With the latter two hailing from the military, one can easily surmise that there is a degree of farce to Mauritania’s democracy.

In their last election in June 2014, Abdel Aziz bagged 82% of the vote with his nearest challenger Biram Dah Abeid getting just under 9%.

That Biram was running on an anti-slavery platform for the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement tells its own tale. The son of slaves, his reward for finishing second in the presidential election was a two-year jail sentence. And this is despite being a relatively high-profile recipient of the United Nations’ Human Rights Award in 2013.

Despite being tortured and threatened, Biram has pursued his fight for justice, but again one wonders how many are really listening.

After all, Abdel Aziz, who first received widespread condemnation following his coup, was elected president of the African Union, practically crowning him with a garland of respectability and recognition.

In the meantime, people like Biram are fighting what seems to be a lone fight. He believes that slavery has been institutionalised and rationalised through the constitution and various interpretations of religion. He has called for sanctions against his country until it removes this unjust system, but guess what ... offshore oil deposit discoveries over the last 15 years have ensured that no foreign power is going to care enough.

In the meantime, the brothers’ case has gone to the regional court of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, a body of the African Union.

That action was needed because even though their wealthy “owner” was successfully prosecuted, he was subsequently freed on bail after just a few months.

Needless to say, women and children are even greater victims of this servitude. Society’s most vulnerable members always are. Would you take an interest in what goes on in an isolated country many of us are barely even aware of?

> Star online news editor Martin Vengadesan is consistently baffled by the injustice of it all.

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Opinion , martin maldives mauritius


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