Although slavery as an institution was officially abolished in Mali during colonial rule more than a century ago, the so-called “descent-based slavery” still persists today. Although slavery was outlawed by the French colonial rule in 1905, the authorities turned a blind eye to the continuation of slavery which they referred to as “domestic slavery”, fearing that complete abolition would destabilise economies dependant on the practice and endanger colonial rule. Thus the socioeconomic model has reinforced the historical hierarchies that persist today.
The centuries-old historical hierarchies have divided communities into various social castes such as nobles, chiefs, artisans and slaves – who are at the bottom rung of society and have merely inherited their status from their enslaved forefathers.
As they celebrated Mali’s independence day in the country’s western region of Kayes. But things took a dark turn when a group of people carrying thick wooden sticks and machetes appeared all of sudden. The celebrating crowd – people from the so-called “slave” class – were brutally attacked and publicly humiliated by the descendants of slaveholder families who consider themselves “nobles”. Attacks continued for two days, killing at least one man and wounding at least 12 others, United Nations experts said.
The lives of enslaved people are highly controlled in feudal communities. They are not allowed to become the mayor or chief of a village, own land or even marry outside their class. During celebrations such as weddings or births, they are expected to serve the nobles by slaughtering animals and preparing their meals. According to the descendants of privileged slaveholder families, this traditional practice is entirely voluntary. But the descendants of slaves say otherwise. Experts say they are at risk of losing their homes and access to water and land should they protest against the practice. Attacks against those who defy the tradition have become increasingly common in recent years, men have been publicly beaten and humiliated with their arms and legs bound.
Between 2018 and early 2021, more than 3,000 people who were descendants of slaves were forcibly displaced in Kayes. Gambana, a prominent anti-slavery and pacifist organisation, estimates that there are 200,000 such people in the region.
Diaguily Kanoute, who leads Gambana (“equality” in local Soninke language), said those who reject the practice are ostracised.
“You either have to accept being slave or you have to leave the village,” Kanoute, formerly enslaved himself, explained.
According to the UN, twice as many people were injured in “barbaric and criminal” attacks linked to descent-based slavery in 2021 compared with last year. Kayes alone has seen eight attacks, the UN experts said, noting that perpetrators are rarely held accountable.
“The fact that these attacks occur so often in this area shows that descent-based slavery is still socially accepted by some influential politicians, traditional leaders, law enforcement officials and judicial authorities,” they said.
Malian sociologist Brema Ely Dicko says the rising number of attacks shows the so-called nobles caste is not above using violence to maintain the existing social order.
“Anti-slavery campaigns, particularly Gambana’s, have raised awareness among the descendants of slaves who dared to tell their masters that they are not slaves. And masters started to take their land away from them and denied access to their water wells, which quickly followed by violence and forced displacement”, Dicko said.
Marie Rodet, at SOAS University of London, agrees and says the resistance to slavery has been largely amplified by social media which has become a powerful tool to question the status quo.
“Today, when you know that more than 70,000 people are members of Gambana’s anti-slavery activist groups on WhatsApp, it becomes clear that the oppressors have lost the ideological fight,” Rodet commented. “As they cannot accept their defeat though, they rely on retaliation to defend the little power they believe they still hold.” She continued, “What is worrying is the involvement of the younger generation in some of these exactions against victims of descent-based slavery with the complicity of local politicians and authorities.”
Unlike its neighbours Niger, Senegal and Mauritania, the country has not implemented legislation to prohibit and criminalise descent-based slavery. Anti-slavery activists believe the authorities lack the courage to end the practice, which provides a degree of impunity to perpetrators to continue to abuse those deemed slaves.
“The state has been in denial when it comes to slavery,” said Abdoulaye Macko, a founding member of Temedt, the first organisation set up to fight slavery in Mali. “With the scale of the abuses against slaves in recent years, the discourse is starting to change. However, the state’s response to the crisis remains timid,” he added, calling for the adoption of legislation to criminalise the practice and hold the perpetrators to account, as well as “make reparations and restore the rights of citizens deprived of their property”.
Slavery is alive in Mali and continues to wreak havoc on lives | Slavery News | Al Jazeera