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Mali: ‘There is no specific law criminalising descent-based slavery’  

By Bokar Sangaré 
Posted on Monday, 18 October 2021 09:51

Ismaël Wagué, Mali's Minister of Reconciliation, upon his arrival in Bafoulabé in the Kayes region on October 14, 2021/Michel Yao.

In the Kayes region, the persistence of descent-based slavery has led to violent clashes. As Ismaël Wagué, Mali's minister of reconciliation, visits the region, researcher Marie Rodet explains the situation.

On 28 September, a video showing young people being tied up and tortured with clubs and knives was widely shared on social media, sparking anger and indignation. The gruesome scene took place in Tamora, in the Kayes region, during violent clashes between anti-slavery activists and so-called ‘nobles’.

The death toll, which has not been officially confirmed, numbers at one with a dozen injured. About 30 people have been arrested and since then, dozens of residents in the region have fled to Bamako.

Since 2018, the area has experienced increasing violence, which is related to the issue of descent-based slavery (jonya in Bamanankan). This practice, which persists in Kayes and other regions of the country, leads to intense discrimination. For example, UN experts reported that ‘nobles’ prevented ‘slaves’ from accessing their fields. The minister of reconciliation visited the region on Thursday 14 October two months after the adoption of a social pact for cohesion between the communities.

Marie Rodet, a specialist in African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies London (SOAS, University of London), breaks down for us the historical and political forces behind these slavery practices.

In Mali, slavery was officially abolished in 1905 by the colonial administration. How do you explain the persistence of this practice, particularly in the Kayes region?

Marie Rodet: In 1905, it was a question of abolishing slave trade for all of French West Africa. However, the colonialists were slow to implement this because they didn’t want to disrupt the local economy and the social order on which their hegemony was based. They didn’t have the manpower to control the entire population. They needed local chiefs, who were slaveholders.

Some slaves took liberation into their own hands and founded new villages, such as Liberté Dembaya in the southern Kayes region. Others managed to escape, like the tirailleurs, after the world wars. Though they were often considered descendants of slaves, they could leverage their salary and status. Those who were able to go to school and have careers as civil servants were also able to get by.

However, since there was no general revolution, there was no change within the dominant ideology either. In Malian socio-political circles, a sense of honour remains attached to being noble. The word is well known in Bamanankan: horonya.

How did descent-based slavery emerge in the Sahel?

[…] Slavery is a shared institution in the world and probably as old as human history. In the Sahel, it was reinforced by the transatlantic slave trade, as it encouraged internal wars and the militarisation of local kingdoms. According to local accounts, there was a final major wave of slavery during the wars carried out by Samory Toure’s armies in the late 19th century. During the attacks, populations were decimated and the few who survived were captured and enslaved. Today, it is their descendants who are victims of slavery by descent.

Why are we witnessing this resurgence of violence today?

Perhaps an ideological revolution is underway. As social networks expand the scope of all information, the ‘slaves’ are increasingly heard and supported, and seem to be winning the battle. In face of this, the ‘nobles’ cling to their little piece of power as it is all they have left. They are no longer the richest, so all they have left is their status. To keep it, they are ready to do anything, including violence, because slavery itself is an extremely violent institution: symbolically, physically, socially.

What does the law say about the practice of descent-based slavery?

There is no specific law criminalising descent-based slavery in Mali. The penal code can be invoked when there is violence, particularly in cases of physical violence or murder. Article 2 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on social origin, and international treaties can be invoked. However, as magistrates in Kayes pointed out last July, they have no legal instruments to condemn slave-owners. A law criminalising descent-based slavery (like in Niger, Senegal, or Mauritania) would be an essential step. However, this is not enough. Mentalities must change.

Yet there was a bill in 2016…

The 2016 bill was left in a drawer because for the last 10 years, everything has been seen from a security perspective in Mali. Indeed, in some villages, we are on the verge of civil war because of the issue of descent-based slavery, not to mention that some members of terrorist groups have taken refuge in the Wagadou forest near Kayes.

Some fear that frustrations will be exploited by these terrorist groups. What do you think?

In these Malian villages, and particularly in the north of the Kayes region, there have been sleeper cells of radicalised populations for a very long time. Social and economic frustrations affect everyone, not just the ‘slaves’. It is a little simplistic to say that it is the latter who will turn to terrorist groups.

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