lavery as an institution, is probably as old as time itself. Over the ages, it has occurred in different forms, and affected different peoples. On the subject of slavery in Africa, little is known about how it started, where it started, who its first perpetrators were, and indeed, who exactly, its first victims were. What we do know for a fact is that slavery, within an African context, has survived, and in many ways, thrived for centuries if not millennia.
Enslavement of Africans by Arabs
In an age where information has never been more easily accessible, it is rather unfortunate that most of the discourses regarding slavery in relation to Africans and people of African descent tend to focus mainly if not entirely on the infamous Transatlantic Slave Trade. The predominant postcolonial opinion amongst Africans both at home and in the diaspora, tends to portray slavery as an institution that was introduced to the continent by the Europeans of the Christian West. Arabs on the other hand, are seldom subjected to the same pseudo-analysis. As a result, we often tend to romanticise the legacies of Arab-Muslims in Africa – downplaying their roles in the enslavement and mass-exploitation of Africans at best, or at worst, denying their involvement outright.
Now, while it is right to critically analyse the legacies of Western-Christians in Africa I think it’s only fair that we analyse the legacies of Arab-Muslims in Africa with the same due diligence. What is happening in Libya today isn’t a novel phenomenon. Arabs have been trading in African “slaves” since the 7th century – let that sink in. That’s well over a millennium before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began. Although the practice was somewhat interrupted by the Europeans (for obvious reasons), it was never really stamped out. Recent cases reported in Mauritania stand testament to this fact.
Internalisation of Oppression by Africans
One offshoot of slavery that we often fail to mention in our conventional discourses is the domestic servitude of Africans to other Africans. It is commonplace in many African countries for young girls and boys to live with and work for more affluent members of society under the guises of “house-helps”, “house-maids”, “house-girls”, or “house-boys”. These servants, if I may use that term, seldom receive payments for the services they render – services that could range from house-keeping to farm work. In many cases, payments are made to third-parties who may or may not be related to the servants in question. As for the so called “house-helps”, they are more or less properties of the people they work for. They do what they’re told for as long as they’re told to do it, and have little to no say in these matters. They are often beaten – sometimes beyond reason, denied food, or even mutilated as punishment for offences that are in many cases, minor and determined by the people they work for.
Now, you might wonder where I am going with all of this. Am I trying to deflect from the issue at hand? Quite frankly, I’m not. If anything, I’m trying to expand on it. I think it is important for us to know that no people, in the history of humankind, has ever been systematically oppressed as much as, for as long as, and as inhumanely as the people of Africa. Having said that, however, I think, that it is just as important to acknowledge the fact that we, the oppressed, have now become so marked by these oppressions, that we have learned to internalise them, and even today, we perpetrate them amongst ourselves in ways that are often too difficult to describe.
Just think about it, would the Libyans dare to sell European or Chinese migrants into slavery? Not in today’s socio-political climate. If they did, Europe and China would come for them, and the UN would follow suit. The only people that the world seems to be able to commit the greatest atrocities against, with impunity, are Africans and people of African descent, and that is partly because our leaders don’t feel accountable for our wellbeing at home and abroad. Against the backdrop of history in which our humanity has been questioned for hundreds of years, the disrespect and disregard for black Africans by Arabs, Europeans, and other non Africans is expected. They have proven, time and time again, that we are of little value to them. What is unforgivable, however, is the fact that even our own governments do not seem to value us either. They would rather remain puppets to the highest bidder than protect the interests of the people they were ‘elected’ to govern.
They would rather remain puppets to the highest bidder than protect the interests of the people they were ‘elected’ to govern.
What would Garvey say?
Believe me, I understand the need to call out western media and other international agencies for their apparent silence on an issue of this severity. It hurts to see that while our people are being traded as commodities, there are people who would rather talk about the royal engagement. It hurts, but what hurts even more than this is the fact that decades after independence, we are still overly-reliant on the international community for things that we (our governmental and non-governmental agencies) should be in the position to provide ourselves with. As Marcus Garvey once said, ‘a race that is solely dependent upon another for economic existence sooner or later dies. As we have in the past been living upon the mercies shown by others, and by the chances obtainable, and have suffered there from, so we will in the future suffer if an effort is not made now to adjust our own affairs.’
It hurts to see that while our people are being traded as commodities, there are people who would rather talk about the royal engagement.
Why did we fight so hard for independence and why do we go out to vote if our national governments can’t even afford us the basic necessities of life? Why do we have an African Union if we always depend on the European Union and the United Nations to solve our domestic issues? How can it be business as usual for our governments even when irrefutable proof of the existence of slavery in a member state of the African Union has been brought to light?
The truth is that if the economic, political, and social conditions of our continent remain the way they are, things like this will continue to happen to our people. Lest we forget, these people weren’t kidnapped – they wilfully left their homes in search of a decent life only to end up having it worse. No one in their right state of mind would put themselves through the uncertainties of a journey to Europe via the Sahara – No one, but the ones who believe they have nothing to lose. A combination of corruption and bad governance has left us in a state whereby, we feel the need to leave our homes in order to survive, and other people feel they can do whatever they want to us, and get away with it. I’m not just talking about the slave trade in Libya, the police brutality that targets our people disproportionately in a number of countries is just another example of this.
[…] if the economic, political, and social conditions of our continent remain the way they are, things like this will continue to happen to our people.
Why we must look inwards
Putting all of these into consideration, I submit to us that, as a people, we have a lot of work to do on ourselves, within ourselves, and ultimately, for ourselves. We need to readdress the value that we place on ourselves and each other. We need to learn to respect ourselves the way we hope to be respected by others. They say charity begins at home, and I couldn’t agree more. Garvey once said that ‘the man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.’ If Africa was where it needed to be economically, politically, and socially, our people wouldn’t see the need to emigrate en masse as they would by and large be content at home. As such, while it is important to speak out against the slave trade in Libya, and indeed, every form of oppression that affects our people all over the world, I think it is just as important to be self critical and address the aspects of ourselves, our customs, and our government’s policies that allow these forms of oppressions to thrive without consequences.
We need to attack the root cause of our issues and not just grapple with the effects. We need to see slavery from beyond the view of race, because if we are limited to a racial view, we might be deceived into believing that only non-black people are capable of enslaving black people – an idea that history has proven wrong only so many times. We need to see slavery as a crime against humanity. This way, we will be as critical of ourselves as we are of others, and for every finger we point at others, we will not be afraid of the three that point back at us.
This doesn’t mean that we should be indifferent to racism nor does it mean we should make excuses for racist practices. What it means is that we must strive towards a ‘do for self’ mentality. Like Garvey said, ‘liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.’ We can either keep waiting for others to do for us, or we can pick ourselves by the bootstrap and do for self. The surest way to change people’s perceptions of us is to change our realities, but the first step towards changing our realities is to change our mentalities – for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.
We can either keep waiting for others to do for us, or we can pick ourselves by the bootstrap and do for self.
The importance of history in the present
Garvey once said that ‘intelligence rules the world, [and] ignorance carries the burden.’ Sometimes, the value we place on ourselves and each other is a reflection of our collective ignorance as a people. For as Garvey said, ‘if we as a people realised the greatness from which we came we would be less likely to disrespect ourselves’. Africa has a long and rich history. We’ve been masters and we’ve been slaves, we have conquered and we’ve been conquered, we’ve been beaten but we’re not broken, we’ve been losing but we’re not lost. I think it’s only right that we embrace our history in its entirety – building on the good, and learning from the bad. For as the saying goes, ‘those who are unwilling to confront the past will be unable to understand the present and unfit to face the future’.
Africa has a long and rich history. We’ve been masters and we’ve been slaves, we have conquered and we’ve been conquered, we’ve been beaten but we’re not broken, we’ve been losing but we’re not lost.
The late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi knew this all too well. He was the first Arab leader to apologise for the Arab Slave Trade which spanned over three continents and claimed the lives of tens of millions of Africans over a period of 14 centuries. Unlike his Arab, European, and North American counterparts who often fall short of an admittance of (not to talk of an apology for) the roles that their forebearers played in the enslavement of Africans, Gaddafi threatened to be equal to the task. Using his sheer influence and power, he tried to atone for the mistakes of his forebearers. He advocated for a more cohesive African Union, and promoted Pan-Africanism – but not just in rhetoric. He channelled Libyan funds and resources into the development and empowerment of the African continent. He tried to heal some of the wounds that kept Africa crippled, and though he wasn’t given the chance to succeed, history will always remember that he tried.
Those who are unwilling to confront the past will be unable to understand the present and unfit to face the future.
Africans are a reflection of Africa. For the world’s perceptions of Africans to change, the current situations in Africa must change. So while we pray for the safety of our people in Libya, we must carry our homeland in our hearts wherever in the world we may be. We must learn from the mistakes of our past and find ways to build bridges and not borders. We must unite as a people on a global scale against the forces that would rather see us divided. We must learn to love and value ourselves and each other, so that others can learn to love and value us too. We must learn that whatever affects one of us, affects all of us. We must realise that in the end, we will either rise together or not at all. No act can be too great or too small if carried out in service of humanity, so whatever we feel we can do, by all means, we must do – not just for Africans, but for Africa. For in the end, the future of the African can only be as bright as the future of Africa itself.
[…] in the end, the future of the African can only be as bright as the future of Africa itself.