According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, each year the U.S. State Department releases an updated Trafficking in Persons Report which investigates the prevalence of slavery and human trafficking in each country as well as that government’s relevant policies. This informative publication classifies each country according to a three-tiered system according to their compliance with the Act’s standards; whether they 1) have enacted laws prohibiting trafficking in persons; 2) implement these anti-trafficking laws with vigorous prosecution of offenders; 3) punish those found to be guilty of anti-trafficking laws; 4) provide protection and social services to victims of human trafficking; 5) ensure safe and humane repatriation of trafficking victims and reintegration into their home society; 6) prevent practices identified as contributing factors to forced labor and human trafficking.
The State Department grades each country on a scale of 1 to 3 depending upon their compliance with the standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. A grade of 1 means that the government of that country is in full compliance with the law’s standards in combating human trafficking and is actually making appreciable progress in implementing those policies; a 2 means that that country does not meet the law’s standards but it is at least making some sort of progress; a 3 means that that country does not meet even the law’s minimum standards and is not making any serious effort to improve. For example, Denmark is graded Tier 1 in this year’s TIP Report, Brazil is on Tier 2, and North Korea is classified on Tier 3. Foreign governments have an incentive to comply with the Protection Act because if they are classified on Tier 3 in two consecutive publications of the TIP Report, they can be liable to trade sanctions and prohibitions on military and economic aid.
The 2010 TIP Report is fairly critical of the anti-trafficking efforts in Mali, placing this country on the Tier 2 Watch List:
The Government of Mali does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these efforts, such as assisting with the identification and rescue of 80 child trafficking victim and drafting new anti-trafficking legislation, the government failed to show evidence of progress in prosecuting and convicting trafficking offenders, and did not take action on five pending cases of traditional slavery. Therefore, Mali is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year.Furthermore, Mali receives this precarious designation because of a “very significant” absolute number of victims of human trafficking within her jurisdiction. The Malian government is now under great pressure to act, because if a country is placed on the Tier 2 Watch List for two consecutive years without any written plan to improve its anti-trafficking policy it should be demoted to Tier 3 and subject to foreign aid restrictions. The one factor keeping it from an ignominious Tier 3 designation is that Bamako has committed “to take additional steps over the next year” to come within full compliance with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
When nudged by the international community, the Republic of Mali has demonstrated its willingness to at least sign onto the global anti-slavery consensus. Among other accords, the Malian National Assembly has ratified the United Nations Supplementary Convention on Abolishing Slavery, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress & Punish Trafficking in Persons, the ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labor, the ILO Convention 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labor, the ILO Convention 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. A cynical observer of international law would point out that a self-interested government should always sign such non-binding agreements so long as doing so carries no political or economic costs, only benefits in that government can more easily do business with human rights-minded governments and businesses. Even if a government ratifies a treaty, to sign onto a multilateral agreement without any potent enforcement mechanisms of investigation, prosecution and penalization of violators is more or less an empty gesture. If you take a look at those sections of the Malian criminal code pertaining to slavery and human trafficking, the law’s inconsistencies with these treaties and protocols and simple logic should be so obvious that they jump off the page.
To begin, Mali’s anti-slavery credentials rest almost entirely upon Article 242 of the Malian criminal code which prohibits individuals from “entering into agreements or contracts that deprive third parties of their liberty”. This law only applies in cases where two people have made an agreement to enslave someone who is not a slave already; it essentially only bars the signing of illegitimate contracts. Article 242 does not restrict the ownership of a slave. It does not restrict the commerce of someone who is already a slave, someone who was born to a mother who is a slave, or someone who has inherited the debt of a deceased father and can then be forced into indentured servitude. Furthermore, the cornerstone of the code’s anti-slavery law does not stand in the way of two people signing a contract which deprives one of the signers of their liberty; i.e. debt slavery or indentured servitude. Thus Malian law only prohibits the expansion of chattel slavery and grandfathers those forms of slavery which already exist, especially the traditional form of slavery prevalent in Tamashek societies.
Mali’s legal tool against sexual slavery consists of Article 229 of the criminal code which prohibits “the sexual exploitation of children and forced prostitution of adult women”. Nevertheless, there is no law which prohibits the forced prostitution of female children, adult males or male children – categories which constitute substantial portions of the sexual workforce. The code also fails to curb the sexual exploitation of adults so long as it does not include a financial payment and therefore does not fall under the definition of “forced prostitution”; e.g. holding someone captive as a concubine or sex slave . In other words, Article 299 prohibits only the most conventional forms of sexual oppression and fails to encompass the broad range of services which perverts and pedophiles will pay for.
Mali should also receive credit where it is due for banning “all forms of child trafficking” in Article 244 of the criminal code. And when I say “credit”, I mean the sound of one hand clapping. The gist of Article 244 is that it is illegal to transport un-related children across international borders – but if a pimp were to take a girl from her family in village and rent her out as a domestic servant in Bamako, wait until she turns 18, and then transport her across the Senegalese border to sell to a prostitution ring in Dakar, there aren’t any legal avenues to convict that pimp on trafficking charges. While child trafficking might be the most sensational form of the crime, for Malian human trafficking law to not even recognize commerce in adult men and women is a disgraceful omission.
Taken together, the aggregate of extremely limited anti-slavery and anti-trafficking laws establish a legal code so porous and so weak that some of the most reprehensible forms of human bondage – the traditional slavery of the black Bella by white Tamasheks, the forced prostitution of female children, the forced prostitution of boys and men, the holding of unpaid concubines, trafficking in adult men and women – can be practiced without fear of legal repercussion. And this is just the range of horrors that can be committed in the open with technical legality – all forms of human bondage can be practiced freely so long as law enforcement agencies never make any arrests and the courts never actually prosecute offenders. Over the past year Malian gendarmes have made a grand total of two arrests for human trafficking charges (both suspects were released without trial), and the Malian criminal court system has not prosecuted a single case of slavery or human trafficking.
It should come as no surprise then that slavery still exists in Mali as plain as day. It is common for a relatively well-to-do Malian family to have one or two servants who do all of the work around the house, in the garden and in the fields and never get paid. The Bambara term for such a person is jon – “slave”, and there is no euphemism in this literal language like “indentured servant”, “maid” or “butler” for a non-chattel unpaid laborer. Of course, if you ask the waritigi if their unpaid workers are in fact slaves, they will laugh and tell you “Yes, but they can leave whenever they want!” And if you ask a servant what he or she thinks about his condition, he or she will probably tell you something along the lines of “I have a place to live, I have food to eat, there are no problems!”
Don’t think that unpaid servants just accept their place in life because of a deep-seated inferiority complex; without understanding the absolute insecurity of the food supply and the utter lack of opportunity in the Malian economy it is rather difficult to sympathize with the father who sells his sons and daughters to a slave dealer. In the year 2010 the vast majority of Malian subsistence farmers are tilling their sandy, rocky soils with the same iron hoes and picks that their ancestors have used since the advent of the Iron Age circa 500 B.C. Without mechanized farm tools agriculture is an extremely labor-intensive vocation, and in such a barren environment work in agriculture holds out only meager rewards. Especially in the Northernmost reaches of human settlement in the desert provinces a man can toil in the fields all year and see only two or three rains, maybe he will harvest enough millet to feed himself, his two wives and 10 of his 14 children. This farmer could feed all of his children this year – but then he would starve himself. He could buy more millet at the nearest market – but he doesn’t have anything to sell or barter. He could take out a loan to pay the food bills this year – but without any form of monetary income there is no way that he could ever pay off a debt with monthly accumulating interest. So you have to understand that the people who sell their children into slavery are not necessarily moral cretins, the fact is that sometimes they truly have no other choice. To the most desperate, entering into indentured servitude is actually a step up; a typical slave working for even a moderately wealthy patron is guaranteed two square meals a day.
Moreover, before you recoil in philosophical disgust at the notion of owning a slave, the Western reader should try to understand the appeal to a moderately wealthy Malian. Let’s say that Agalay the Tamashek Salt Merchant makes 1,000,000 CFA (~$2,000) a year driving his camel caravan from the salt mines in Taoudenni to the market in Timbuktu and back with food supplies and dry goods for the salt miners. Agalay spends most of his life on the road, and though he inherited his family’s longstanding land claims in the village where his wives and children live he rarely has any time to work in the fields himself. Planting season is coming soon, and Agalay’s wives tell him that the soil is so hard that the young children cannot break it up themselves. So one day at market he sells a load of rock salt, takes his profits and goes to the slave auctioneer to buy a boy strong enough to pound his caked fields into submission. A boy slave costs around 10,000 CFA ($20), maintenance amounts to little more than the costs of millet and water, and this addition to the family labor force can easily increase the productivity of Agalay’s farm to a point that their millet yields are significantly greater and his own family members have more time to sit and drink tea. In an economy where labor is one of the prime determinants of food security, buying a slave is widely accepted as a sound investment.
Historians contend that the institutionalization of slavery began in earnest in West Africa around 500 B.C. as people began to mine and smelt iron ore and fashion it into blades for hoes and picks. The advent of this technology marked a profound turning point in the means of production, for the amount of food harvested by iron-wielding societies was able to support a much larger, more stable population than that harvested by those who tilled the earth with only stone, bone and wood. Iron Age societies were so relatively productive that they could develop job specialization, a distinct warrior class armed with lethal blades and arrow heads, and both the time and the resources to raid their primitive Neolithic neighbors. As much as iron tools made agriculture so much more efficient for the yeoman farmer, iron weapons made agriculture even more efficient for those who could command slaves to do that labor in their stead.
Though slavery was prevalent in Mali before the advent of Islam, the trade in human chattel expanded greatly with the expansion of the Caliphate across North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. The Arab merchants of the rapidly expanding Caliphate recognized their empire’s reach into Africa as an unparalleled business opportunity. Though Quranic law condemns the enslavement of Muslims by other Muslims, and since the Arabs were actively converting the Berbers and Tamashek nomads living in their African territories to their new monotheist faith, the most immediate non-Arab subjects were off-limits to slave traders. However, the Quran has little bad to say about the enslavement of pagans and idolaters, so the Tamasheks turned on the animist black African tribes with whom they had longstanding trade contacts. From at least the 8th through the 19th century, Tamasheks made a living conducting raids on the Songraï, Dogon, Bobo, Bambara and Fulani tribes – among others – and transported their human chattel across the Sahara Desert for sale to Arab slave merchants in Marrakesh, Fez, Tunis and Tripoli. Over the course of twelve centuries up to 9 million slaves were trafficked across the Trans-Sahara Slave Trade, with a fair portion of those human goods originating from the territories which now comprise the Republic of Mali.
The Trans-Sahara Slave Trade benefited not only the white Tamasheks, but also the ruling and commercial elite of West Africa’s black-skinned tribes. Perhaps one of the best examples of Africans who profited from the slave trade would be Mansa Musa I, the Mandinka ruler who developed the desert trade routes and made the Mali Empire into one of the world's wealthiest kingdoms in the 14th century. During the reign of Musa I, the wealth of slaves in the royal palace was lauded by contemporaries as a display of imperial majesty.
The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta writes of the Malian Emperor’s grandeur :
“(the sultan) has a lofty pavilion where he sits most of the time… There came forth from the gate of the palace about 300 slaves, some carrying in their hands bows and others having in their hands short lances and shields…”Mansa Musa’s harem of female slaves was only slightly smaller but even more opulent:
“The Interpreter brings in his four wives and his concubines, who are about a hundred in number. On them are fine clothes and on their heads they have bands of silver and gold with silver and gold apples as pendants. ... A chair is there for the Interpreter and he beats on an instrument which is made of reeds with tiny calabashes below it praising the sultan, recalling in his song his expeditions and deeds. The wives and the concubines sing with him...”
As we all know, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade instigated by the Portuguese in the 15th century eventually penetrated inland and played a major role in exacerbating warfare and enslavement among the various tribes of the Niger basin. Yes, the enhanced demand for slaves at the Gorée and the Cape Coast castles certainly exacerbated tribal warfare and slave raids far inland. But especially for the tribes of what is now Mali who bore the brunt of the Trans-Sahara slave routes, the advent of Westerners into the slave trade only worsened a longstanding practice. Even as the European slave ships continued their human commerce over the next four centuries, the Tamashek still rode their camel trains across the Sahara to sell the bulk of their slaves to Marrakesh, Fez, Tunis and Tripoli.
Though the Islamic Caliphate, the Mali Empire, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British slave traders have come and gone, slavery is still a major institution in the Tamashek culture of Northern Mali. The open air slave markets are no longer, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade has slowed to a relative trickle. Nowadays, the Tamasheks’ human property is largely maintained by hereditary master-slave relationships between established Tamashek families and the Bella or Black Tamashek. The Bella are an ethnically mixed group with genetic origins in all of the black tribes which the Tamashek raided to gather their primary goods for export. Over the centuries the slaves of various tribes married and had children with each other and the white Tamasheks, but they now speak the Tamashek language and have largely assimilated into their masters’ culture as a distinct and easily-distinguishable underclass. Some Bella stay with their masters simply because they have no land of their own, there are absolutely no other job prospects in the dying settlements abutting the rapidly-growing Sahara Desert.
The Malian human rights group Temedt estimates that there are thousands of Bella living as slaves in Tamashek Country. Since the Census obviously does not count a population of slaves that the government does not recognize to exist, exact figures on the number of slaves cannot be found. But across the border in Mauritania – where the rigid caste system of light-skinned Moors and black-skinned Haratani is roughly equivalent to the traditional set up of Northern Mali – slaves and former slaves number about 500,000, or approximately 20 percent of the national population.
"The Bella people are free to leave their masters if they wish," said an anonymous official in Mali's Territorial Administration department. "If people came out to declare openly that they are slaves then of course the state would do something."
Indeed, under a regime in which the State does not enforce slavery contracts the Bella slaves are technically free to move as they wish. But in a remote Tamashek village 100 kilometers from the nearest major road, if a Bella slave does not have money to pay for transport, or access to his own camel or a Land Rover (and he most certainly does not) then he is effectively tied to his master’s land. Despite the daunting logistics of escape, some Bella slaves still take the initiative – it’s not like they have anything to lose. A few years ago BBC covered the story of runaway slave Iddar Ag Ogazide:
“Today I am a free man, I am no longer a slave. I am among men who are the same color as me who consider me as a man. I earn 1,000 CFA (~$2) a day, and that covers my needs,” he says.The Northern provinces where the Bella slaves live are full of rugged terrain with just enough precipitation in a good year to grow a little bit of millet – the most drought-resistant cereal crop known to mankind; there are no commercial cotton or sugar farms where a freed Black Tamashek can find jobs in agriculture. And due to the rigid caste system, a Bella can’t just waltz into a Tamashek village and lay claim to untamed land. The only real viable option is to head farther North into the uninhabitable sands of the Sahara to the salt mines of Taoudenni.
The idea of a salary is something Iddar is just getting used to, having dramatically escaped from his life in the hamlet of Intakabarte, outside Gao, in February this year. According to Iddar, his grandmother was brought as a slave by the Tuareg Ag Baye family, and from then on she was listed as taxable property on the Ag Baye’s religious tax form. Iddar says he was inherited by his master, beaten several times, and never received pay or an education.
The final straw for Iddar came when his three-year-old son Ahmed was taken away to work for a niece of the Ag Baye family. “I decided I would have to go and get him so I hatched a plan. I told my master that I needed to take Ahmed to his grandparents,” he says. “I said we would both return the next day, but we never went back.”
Like the Bella living under Tamashek patrons, the Bella toiling in the salt mines are not technically living under legal slavery; outside of the traditional Tameshek setup the species of slavery in this country more resembles the indentured servitude once practiced in the British colonies. Rare is the Bella who can afford a camel train journey to the northernmost reaches of Mali Inutile, so prospective salt miners have to find a patron in Timbuktu to front their travel costs. The miners need a place to sleep, they need to eat and drink while they’re up there, so the Timbuktu creditors who are financing the entire salt mine operation front the costs of room and board as well – since all the provisions have to be transported from the Timbuktu markets, the cost of living in the uninhabitable desert is remarkably expensive. So the salt miners have to work until they can pay off their transport, room and board fees – plus crushing interest; they are told by their creditors that they can pay off their debts after a few months of hard labor, and after that they can start keeping a share of the rock salt they mine as their own.
So the salt miners are technically getting paid – in salt. But they can only sell their salt to the same Timbuktu credit/transport/salt syndicate which sent them to Taoudenni in the first place, and the only things they can spend their money on are millet porridge, Nescafé, tea and sugar which the syndicate sells at gouging prices. It is perfectly common for the syndicate to arbitrarily lower the prices at which they buy the rock salt and to jack up the prices at which they sell goods at the company store. And of course, the Timbuktu creditors routinely raise their interest rates and saddle the miners with additional debts. The end result is that the salt miners find themselves working entire lifetimes as debt peons mathematically incapable of paying off their arrears, unable to pay for transport out of Taoudenni, forever stuck in the middle of a sea of lifeless sand.
A Bella miner details his plight, “We have nothing. We are constantly dependent upon the wealthy. I have to borrow money and work it off through the month. My family also has to live. Every time I go back to Timbuktu I have nothing left over. We work like slaves.”
Not all forms of Malian servitude are flagrant violations of human rights. In this culture there exists a traditional relationship between a teacher and a student in which the student works in the fields and performs domestic labor for his teacher in exchange for room, board and an education – from personal observation, I don’t think that this arrangement is all that bad. My jatigi Karitie Sanogo, for example, is the principal of the Sanadougou elementary school, and every year his family takes in one or two girls from neighboring villages where there are no schools. These girls work as domestic servants who are expected to sweep the house, wash the dishes and laundry, draw water, chop firewood, pound millet and all of the more strenuous household chores, and in exchange they get to go to school – which they certainly would not have had they stayed in village. It’s not like they wouldn’t be doing all this work otherwise; if they lived at home, their fathers would probably assign them even more labor. And by living with a salaried functionary these traditional servants also get to have a little protein and calcium in their diets. This traditional servile relationship between a student and a teacher need not be abusive or unfair, and in many circumstances it can serve to benefit all relevant parties.
The problem with the traditional Malian teacher/student relationship is that it can be all-too-easily perverted by shyster self-described “Quranic teachers” who round up boys in rural villages to bring to their madrasahs for an “Islamic education”. In days of yore, the madrasah school system would employ this traditional set-up; in exchange for an education, Muslim students known as garabouts would work the fields belonging to their marabout in order to provide themselves and their patron with sustenance. In urban settings with no fields to till, the garabouts would go door-to-door begging for their meals – a practice thought to instill a deep sense of humility and ensure future adherence to the religious obligation of giving alms to the poor. However, as Malian society has become more urban and commercial people have become more likely to give beggars small coins rather than food, and it was only a matter of time before marabouts realized the lucrative potential of running a madrasah. Now in the 21st century marabouts instruct their students to beg only for currency – they give each garabout a tomato paste can and a daily “tuition fee” to bring back to their master, usually beating each child who does not meet his quota.
At this point, in many places the Quranic school system has become so twisted into an institution of child slavery that there is only a façade of “Islam” and “education” left in the “Islamic education” which they provide; maybe at nightfall the marabout teaches his “class” a new prayer or two, but from dawn to dusk the garabouts hit the streets with their tomato paste cans begging from the productive classes of society. It should be fairly axiomatic that kids left unfed to panhandle all day do not spend very much time studying the Quran. “Teachers” who send their “students” to beg on the street are not teaching these kids how to read Arabic, they’re only hardly teaching anything about theology. The only lessons which garabouts take away from their “Islamic education” are that they are small, that they are weak, that they are incapable of fending for themselves, and that they must submit to the authority of their social superiors if they are to make it in this world and the next.
Madrasahs which provide this species of “education” are really less institutions of religious scholarship than they are amazingly profitable businesses. Any huckster who knows a few prayers can pass himself off as a “Quranic teacher” and convince gullible families from the villages to entrust him with their children. He has to build some sort of mud hut for all the children to sleep in. But the this madrasah doesn’t provide any food, it doesn’t provide any clothing, it doesn’t provide any school supplies – there are hardly any expenses involved in this operation except the cost of tomato paste cans and the livestock-class transport of the “student body” to a lucrative environment for begging. The marabout has to do no more labor than to train his garabouts to parrot some songs and how to target people on the street with the most money. All the marabout then has to do is sit around all day and wait for his “students” to come back at night with their day’s revenues. If a marabout is driving a flock of 20 garabouts and commands them to bring back a quota of 400 CFA a day, even if they come up short he can be taking in 5,000 CFA a day – 5 to 10 times a typical daily wage in this country.
Most of the time a garabout’s servitude is limited to a year or two of begging before his “Quranic teacher” sends his back to his village, but in many cases the madrasah system exploits these poor children in ways that are more unambiguously forms of human trafficking. On the most basic level, marabouts recognize the laws of supply and demand and ship their cash cows to those cities where the competition is less fierce and begging is more profitable. One time I was riding my bike to Koutiala and saw a cargo truck parked next to a madrasah, and feeling exhausted I asked the truck driver to let me hitch a ride; when I climbed into the cargo hold I realized that this truck was already filled to twice its capacity – the cargo was a hundred little garabouts with a hundred tomato paste cans!
The practice of transporting garabouts from one region to another and even across countries obviously has no foundation in the Mohammedan tradition – it’s a matter of discipline and labor force retention. If you recruit a Bambara “student” to a madrasah within walking distance of his village and he grows tired of begging strangers for his meals, he can always run home to the comfort of his mother’s food bowl; even if the garabout is brought to beg amongst another Bambara-speaking population, he can probably ask for directions and hitch a ride home. But if you take an eight-year-old boy who only speaks the dialect of Dogon used in one remote valley and truck him across the border to Juula-speaking Côte d’Ivoire, that kid will be absolutely dependent upon his marabout and will have no choice but to follow him wherever he goes.
Now that the madrasah system has become well-entrenched in the slimy business of human trafficking, it’s only fitting that they send their boy slaves into even seedier lines of work than begging. Some marabouts have run into trouble with the gendarmes because scores of their garabouts were nabbed by the police for pick-pocketing, and when the tomato can-toting boys were brought in to the gendarmerie they broke down and squealed that their marabouts commanded them to do it, training flocks of children to become petty criminals like Fagin and his gang.
Other unscrupulous marabouts exploit their human commodities in manners more closely resembling what Americans would imagine slavery to look like. A lot of marabouts have found that the most profitable way to take advantage of their captive “students” is to rent them out to large-scale commercial farmers who put them to work in their cotton fields. Some garabouts might sign contracts to make money for their master cultivating cotton or peanuts. Other garabouts are trafficked south to Côte d’Ivoire to pick cocoa beans.
The two most important figures to keep in mind in regards to labor conditions in the cocoa industry of Côte d’Ivoire are 40 percent and 90 percent; 40 percent is the share of the world’s cocoa beans which is produced in Côte d’Ivoire, 90 percent is the share of Ivorian cocoa farms which employ their work force under some form of slavery. The best article I’ve found on slavery in the Ivorian cocoa bean industry remains A Taste of Slavery, a 2001 piece by Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee.
SIKASSO, Mali - Businessmen called "locateurs" wait in the little bus station in this large border town, where crammed mini-buses leave for Ivory Coast every 30 minutes. They search the crowds for children traveling alone, looking lost or begging for food. "Would you like a great job in Côte d'Ivoire?" they ask, using the official name of the former French colony. "I can find you one.”And many more boys are sold as house slaves – though, of course, having a boy to work as a domestic servant in this culture is nowhere near as desirable as having a girl. Female slaves are less valued than males slaves for their laboring skills as they generally have less upper-body-strength and they are often pregnant with their master’s children; hence it should come as no surprise that trafficking in women is almost always related to some combination of domestic work and prostitution.
…Most of the slave traders are Malian men, but women and Ivorians also work in the trade. Malians don't need passports or visas to enter Ivory Coast. In theory, children younger than 18 cannot cross the border unless they are accompanied by an adult, who must show identification. If the adult is a relative, no questions are asked about children traveling with him. If not, the children must have permission from their parents to cross the border. That's why the traffickers often order the children to call them "uncle" or "aunt." And a few bucks often can convince the authorities, as well. "The police sometimes check the IDs, and sometimes they are the ones taking bribes," said Felix Ackebo of UNICEF.
… Traffickers bring as many as 10 boys a month to Siaka Cisse's small, ramshackle house in Daloa, which doubles as his son's furniture shop. From there the 60-year-old former bus driver distributes smuggled children to local farmers. Disoriented and scared, the boys trust Cisse because like many of them he speaks Bambara, a Malian tribal language. Neither Cisse nor the farmers ask where or how the traffickers got the children.
Virtually all the boys are illiterate, but Cisse gets them to sign - more like a scratchy squiggle - a contract scrawled in French on notebook paper. It says they agree to work for about $180 a year. But they eventually discover they may not be paid that year, and that many will never be paid at all.
Cisse (pronounced SEE-say), who has 20 children of his own, said he receives only a small "gift" from each farmer - $1 or $2 per child. But a boy named Mombi Bakayoko said his master paid Cisse about $13 for him, and another $20 "transport fee" to the trafficker who brought him to Ivory Coast. Other boys said Cisse gets an average of about $12 per child.
Mali is not only a source of but also a destination for trafficked women – particularly women from Nigeria. This phenomenon is quite puzzling, for transactional sex exists in every community, there is no shortage of native prostitutes in any Malian city, but for some reason foreign women are still being lured into the poorest of poor countries to serve as sex workers. The most compelling explanation for all of these Nigerian prostitutes involves that country's crushing income inequality, the massive exodus from the Nigerian countryside to the Nigerian cities, the obscene overpopulation and unemployment in the Lagos slums, a vast population of Nigerian urbanites desperate to find work abroad and a human smuggling ring with some ties to the Malian gold industry.
What happens is that a recruiter in Nigeria – usually female – searches out attractive women between 16 and 24 and tells them that she can help them find work abroad. The recruiter promises what sounds like a solid job with decent wages; e.g. waiting tables at a restaurant in Senegal, sewing dresses at a sweatshop in France. The recruiter convinces a critical mass of women to pack their bag and get on a bus – “Before the final destination we will have to stop for a little while in Bamako”, she tells them. The Nigerian women find themselves stuck in this strange Malian capital for weeks or months, and then they’re told that they owe their recruiter some unfathomable sum of money – maybe around 500,000 CFA (~$1,000) to pay for their transportation fee. Without any friends or relatives who can help them out, without any relevant language skills to even seek help, the Nigerians are a captive audience prime for exploitation.
Sometimes the Nigerians stay put and are forced into a local Bamako prostitution ring, but more often they find themselves on another car on their way to the towns which spring up next to the gold mines in rural Kayes or Sikasso provinces. These boom towns are full of other ambitious youth; men in their teens, twenties and thirties looking for fortune mining gold. In a town like Tabakoto there are about ten men who come seeking employment as a day worker for every one man that the mine will hire, but those men who do get hired hammering and picking and carting out slurry can come back to their boarding house with 2,000 francs a day. And for every 2,000 francs a miner earns, he will send maybe 500 to his family via Western Union and blow the rest on cigarettes, beer, whiskey and women.
“If you walk into a bar at a mining town, any place that sells beer at any mining town in Mali, you can find a Nigerian sex worker”, says a scholar studying the gold mines who wishes to remain anonymous, “There are Malian sex workers too, of course, but they are negligible compared to the Nigerians who are all systematically brought there under false pretenses, saddled with debt, and given no choice but to pay it off through prostitution. Every woman I’ve talked to tells the same story. At most of the bars in mining towns the women are sold a set rate: 1,000 CFA for a quick lay in her concrete room behind the bar, 2,000 CFA to rent a woman out for the whole day. The sex workers have to pay for their own food, they have to pay rent to the bar owner, they have to pay back their debt to the trafficking syndicate plus interest, and they have no means of saving for transport back home. There’s no way that this is just a coincidence – all evidence points to the existence of a targeted human-trafficking operation which is specifically ferrying women from Nigeria to work as prostitutes in the gold rush towns of Mali.”
“But is it slavery?” I ask.
“There is no legally-enforceable chattel slavery. But the sex workers in the mining towns didn’t come here by free will, they didn’t willingly sign up to become sex workers, and they certainly don’t have the freedom to stop being sex workers. That sounds like slavery to me.”
Human trafficking for the prostitution business happens at the local level too. Even in the sleepy rural town of Sanadougou where I’ve been living for the past two years, there has been a commotion about a half dozen young girls aged 4 to 10 who suddenly went missing the day after Eid al-Adha. I’m told that these girls disappeared the same day as a certain wayward son of Sanadougou who has grown up and moved to the big city where he runs a prostitution ring – the man came back for a week to visit his father for the Tabaski feast, and no one has seen the girls since he left for the city in his Mercedes. Everyone in Sanadougou knows who this man is, it’s pretty much common knowledge that he abducted six local girls to rent as child prostitutes, but no one is pressing any charges through the formal mechanisms of justice. Instead, the fathers of the six girls met with the dugutigi and the father of the pimp to relay the message that the pimp can either bring back the girls and pay each father 10,000 francs in indemnities – or the fathers are going to come to the city and murder him.
The Malian government’s inaction in the face of slavery is by no means representative of popular opinion; with the notable exception of the Tamasheks and those persons personally profiting from slave labor, the Malian public is unequivocally opposed to the ownership of people as property. When I engage Malians about slavery they condemn it as the epitome of human evil – but interestingly enough, as a rule they go through logical somersaults in order to avoid casting blame on their fellow countrymen. Popular opinion tends to apologize for the slave-trafficking of Malians by Malians along the lines of “Life is hard” or “Here we are poor”. When I ask who is to blame for slavery, they almost unanimously agree “It is the fault of the French!” The closest to soul-searching I’ve ever heard is when people blame the Tamasheks – who from the perspective of the Southern black tribes might as well be a foreign nation.
Even so, these popularly-held myths on slavery are light years closer to reality than the views promulgated by many high-ranking government officials – in particular those officials whose job it is to enforce the relevant human rights laws. The official position of the Republic of Mali is that slavery simply does not exist within its borders.
As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, “The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.” Likewise, if the Malian government is to ever comply with the human rights standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, it can start by acknowledging the fact that slavery and human trafficking exist in Mali, and that it is not the French but Malians – black Malians from their own clans and tribes – who are working as the recruiters, smugglers, pimps and patrons in the market for human property. If Malian officials continue to dig their heads in the sand and deny what is plain as day to everyone in this country, the U.S. State Department is going to eventually run out of patience and brand Mali with a Tier 3 designation.
Step two on Mali’s path to abolition would be for the National Assembly to plug up the loopholes in the criminal code which prohibit trafficking in children but not trafficking in Nigerian women, the forced prostitution of adult women but not the forced prostitution of young boys, etc. This would require only minor amendments to existing law which should not provoke much outcry from cultural conservatives – it is hard to imagine any fundamentalist cleric standing up and defending the prostitution of little boys.
The next thing the National Assembly has to do - perhaps the absolutely most critical step in abolishing slavery - is to write new laws criminalizing the practice of slavery. The relevant Malian law now reads like what the United States Constitution would do if the Thirteenth Amendment were repealed; it explicitly enshrines the equality of all persons under the law, it requires due process regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, but it does not actually have any legal mechanisms to prosecute the quintessence of inequality and dehumanization. Malian anti-slavery law has to go above and beyond Article 242’s lame proscription of “entering into agreements or contracts that deprive third parties of their liberty” – if any anti-slavery law is to have any deterrent effect it has to entail severe legal punishments, it has to at least allow the courts to sentence slave-owners to lengthy prison sentences and to forfeit their assets.
However, even if Mali acknowledges the existence of slavery and bans it outright, the anti-slavery laws will remain little more than freedom on paper unless the State actively investigates and prosecutes violations. This should not be a daunting task. All a detective would have to do to make a case that could hold up in court is walk into a bar and talk to the prostitutes, drive to Taoudenni and have a conversation with the salt miners, find any single Bella servant living among the Tamasheks or the ubiquitous tomato can-toting garabouts begging on the street. Slavery is so widespread and so painfully obvious in this country that if just one gendarmerie made even the slightest attempt to enforce human trafficking laws, in a single day they would be able to make hundreds of arrests which could eventually result in convictions. From June 2009 to June 2010, the total number of human trafficking arrests in Mali was 2, and both were released without going to trial. This inactivity cannot be excused by a lack of solid leads or financial resources – the only possible explanations are either that the gendarmes are either completely uninterested in doing their jobs or that they themselves are complicit in the trafficking trade.
Consequently, the effectiveness of any further anti-slavery or anti-trafficking laws – in fact, every single law in the Malian criminal code – would be made a thousand times more effective if the Ministère de la Justice were to conduct a thorough, genuine campaign to root out corruption in the gendarmerie. After all, even a code of perfect laws is not worth the paper it’s printed on so long as offenders can walk away free by simply waving bills in front of the investigating police. The Malian government has to start conducting sting operations in which undercover agents drive across border checkpoints posing as human traffickers with vans full of undocumented Nigerian women, and once the border guards have their bribe in hand the undercover agents should show their badges, take out their handcuffs and arrest the corrupt police who profit from the smuggling of black market slaves. Until the State eradicates lawlessness and gangsterism amongst the agents of law enforcement, no citizen will ever be safe from the peril of illegal enslavement.
And let’s say that one day the Republic of Mali actually acknowledges the existence of slavery, reforms its inadequate anti-trafficking laws, explicitly prohibits slavery as a felony offense, begins to actively investigate and make arrests and secure convictions of slave owners, slave traders and human traffickers. Even then, the government would have a generation of work set before it in transitioning this very significant slave labor force into legitimate forms of free labor; this would entail providing shelters for emancipated slaves, providing some modicum of social services until they can help the new freedmen line up employment. For the legions of sex workers imported from abroad, the government would have to cooperate with the relevant embassies in order to repatriate them back to their home countries; the government would have to assist the children intentionally trafficked beyond the limit of their language skills back to their home villages. For the garabouts and all of the other child slaves who were denied schooling, the State would have to provide them an education. And mind you, Mali is a country in which the government has only just begun to pave the roads in some neighborhoods of the capital – the services which this country needs to provide to its underclass in order to transition from slavery to free labor are beyond those which it provides for anyone at all.
At the moment, the international community is waiting for the Malian government to publicly recognize that slavery exists in their country. I’m not going to hold my breath.
Abolishing slavery will inevitably bear the wrath of the Tamashek slave owners, the Timbuktu slave traders, the salt creditors, Ivorian cocoa farmers, the crooked “Quranic teachers”, corrupt border guardsmen, brothel managers and pimps with vested interests in the trade of persons. In a part of the world where governments regularly fall by coup d’état and elements of the slave-owning tribes are waging open rebellion, it is difficult to not understand why statesmen would be inclined to play it safe in order to preserve the fragile Republic.
But it really is in the interests of Mali – not only the victims of human trafficking but every single man, woman and child in this country – to do away with this wicked institution. Bamako’s official stance of “hear no evil, see no evil” is a policy of untenable cowardice which if it continues on this track for much longer could result in Mali being grouped with Zimbabwe, North Korea and the laughing stocks of the world as a Tier 3 human rights offender – an ill-fated mark which would lead to Mali being cut off from American aid. The people of Mali are floundering in the world’s most devastating poverty, they desperately need economic development. What they cannot afford is to preserve this vestige of medieval feudalism in order to keep a handful of petty despots at bay.