In a historic first, a former slave is suing the state of Niger for failing to implement anti-slavery laws, rekindling a row between the authorities who deny the practice still exists and activists who say that Niger is home to some 800,000 slaves.
The community court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to hand down a verdict in the case brought by 24-year-old Adidjatou Mani Koraou.
Koraou was sold to a Tuareg slave trader when she was 12 for the equivalent of $567 and then sold to be the fifth wife of a traditional healer in central Niger, said Ilguilas Weila, who heads Timidria, Niger’s only local anti-slavery group.
“He used to beat me, mistreat me and was constantly reminding me that he’d bought me,” Koraou told the court.
Niger in 2003 adopted a law making the possession of slaves a crime.
But the Niamey authorities are accused of not only failing to protect Koraou from slavery, but also of legitimising this practice through Niger’s customary law — in direct conflict with its own criminal code and constitution, according to Anti-Slavery International, a London-based group that supports Timidria.
The taboo surrounding slavery in Niger was broken only in 2001 at an International Labour Organisation forum in Niamey where local chiefs admitted that slavery does still exist in several regions of their landlocked, mainly arid nation, and committed to fighting it. “For more than 10 years we have been alerting the authorities about this degrading practice,” Weila said.
“To say that the Niger government is responsible for slavery goes against common sense,” retorted Mossi Boubacar, one of the government’s lawyers, even as he repeated “slavery is a historical phenomenon”.
The ruling by the court, which has been hearing the case since Monday, is vital for the future of Niger’s anti-slavery campaigners, analysts say.
If the court rules in favour of Koraou it will have a negative impact on the reputation of the Niger government, which has always denied that slavery still exists; if it rules against her it will likely spell the end of Timidria, they say.
The Niger authorities have often tried to muzzle Timidria, whose name means “fraternity” in the local Tamashek language, used for centuries by the Tuareg nomads of the deep Sahara.
Timidria’s Weila was thrown in prison from April to July 2005 for attempting to organise a liberation ceremony for 7,000 slaves at Inates, a Tuareg camp in western Niger close to the border with Mali.
The authorities said that the ceremony, which had the support of Anti-Slavery International, would harm the image of Niger in the outside world.