Slavery report in modern Africa morecomplicated than the media tells
By Jonathan Elendu
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
Thisweek started with our continent, Africa, in the headlines. A fewweeks back, Africa was on the cover of TIME on the account of theAids epidemic in the motherland. Now it is a slave ship emanatingfrom Cotonu in Benin Republic and heading to God knows where. This isanother sad episode of notoriety which does no one any good. Sadly,this is a story which even our journalists could not write or did notknow about.
I confess, I neither knew, nor heard, of child slavery when Ilived in Nigeria. Since the story broke I have been searching forrelated stories and have come up with very little. The main reasonfor my search for more information on this is to know whether this isa new phenomenon or has been going on for long. Incidentally, Africannewspapers don't say much concerning this story.
I have asked myself and others a few questions on the childslavery issue: Could this be a misunderstanding of the extendedfamily culture of Africans? Could the Western media be giving a wronginterpretation of a normal way of life in Africa, where childrenassist their mothers in domestic chores? Could Africans in 2001 AD beselling their fellow Africans for money? How can blacks in theWestern world be angry for being sold into slavery centuries ago, iftheir kinsmen in the motherland are still carrying on with thepractice?
What have the leaders of countries whose citizens engage in thisinhuman practice done? Although I was raised in a middle-class homein the city of Aba, Nigeria, I know that life was not always rosy forus. I was less than two years old when the Nigerian civil war brokeand we lost everything and had to survive by the grace of God. Mymother and sisters told me how tough life was for us, as well asother Biafrans, and yet not once did my family or others considerselling any one of us as a way to survive.
What has happened in this period of relative peace that wouldmotivate people to sell their own children? I am well aware of thepractice of "employing" young people to help out in homes. I grew upwith people like these in our home. They were not treateddifferently. They attended the same schools with us. They ate thesame kind of food, and at the same time, with us. My motherintroduced them as her children and treated them as such. Some ofthese people are living well today in many cities in Nigeria. When Istarted my TV show at Nigerian television, Aba, one of the producersthat was assigned to me was one of those that grew up in our home. Hetreated me like a younger brother.
Could this be what is reported as child/slave labor by the Westernpress? The parents of the people who lived with us brought them toour home and pleaded with my mother to raise them. They may not havehad the opportunity of getting an education and probably would haveended up in similar situation as their parents if my mother had nottaken them in. I know that practices like these abound in Nigeria. Iknow that some children in this process are abused and used ininappropriate ways. But this is not a very common thing where I comefrom.
In Africa, raising a child is a collective exercise. The entirefamily, nuclear and extended, is involved. More affluent members ofthe family or community help the less fortunate ones by paying schoolfees, providing clothing and food for their children. Sometimes, thechildren go to live with them and it becomes their fullresponsibility to raise these children to become worthy members ofthe community. These children in turn take care of these people intheir old age. This practice is as old as the continent.Traditionally, Africans see all children as being members of theirfamily. Growing up I never knew the meaning of the word: cousin. Ihad brothers and sisters, irrespective of the fact that we haddifferent fathers and mothers. The Benin Republic Ambassador to theUnited States, Cyrille Oguin, explained this practice on CNN thismorning. I doubt that the CNN anchors, Leon Harris and Daryn Kagan,who conducted this interview, understood the man.
Sadly, from all indications, slavery is alive and well. This isnot restricted to the continent of Africa alone. It is practiced alsoin Asia. Slavery was banned sometime in 1880. It took a few years forthe ban to really take effect. Those who fought for the abolition ofslavery in the nineteenth century must be turning in their graveswith the news that slavery is still continuing into the twenty-firstcentury.
I believe poverty and unscrupulous individuals are the culpritsbehind this trade. Poor parents are promised a better future fortheir children by so-called "benevolent" men and women. Theunsuspecting parents happily hand over their children to thesecriminals who, in turn, sell them as slaves to those who make themwork in all kinds of places, including factories, hotels, cocoafarms, and even homes. Unfortunately, many of the girls are sold tobrothels, that introduce them to the sex trade.
This problem of modern day slavery goes beyond poverty andunscrupulous individuals. It is also a problem of leadership inAfrica. Leaders in Africa have, through their actions and inaction,impoverished the continent. The African continent is regarded as thepoorest in the world yet no one can claim that the continent is notrichly endowed in human and natural resources. The white man lootedAfrica to develop his own land and after he left the new Africanleaders continued the looting. Instead of developing his land withhis loot, he took it to the white man's land and deposited in theirbanks. Hence, Switzerland and other parts of Europe with less naturalresources than Africa have a higher GDP and per capita income thanall the African countries put together. African loot is used byEurope and America to provide social amenities and to buildinfrastructures that Africans only read about or see ontelevision.
African leaders see themselves as maximum rulers. They ride on theshoulders of the people to power and forget them as soon as they aresworn into office. Today, Africa has the unenviable position of themost corrupt continent in the world. Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, SaniAbacha, Kerekou, Ibrahim Babangida, Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe,Abdusalami Abubakar, Umaru Dikko, and many more living and dead, arereputed to have billions of dollars stashed away in foreign landsyet, with the exception of Umaru Dikko, all these men were publicservants from very early age until the time they died or were forcedout of government.
Some of the individuals listed above are dead, yet their deeds arebeing suffered by the living while their offspring live inunimaginable splendor. I know Nigerians whose homes would be the envyof some of the richest people in Europe and America. Yet, only a fewfeet from these palaces, one is confronted by abject poverty. IbrahimBabangida's country home is located on a five mile square, and isequipped with every amenity he had at Aso Rock, which is the officialresidence of the Nigerian President. Yet this man enlisted in theArmy as a teenager and stayed there until he was forced out of officeas the President of Nigeria.
Our continent is ravaged by AIDS. Our people are selling theirchildren to put food on the table and second hand clothes on theirbacks, yet, not one of the so-called leaders have articulated a wayout. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) has shown ineptitude inour time of need. Instead they beg foreign donors for assistance. Yetwe have a former Nigerian head of State paying money to a universityin America to have lectures instituted in his honor.
Whatever happened to the maxim: Charity begins at home? In theprimitive days, intertribal wars led to the perpetuation of slavery.Today, civil wars caused by greed have made our continent the numberone "exporter" of refugees. This has become a problem for the entireworld community and yet our leaders are not ashamed to raise theirheads with pride.
One wonders if they care what their guests from Europe and Americathink of them when they show off their ill-gotten wealth in the midstof squalor? This problem of slavery has been perpetuated by theentire global community. People who invest in businesses that employchild or slave labor are guilty of slavery as accessories. Those whouse products or wear sweatshirts made by child laborers are reapingthe benefits of slavery and must hold themselves accountable for thiscrime. In the same vein, banks and financial institutions that investand manage funds stolen from Africa by unscrupulous people are alsoguilty of robbing the continent, through association.
Democracy in Africa has been a mockery. May be we are not ripe forit. A prominent economist once said that the Nigerian economy defiesall known economic principles. Maybe our political system has takenthe same route. Dictators cart away our resources and put nothingback. Politicians have not done better. They guzzle our wealth likeit is about to go out of fashion. To make ends meet, our people arebegging and selling their own children.
Yet again, I must ask the international community for assistance.World leaders should stop hobnobbing with African leaders who arecorrupt or run corrupt administrations. They should commit to helpingAfrica recover her stolen wealth stashed away in banks in Europe andAmerica. Aid to African countries must be tied to some proof oftransparency and performance. It is time for the Western governmentsto side with the people instead of big business and politicians. Thesaying "Show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are" must alsoapply to them as well.
Elendu is a columnist for USAfricaonline.com andNigeriaCentral.com. Readers reaction to this viewpoint will bepublished.
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