“We cry for forgiveness and reconciliation. The slave trade is a shame, and we do repent for it.” —Luc Gnacadja, minister of environment and housing for Benin, in a 2000 apology for his country’s complicity in the slave trade.
The history of Black people in America, of course, centers on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (from the 1500s through the 1800s), arguably the first modern example of globalization. No other single event (at least in the Western Hemisphere) has so impacted the cultural, economic, and political progression of recent history.
To the modern layman, this is all a relic of the past (though much of the upheaval taking place may be directly or indirectly traced back to it). And yet, the institution of slavery flourishes today in virtually every region of the world, in one form or the other. This ranges from the influx of women from Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Cold War, to native Brazilians forced to toil on cattle ranches along the Amazon River, to millions working off “debt bondage” in India. Experts suggest more than 40.3 million are enslaved presently in various parts of the globe (International Labor Office).
For brevity’s sake, we will concentrate on servitude within the African continent. Even then, this is merely a brief over view of activity in that area.
Filling the vacuum
“Do they want us to become slaves once again like we were slaves to the Italians … We will never accept it. We will enter a bloody war and thousands and thousands of Libyans will die if the United States enters or NATO enters.”—Col. Muammar Gaddafi in a May 2, 2011 address.
The above statement references Libya’s memory of colonial rule under the yoke of Italian exploitation, circa 1911 through 1947. Since his overthrow and death in 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is alternately seen as a despot and confederate of international terrorism, or merely an independent refusing to succumb to the dictates of the western powers. In any event, his removal has left in its wake a void in the country’s infrastructure. Seven years later, rival fractions continue to wrestle for control of this Mediterranean which was a model of stability prior to the Libyan Civil War. On top of this, Libya continues to be a way station for migrants and refugees from central and southern Africa, seeking passage to Europe and (presumably) a better life. This influx of vulnerable, displaced people has only added to the chaos that is a regular component of a “failed state.”
All countries—including so-called “developed nations”—have their strengths and weaknesses, but those labeled “failed” are at a level wherein the internal workings of the established government have reached a state of dysfunction wherein even the most basic public services are absent. To be sure, definitions are sketchy and nebulous, but essentially it boils down to two central criteria: It cannot maintain its own borders; and it cannot project authority over the territory and people within those borders. The countries that fall under this description fluctuate, but due to the erratic nature of African politics, nations like the Congo, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast, Somalia and others regularly top the list. Even if slavery doesn’t exist with these failed states, sheer economic reality makes them contributors to the problem, since harsh times are a prime motivator for relocation in search of greener pastures.
Thusly, refugees from central and sub-Saharan Africa regularly show up in Libya, to the point where their vulnerability has prompted unscrupulous elements to set up scores of auction sites all over North Africa.
Bondage in the Land of Egypt
One of the most cherished stories of the Old Testament involves the liberation of the Hebrews from the tyranny of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Today, that legacy continues in this historic bastion. Egypt benefits from outside aide, variously from the United States and the Western powers, along with assistance from their polar opposites in the Soviet Bloc. Yet and still in spite of these benefits, the standard of living remains low.
“This stuff is better than cotton candy, really it is. It’s made out of real cotton. Yossarian, you’ve got to help me make the men eat it. Egyptian cotton is the finest cotton in the world.” —Joseph Heller, “Catch-22”
Patrons of luxury items laud the praises of Egyptian cotton (known in some circles as “white gold”), because of the length and strength of its fibers and its sheer softness, possibly because it is hand picked (the mechanical apparatus used in the U.S. tends to stress the fibers). This work is largely achieved by the nimble fingers of under aged street kids, which are abundant in the cities of Alexandra, Cairo and other burgs. Alas, the urchins who collect this prized product are not rewarded for their efforts. In addition to low pay, they are subject to inhuman hours and regular beatings if they do not meet their assigned quotas.
The parents of these youthful workers are more then willing to sign them over, reasoning that putting them to work means one less mouth to feed in an already extended household.
“Organ harvesting is carried out by clandestine mafia rings in unlicensed and even licensed medical centers, and laws passed to curb the trade have been ineffective. Across the country children are abducted almost daily and have their organs removed. Regrettably some doctors participate in these nefarious activities and profit from them.”—Hossam Reda Ghalab for Hektoen International, Jan, 18, 2019.
Other shady enterprises that prey on the Egyptian underclass include organ trafficking. This grisly practice is abetted by the corruption inherent within the Egyptian government, and the proliferation of criminal elements all to willing to take advantage of unfortunates torn between the loss of an organ and putting food on the table.
A tradition of servitude
“Mauritania is not only a land that is very much attached to its culture of slavery, it is also known for its lugubrious stance on racism.”—By Abda Wone for the Africa Report March 25, 2013.
Directly across the continent from Egypt on Africa’s west coast, Mauritania has a tradition of caste-based bondage going back centuries. These roots stem from generations of Arabs from the Sahara Desert preying on their dark-skinned brethren. In the new millennium, their descendants continue this inhumane ritual by serving as child brides, domestic workers, and manual laborers.
Mauritania is considered slavery’s last stronghold, as the practice was outlawed in 1981, and the total prohibition of owning another human being was banned in 2007. These legal edicts not-with-standing, the government’s official stance on slavery is that it doesn’t exist. The reason for this blatant hypocrisy is partially logistical. Mauritania lies on the western edge of the Sahara desert. The difficulty in overseeing this barren territory is also a reason why nefarious outfits like al-Qaeda utilize it as a haven from international justice. Slaves in this African nation usually are not held by physical restraints. Here, slavery began long ago, initiated by Berber Arabs from the eastern Sahara who preyed upon village settlements populated by their darker-skinned neighbors who originated in sub Saharan Africa and locales to the south.
Such a long standing tradition has embedded the idea of servitude into the psyche of slave and master, a mindset difficult to break. Among those aware of this new millennium abomination is the U.S. Representative for California’s 37th congressional district and chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hon. Karen R. Bass. She said:
“Last year, Congress passed a resolution that I authored with my colleagues condemning the modern-day slave trade. Slavery is a crime against humanity and we cannot sit idly by while people around the world are exploited. In passing the resolution, we made clear that our response was not just on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of all Americans. Slavery of any kind has no place in our modern world.”