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Slavery in Niger

Niger School Appeal

Population: 16 million
Capital: Niamey
Major languages: French (official), Arabic, Hausa, Songhai
Major religions: Islam, indigenous beliefs
Average income: US $370

Slavery was abolished in 1960 (upon independence from France), was prohibited in 1999 and criminalised in 2003.

However, in the Sahel desert regions of Niger, plagued by poverty and drought, the centuries-old practice of slavery still persists.

Many people are born into slavery simply because their mother is in slavery. They grow up under the direct or indirect control of the slave-owning ‘noble’ families or ‘masters’.  Forced to herd animals belonging to the masters without pay, their nomadic migration dictated by the masters, and their marriages organised without their consent.

Many young girls and women are sold by their masters to become concubines to wealthy men, known as ‘wahaya’.

The Facts About Slavery in Niger

How many slaves are there in Niger?

A 2003 report by Anti-Slavery international estimates that 43,000 people are in some form of slavery across Niger.

Who practices slavery?

Today, slavery remains deeply embedded in Niger society. It exists across the country, both in rural and urban areas, and is practised predominantly by the Tuareg, Moor (Berber Arab), and Peule (also known as Pulaar or Fulani) ethnic groups. Some Hausa also follow the ‘fifth wife’ or Wahaya practice, which is a form of slavery in which girls and women of slave descent are bought as unofficial wives.

Virtually all cases of slavery documented in Niger concern individuals whose ancestors were enslaved generations ago and who have inherited slave status, meaning they are consigned to the bottom rungs of Niger’s social hierarchy. Slavery status is passed on through the generations.

Slavery among the Tuareg in Niger

The Tuareg have a complex caste system which incorporates people in slavery at the very bottom.  In Niger those in slavery identify themselves as Tuareg and speak the Tuareg language, but their ancestry is generally linked to black African people enslaved by Tuareg raiders.

At the top of Tuareg culture are nobles and warriors. Then the Islamic clerics or marabouts, below them are free men, followed by groups such as blacksmiths and other occupational castes. Below all of these are freed-slaves and the bottom rung is reserved for slaves. All the free and casted groups can have slaves.

You can be freed in Tuareg culture by your master either as a religious act or through good will. Circumstances such as forced migrations due to drought sometimes compel masters to abandon people they consider their slaves. Historically, slaves could be freed if they acted with distinction and valour in battle. Despite this, people freed from slavery remain near the bottom of the Tuareg caste system.

Although slavery was made a criminal offence in 2003, little action has been taken against slave masters. Read about Hadijatou Mani, who successfully took the state of Niger to court in 2008.

What does it mean to be in slavery?

In the Tuareg caste-based society, people in slavery are at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. They have no rights and no opportunities in life.

In Niger people are born into slavery, and are forced to work without pay for their so-called masters throughout their lives, primarily herding cattle, working on farmland or as domestic servants.

The masters exercise powers of ownership over them: they may be inherited, given as gifts and children can be taken away from their mothers at an early age.

Girls start work as domestic servants at a very young age and are at the continual beck and call of their masters. Girls are typically sexually abused by men in the household and may be forced to marry at a young age.

People who are viewed as belonging to the slave caste, even if they do not live in slavery, also face ongoing discrimination. They are treated as inferior with virtually no opportunities for education and employment. Even if people have been free for many years, their former master can assume the right to approve family marriages, inherit property or dictate how they vote. Many in slavery are also not on the electoral roll and so not entitled to vote. This political exclusion enables those in power to maintain the status quo.

Slavery and the misuse of Islam

Those in slavery are told that they will only go to paradise if they obey their master. This is a powerful mechanism of control which teaches those who are enslaved to follow orders and accept their fate or they will be forsaken by God and live outside of Islam. Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that Allah’s wish for them to live in slavery, when in reality Islam teaches that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.

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Hadijatou Mani,  former Wahaya
Hadijatou Mani, former 'Wayaha' that succesfully challenged Niger for failing to protect her from slavery. Read her story.

Ankle bracelet worn by slaves in Niger
Brass ankle bracelet that slaves are forced to wear to show their status

Women in slavery face particuarly harsh discrimination
Women in slavery face particularly harsh life