New Era (Namibia)
September 26, 2005
ARAB-led slavery of Africans is important because it affects directly contemporary Afro-Arab relations and is complicated by the fact that both Africans and Arabs frequently treat it as an issue to be hushed-up because of the embarrassing reaction it generates. It is a historical reality which differentiates the fate and the aspirations of Africans on the one hand, and Arabs on the other, in their different attempts to achieve Arab unity and African unity respectively. Both these objectives, if pursued democratically, would assist in the emancipation and development of the two peoples.
While the truth is uncomfortable, it is impossible to move forward towards historical reconciliation through "holocaust denial" or by "collective amnesia". Denying the truth of what Helmi Sharawy of the Arab Research Centre for Arab-African Studies and Documentation (ARAASD) Cairo, Egypt calls the "ambiguous relations' of the Afro-Arab cultural interchange in the Borderlands, will not assist reconciliation. For more than a thousand years the Sahara has been the melting point of the two cultures. Slavery was generalized in the Borderlands, stretching from Mauritania on the Atlantic, westwards through the Sahel to Sudan on the Red Sea, with slaves being captured from black Africa and taken, often on foot, northwards through the Sahel into Arabia and out of Africa. Whereas the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been the focus of the on-going struggle for reparations, Adwok Nyaba states that Arab enslavement of Africans "has either been ignored, minimized or completely rejected on false account that the Arabs either were 'brothers in Islam' equally colonized and oppressed by the west or participated in the decolonisation struggles of the African people".
Adwok states that slavery of black people in the Nile Basin began in earnest with the defeat of the Mamelukes of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire in 1517 and that the commodification and merchandisation of the slaves route down the Nile to Southern Europe, Arabia, Persia and China is traced to the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
Under Arab slavery men were castrated and the women were used as sex-machines, so that over generations the offspring of the enslaved women merged into general Arab society, albeit into an inferior caste-type class of sub-species. Today we have slave descendants across the Sahara, such as the Harantines in Mauritania, to the ebony blacks in Arabia.
This is because the slaves were so many that the slavers could not ethnically dilute them into café au lait. Castration and male culling is practised.
Mekuria Bulcha estimates that over 17 million Africans were sold to the Middle East and Asia between the sixth and twentieth centuries. In Bulcha's view the distinction between western and Islamic slavery is largely figurative. Both arrangements involved violence and cruelty as well as the devaluation of humanity.
Africans in the Middle East and Asia remain 'a disjointed diaspora', although records indicate a persistent desire amongst them to repatriate.
Arab slavery is still ongoing in Africa in the Afro-Arab Borderlands. Much of the attention to contemporary Arab slavery of Africans focuses on Sudan and Mauritania but from Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya and Chad filter through reports about slave practices.
The subject of Arab slavery of Africans is one, which many, including the African states, would prefer to have buried and about which there is an unspoken understanding that Africans should remain silent. The practice has existed for 1 400 years, but both Africans and Arabs, for different reasons exhibit insensitivity to it. Muslim academics, both Arab and African, shy away from the Arab slave trade. Islamic leaders are profoundly defensive on the issue.
Ronald Segal in his book Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Diaspora, explains that the Islamic slave trade began some eight centuries before the Atlantic trade and was conducted on a different scale providing slaves more often for domestic - including sex - and military service. In the Arab-led slave system, some slaves achieved positions of authority, a few became rulers. In Segal's view, because of specific spiritual teachings, Islam was generally more humane than the West in its treatment of slaves and in its willingness to bestow manumission, although the process of captivity, subjugation and transportation was extremely cruel. Segal looks at the appeal of Islam to African-American communities and the denial by some black Muslim leaders like Louis Farrakan of the continued existence of African slavery and oppression in contemporary Mauritania and Sudan. An interesting point made by Segal in an interview was that "whereas the gender ratio of slaves in the Atlantic trade was two males to every female, in the Islamic trade it was two females to every male." It needs to be noted that the Arab slave trade concentrated particularly on children.
The Arabs focused and still do on children, because children are easier to re-educate and Arabise. They are also easier to capture and transport to Arabia.
With Islam and slavery came the Arabisation of the African. The Arab conquest of North Africa and parts of the Nile Valley spreading their influence throughout the Sahel in the seventh century planted confusion in the minds of Africans. In the Sudan more than anywhere else, profession of Islam and speaking the Arabic language made one an Arab. Many African ethnic communities in Sudan, such as Borgo, Berti amd Maali fell victim to this deception. In the 1960s these zealous African Muslims were used to fight the Southern Sudanese. The relentless struggle of the Southern Sudanese against oppression, including enslavement by northerners, has spread to other marginalized and peripheral peoples in the west, centre and east of Sudan.
When the first war ended in Sudan with South Sudan winning a measure of self-rule through the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, this left in the cold the Arabised Africans who had fought on behalf of the Arab dominated northern political elite in the name of national unity. The current genocide in the Darfur region of Western Sudan, where the Khartoum government has used a tactic of ethnic cleansing by arming an Arab nomad militia to attack African farmlands, pushing Africans off their land, continues the Arab push southwards, which is part of the Arab national expansionist project dating back centuries, which has seen Africans pushed southwards from the Mediterranean coast into the arid Sahara area. Arabia in general characterizes events in Darfur as 'tribal feuds'.
On the issue of reparations for Arab-led slavery in Africa, the thesis of Adwok Nyaba presented at the Conference on Arab-Led Slavery of Africans, convened on the 22nd February 2003 in Johannes-burg by the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), Cape Town, South Africa and the Drammeh Institute of New York, USA, is that reparations is a political issue with a legal objective, requiring mobilization and common purpose.
A final declaration was published, as will be the proceedings of the Conference.
Conference endorsed reparations and called for a civilization dialogue between the Arab and African nations. The Sudan Commission for Human Rights (SCHR) pursues reparations for Arab-led slavery in the Sudan, as an appropriate remedy. The World Conference Against Racism and its NGO Forum added their voices to those seeking reparations for African slavery. There are no legal rules governing the law of reparations.
The study of other such initiatives indicates first extensive legal posturing creating a powerful moral climate supporting reparations, thus shaping public opinion - as the primary stage in the campaign for reparations.