Ex-slave sues Niger

Sophie Rodger 30 October 2008

A former slave who took the government of Niger to court for failing to enforce its own anti-slavery laws has won her case in ‘an historic judgement’.

The regional Court of Justice for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled on Monday that Niger had failed in its responsibility to protect Hadijatou Mani from being sold into slavery at the age of 12.

During proceedings, Ms Mani, 24, described her life as a slave in detail in front of some of the country’s most senior political figures including the Prime Minister and Justice Minister, representing the Government.

Daughter of a slave and thus by custom the property of her mother’s master, Ms Mani was sold against her mother’s wishes to Souleymane Naroua in 1996, for the equivalent of £250.

In the following 10 years she endured long hours of unpaid domestic and agricultural work and was frequently raped and beaten.

Slavery was officially abolished in Niger in 2003.

Speaking to the BBC’s World Today programme, Ms Mani said: “I was beaten so many times I would run away. Then after a day or two I would be brought back. At the time I didn’t know what to do but since I learned that slavery has been abolished I told myself I will no longer be a slave.”

In 2005, Ms Mani was presented with a liberation certificate, two years after Niger introduced a penalty of up to 30 years imprisonment for keeping slaves.

Yet when she left Naroua and tried to marry another man, her former master argued that, despite being freed, she was still automatically his wife.

A local tribunal ruled that there had been no marriage between the two on the grounds that no dowry had been paid, one party did not consent and there had been no religious ceremony, but in a bizarre twist, following Mani’s marriage to another man and Naroua’s persistent appeals, the decision was later overruled, and Ms Mani was sentenced to six-months in prison for bigamy, of which she served two.

She said: “I was wrongly jailed, not because of anything I did but because of slavery, and today there is no more slavery so I wanted the court to vindicate me, to give me my rights which I was denied some four years ago, to compensate me.”

The ruling by the panel of judges from Senegal, Mali and Togo ordered Niger to pay Ms Mani 10 million CFA (£12,400) in damages and accumulated interest. The verdict was deeply embarrassing for a government which says it has done all it can to eradicate slavery.

Mossi Boubacar, a lawyer for Niger’s government, said: “We are law-abiding and will respect this decision.”

The case was the first of its kind to be heard by the ECOWAS court and was brought with the help of British-based anti-slavery organisations as a test case to press African governments to stamp out slavery.

As well as Niger, where London-based Anti-Slavery International and local human rights group Timidria have estimated at least 43,000 people are enslaved, the practice remains widespread in other West African nations such as Mali and Mauritania, despite legal prohibitions.

The ECOWAS court ruling will be binding for all 15 member states, with major implications for the human rights of tens of thousands of slaves in West Africa.

Anti-Slavery International’s Romana Cacchioli said; “This historic verdict sets a legal precedent that we can take to neighbouring states where slavery remains an issue.”

Sophie Rodger