Boko Haram's recent kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian
schoolgirls is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to
Africa's slavery crisis, Emma Christopher, a senior research
fellow in history at the University of Sydney, writes.
The mass kidnapping of schoolgirls by terrorist group Boko
Haram in Nigeria is neither a new nor a rare occurrence,
although this does not make it any less shocking.
Boko Haram has been active in Nigeria for five years and is
just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Africa's slavery
In Nigeria, there are ''tens of thousands of people bought
and sold every year'', according to Africa expert Benjamin
The majority are children: in 2003, the International Labour
Organisation estimated that as many as six million Nigerian
children had been trafficked at some time in their lives.
In Africa as a whole, the scale of the problem is vast and
far beyond the resources allocated to fight it, let alone
sufficient to help victims.
Lobby group and NGO Free the Slaves estimates that $US1.6
billion ($NZ1.85 billion) profit (an amount larger than the
GDP of eight African countries last year) derives from
African and Middle Eastern slavery annually.
A look at some of the countries involved gives more of an
idea of the scope of the issue and how its evil tentacles
reach consumer goods.
About 40% of the world's chocolate comes from cocoa produced
in the Ivory Coast.
Children from across West Africa are trafficked to work
there: there is no guarantee that those children have not
grown the chocolate you enjoy.
In the Eastern Congo, seven types of slavery are prevalent.
Men and boys are enslaved in the mines of the region, whose
products we all have in our mobile phones and other
A covert investigation in 2013 by Free the Slaves found that
more than 90% of mine workers were enslaved, the majority
through debt bondage or having been kidnapped by armed
Nearby, they found women and girls who had been trafficked to
work as prostitutes to serve the miners.
In Ghana, people are enslaved in the gold-mining and fishing
Children are particularly prized by the latter and 700 have
been rescued in the past decade from just one fishing
In 2008, the Sudanese Parliament announced that at least
35,000 people - down from the 200,000 once held - remained
enslaved there, principally Christians from the South held by
Islamic families in the North.
Unfortunately, as South Sudan disintegrates into violence,
there are reports of both sides kidnapping children for use
This practice has become endemic across the continent each
time conflict ensues.
The tragic truth is that children are part of warlords'
armoury today because they are cheap to feed, easy to kidnap
and often fearless.
In my own work, I have asked Sierra Leoneans about their
community's oral histories about 19th-century slavery, only
instead to hear an outpouring of harrowing detail about their
own enslavement in the 1990s civil war.
Yet even this is only a part of the problem of enslaved
Africans today, since most are trafficked abroad to places
where they fetch far higher prices.
African domestic workers, often children, can be found across
the Middle East, Europe and the US.
There is a ''Nigerian'' lane in Amsterdam's red light
African prostitutes can be found across Europe and Asia,
where they are sold as niche items.
Herein lies a large part of the problem with Western
strategies for dealing with this issue.
Trafficking is by its nature a grey area; a vast, unknown
percentage of those trafficked into the Western world did so
not after kidnap but after being tricked.
In their utter desperation - many are from refugee camps,
today's favourite place for slave hunters - they fell for
So it is that the Western world sees trafficking in Africa in
terms of something to be halted to slow the inflow of
immigrants, not to help prevent potential victims per se.
The demand to protect our borders, not the centuries of slave
trading, is the context for anti-trafficking policies.
Tragically, it often seems that Africans are as regularly
portrayed today as ''other'' - perhaps deemed worthy of our
pity but rarely our solidarity - as they did at the height of
the transatlantic slave trade.
Until we change that, and focus less on political expediency
and more on the suffering and courage of girls like Deborah
Sanya, who escaped Boko Haram and told her story, justice for
the millions who are still bought and sold seems a remote
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