It was supposed to be a joyful occasion. Young men and women gathered in a circle, displaying their dance moves as they celebrated Mali’s independence day in the country’s western region of Kayes.
But things took a dark turn when a group of people carrying thick wooden sticks and machetes appeared all of sudden.
The celebrating crowd – people from the so-called “slave” class – were brutally attacked and publicly humiliated by the descendants of slaveholder families who consider themselves “nobles”.
The late September attacks in the town of Bafoulabe continued for two days, killing at least one man and wounding at least 12 others, United Nations experts said on Friday.
Although slavery as an institution was officially abolished in Mali during colonial rule more than a century ago, the so-called “descent-based slavery” still persists today. The centuries-old historical hierarchies have divided communities into various social castes such as nobles, chiefs, artisans and slaves – who are at the bottom rung of society and have merely inherited their status from their enslaved forefathers.
‘Barbaric and criminal’ attacks
Even at a time of relative peace, the lives of enslaved people are highly controlled in feudal communities. They are not allowed to become the mayor or chief of a village, own land or even marry outside their class. During celebrations such as weddings or births, they are expected to serve the nobles by slaughtering animals and preparing their meals. According to the descendants of privileged slaveholder families, this traditional practice is entirely voluntary. But the descendants of slaves say otherwise. Experts say they are at risk of losing their homes and access to water and land should they protest against the practice.
Between 2018 and early 2021, more than 3,000 people who were descendants of slaves were forcibly displaced in Kayes. Gambana, a prominent anti-slavery and pacifist organisation, estimates that there are 200,000 such people in the region.
Diaguily Kanoute, who leads Gambana (“equality” in local Soninke language), said those who reject the practice are ostracised. “You either have to accept being slave or you have to leave the village,” Kanoute, formerly enslaved himself, told Al Jazeera.
However, going against these social mores comes at a high cost. Attacks against those who defy the tradition have become increasingly common in recent years – several videos on social media have emerged of men who have been publicly beaten and humiliated with their arms and legs bound.
According to the UN, twice as many people were injured in “barbaric and criminal” attacks linked to descent-based slavery in 2021 compared with last year. Kayes alone has seen eight attacks, the UN experts said, noting that perpetrators are rarely held accountable as Mali has not specifically outlawed the practice.
“The fact that these attacks occur so often in this area shows that descent-based slavery is still socially accepted by some influential politicians, traditional leaders, law enforcement officials and judicial authorities,” they said.
Kanoute said anti-slavery campaigners held a forum in August in Kayes with state officials and community leaders, where all parties signed a charter to end violence linked to slavery. “Yet, people were beaten and tortured in the same town leaders committed to peace”, he said, visibly frustrated, referring to September’s attacks.
The rising number of attacks has spread fear and caused displacement. Some 100 people, more than half of them children. fled their village and sought refuge in the capital, Bamako, last May after refusing to be treated as slaves.
Malian sociologist Brema Ely Dicko says the rising number of attacks shows the so-called nobles caste is not above using violence to maintain the existing social contract.
“Anti-slavery campaigns, particularly Gambana’s, have raised awareness among the descendants of slaves who dared to tell their masters that they are not slaves. And masters started to take their land away from them and denied access to their water wells, which quickly followed by violence and forced displacement”, Dicko told Al Jazeera.
Marie Rodet, at SOAS University of London, agrees and says the resistance to slavery has been largely amplified by social media which has become a powerful tool to question the status quo.
“Today, when you know that more than 70,000 people are members of Gambana’s anti-slavery activist groups on WhatsApp, it becomes clear that the oppressors have lost the ideological fight,” Rodet told Al Jazeera. “As they cannot accept their defeat though, they rely on retaliation to defend the little power they believe they still hold.”
This abuse is part of a centuries-old pattern used against enslaved populations in Mali. The Atlantic slave trade not only increased militarisation, triggered internal wars and restructured societies across the Sahel region based on social hierarchies – but it also institutionalised slavery.
Although slavery was outlawed by the French colonial rule in 1905, the authorities turned a blind eye to the continuation of slavery which they referred to as “domestic slavery”, fearing that complete abolition would destabilise economies dependant on the practice and endanger colonial rule. Thus the socioeconomic model has reinforced the historical hierarchies that persist today.
“What is worrying”, Rodet said, “is the involvement of the younger generation in some of these exactions against victims of descent-based slavery with the complicity of local politicians and authorities.”
Unlike its neighbours Niger, Senegal and Mauritania, the country has not implemented legislation to prohibit and criminalise descent-based slavery. Two weeks after the attack in Kayes, Mali’s Minister of National Reconciliation Ismael Wague visited the region and said arrests had been made. But anti-slavery activists believe the authorities lack the courage to end the practice, which provides a degree of impunity to perpetrators to continue to abuse those deemed slaves.
“The state has been in denial when it comes to slavery,” said Abdoulaye Macko, a founding member of Temedt, the first organisation set up to fight slavery in Mali. “With the scale of the abuses against slaves in recent years, the discourse is starting to change. However, the state’s response to the crisis remains timid,” he added, calling for the adoption of legislation to criminalise the practice and hold the perpetrators to account, as well as “make reparations and restore the rights of citizens deprived of their property”.
Descent-based slavery is only one problem among many faced by Mali. Since 2012, a multitude of armed groups with various goals has spread waves of violence in the central and northern parts of the country, terrorising local communities while also exploiting age-old tensions among various ethnic communities and tapping into deep-seated grievances.
Although there is no organic link between the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) which is active in the Kayes region and the marginalised communities, analysts say there is a risk that those victimised could seek recourse by joining these groups.
“If the state doesn’t protect their own citizens and the rule of law, there’s certainly the risk that the people take justice into their own hands,” Rodet said. “Joining a militant group is just one option among others,” she warned.
Yvan Guichaoua, from the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent, shared the sentiment.
“As JNIM seeks a broader base, the group is cautious not to pitch explicitly one community against another. However, JNIM knows how to capitalise on cracks in local systems of social stratification,” Guichaoua said. “It’s very pragmatic and seeks expansions via reformist social agendas.”