Saturday, October 27, 2012

When Mitt Romney Became The First American Presidential Candidate To Bring Up Mali, Did He Know That Slavery Is Back?


Mali isn't a country Mitt Romney has shipped any American jobs to or hidden any assets to avoid paying taxes. Maybe that's why he mentioned a country three times, that almost no Americans have ever heard of, in the final debate. At least no one would be reminded of something negative Romney had done. I was surprised to hear him say "Mali" because it's a place I visited and a place I think needs urgent international attention. During my visit to Mali four years ago, I was shocked and horrified to find that there was still some degree of slavery there-- as well as in neighboring states, Mauritania and Niger. And it's gotten far, far worse since then with a full scale civil war thrusting the northern half of the country into the hands of slave-holding Tuareg fundamentalists-- including Timbuktu.

In December, 2008, Roland and I were waiting for a couple hours for the ferry to take us across the Niger on the way to Timbuktu and the settlement there is a Bella one. Until 1973's epoch drought nearly wiped out the Tuareg's camels and herds, the Bella had been their slaves. In 1973, basically because the Tuareg couldn't feed them anymore, they emancipated them-- although I was aware that there were still some services that many of them still render to their former masters. Anyway, this Bella settlement was all festive and bustling like all the villages we visited in Mali, when a couple of pickup trucks filled with Tuaregs pulled up to the bank of the river. Suddenly things got much quieter. The women and little children seemed to disappear. It reminded me of a scene from Star Wars when some alien warrior people dropped by a space cafe. The Tuaregs were pretty well-armed with swords and daggers and God knows what else and they didn't seem to smile much; no chatty bonjours and they certainly didn't ask you for a Bic or an empty water bottle or candy. The Tuareg War ended in the mid-90's but it started up again this year and they've basically declared independence from Mali for the state of Azawad.

The fundamentalists that took over have even harsher attitudes-- though not dissimilar-- towards women than misogynistic Republican culture warriors Richard Mourdock (IN), Paul Ryan (WI), Joe Pitts (PA) and Todd Akin (MO). And public schools are-- like a GOP dream-- o.v.e.r.. The fundamentalists (in Mali) are compiling lists of unwed mothers... and it's not for health care. And the preferred conservative ordering of society is back: slavery, the GOP dream that dares not speak its name (yet).
For the estimated 800,000 people of "slave descent" in Mali, life is precarious at the best of times. In the most extreme cases, people descended from slaves are treated as objects and their children do not belong to them but to their "masters."

Even those who live in villages hundreds of miles away from their masters can expect the occasional visitor who will collect their share of crops or take children away to be household servants.

The plight of slave descendants is even more insecure following a rebellion by Tuareg separatists backed by al-Qaida-linked extremists. In March, the uprising triggered a military coup by troops frustrated at the ineffectual government response. Now, military intervention from Ecowas, the west African regional group, looms.

"The slave population is already defenseless; it will become even more so as the conflict intensifies. We are like the straw that will be trampled underfoot when elephants fight," said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, an activist who received the Anti-Slavery International award in London last Wednesday.

Slavery was formally abolished in Mali in the 1960s, after the country gained independence from France. However, although slavery is not allowed under the constitution, there is no anti-slavery law and descent-based slavery through the maternal bloodline still exists in northern regions.

People descended from slaves remain the "property" of their "masters," either living with them and serving them directly, or living separately but remaining under their control.

In 2006, Ag Idbaltanat set up the anti-slavery group Temedt, which means "solidarity" in the Tamasheq language of the north. Temedt says slavery is still practiced in the far north between Berber-descended Tuareg nomads and darker-skinned Bella or black Tamasheq people.

The descendants of slaves-- 200,000 of whom are under direct control of their masters-- face threats from all sides because of the current conflict, said Ag Idbaltanat, himself a descendant of slaves.

..."They can act with impunity – 18 children of slaves were kidnapped recently by traditional masters of their families," said Ag Idbaltanat. "Before the rebellion, we had 17 anti-slavery cases before the courts in the north, but the courts are no longer there."

He described as dire conditions in his hometown of Menaka, which was captured by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg rebel group, in January. Public services have been shut down, schools are closed, there is no drinking water as there is no electricity for the filtration system, and people now have to fetch unclean water from natural basins in the desert.
Women are back in a subservient status. Public schools, music and courts are abolished. Slavery is reinstated. I'm surprised Romney didn't tout it as a model if the Ryan budget is ever used as the American roadmap.

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