On Point

Rogue Voyage of a 21st Century African Slave Ship

by Austin Bay
The Etireno, a coastal ferry now off Cameroon and wandering in the steamy Gulf of Guinea, has made slavery an international issue.

I mean contemporary slavery, as in right now, this minute, the ongoing business of kidnapping, incarcerating, then selling human beings.

If you missed coverage of the Etireno's voyage of the damned, here's the nutshell: On March 30, the Etireno left Benin's port of Cotonou, followed by reports that her cargo consisted of 200 children destined for "domestic service" in more prosperous West African nations. Human rights organizations pushed Benin's government for more information. Oil-rich Gabon refused to let the Etireno dock. The rogue odyssey continued, with ports along the coast refusing entrance -- and, oddly, regional navy and coast guard vessels apparently unable to track the ferry and board her. On April 17, the Etireno limped back into Cotonou. Upon examining the ship, local authorities said it was "uncertain" if slaves had been aboard.

Realists wondered if an even greater evil had occurred, with the human evidence drowned at sea.

As for the 21st century slave business, the evidence is already in: It's all too active.

Europeans once called the Benin area the Slave Coast. Local chieftains sold European ship captains human beings for transport to the New World's slave markets. For two centuries, the evil enterprise was big-time global business.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson's chronic hyperventilation to the contrary, slavery ended in the United States 136 years ago. Unfortunately, the noxious business continues elsewhere on the planet.

The West African child slave traffic works like this: Smugglers coax families in flat-broke countries like Benin and Togo into "giving up" their kids. They promise education and a better life. The going price for a child: $15. The smugglers sell the boys to plantations in wealthier places like the Ivory Coast and Gabon. If they're lucky, the girls end up as household workers. Many girls end up in brothels.

Of course, the defenders of this evil deny its existence. However, groups like Anti-Slavery International (ASI) have been tracking the trade for years.

Cross the continent to Sudan. In Sudan, slaving is a tradition, a business and a tool of political oppression. Islamic militiamen, acting on behalf of the Islamist government in Khartoum, sweep through villages in south Sudan, abducting Christian and animist black Africans.

Occasionally, tribes manage to ransom the kidnapped. Three years ago, I interviewed an Anglican Christian Dinka. The price for ransoming a cousin? "Around $35. Maybe $40." More often, the raiders take their captives north and sell them.

Khartoum claims it's simply fighting a long-term guerrilla war against tribal rebels. This claim ignores centuries of Arab slaving in Africa and forced Islamization. It ignores extensive evidence, including documented projects where Christian activists have "bought back" enslaved Dinkas from Muslim brokers. Christian Solidarity International says that it pays around $100, or the price of three cows, to release a slave.

Other African nations also confront slave-trade allegations. ASI points to cases in Bangladesh, India and Haiti. Captive women forced into prostitution are a global phenomenon, from Thailand to the Balkans to the United States.

Anti-slavery activists argue that in many instances forced child labor, debt-bond labor and "sex slaving" are modern forms of chattel slavery. The defining characteristics include degree of control over the worker's life, coercion and restriction of movement.

How do abolitionists combat the 21st century slave trade?

  1. Publicity. The West African states are vulnerable to international media pressure. While the Sudanese Islamist regime isn't so vulnerable, Western oil companies doing business in Sudan are.
  2. Political persuasion. A number of Christian groups have been confronting Sudan -- including evangelicals, Catholics and Anglicans. Unfortunately, some usually outspoken U.S. civil rights organizations greet this issue with awkward silence. Frankly, "Africans enslaving Africans" doesn't have a lot of domestic political punch for hypocritical hustlers like Jackson. Can't use the issue to wag your finger while shaking down Silicon Valley or Anheuser-Busch. Yet American civil rights organizations can play a crucial role, particularly in West Africa. Perhaps this is an issue for a new generation of civil-rights leaders.
  3. Prosecution. Slavery is against the law in every one of the nations involved. Combating slavery is another reason for Washington to make judicial and legal reforms in emerging democracies key policy goals.
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