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 ongoingbusiness of kidnapping, incarcerating, then selling human beings.

If you missed coverage of the Etireno's voyage of the damned, here's thenutshell: On March 30, the Etireno left Benin's port of Cotonou, followed byreports that her cargo consisted of 200 children destined for "domesticservice" in more prosperous West African nations. Human rights organizationspushed Benin's government for more information. Oil-rich Gabon refused tolet the Etireno dock. The rogue odyssey continued, with ports along thecoast refusing entrance -- and, oddly, regional navy and coast guard vesselsapparently unable to track the ferry and board her. On April 17, the Etirenolimped back into Cotonou. Upon examining the ship, local authorities said itwas "uncertain" if slaves had been aboard.

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

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

Europeans once called the Benin area the Slave Coast. Local chieftains soldEuropean ship captains human beings for transport to the New World's slavemarkets. For two centuries, the evil enterprise was big-time globalbusiness.

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

The West African child slave traffic works like this: Smugglers coaxfamilies in flat-broke countries like Benin and Togo into "giving up" theirkids. 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 theIvory Coast and Gabon. If they're lucky, the girls end up as householdworkers. Many girls end up in brothels.

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

Cross the continent to Sudan. In Sudan, slaving is a tradition, a businessand a tool of political oppression. Islamic militiamen, acting on behalf ofthe 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, Iinterviewed an Anglican Christian Dinka. The price for ransoming a cousin?"Around $35. Maybe $40." More often, the raiders take their captives northand sell them.

Khartoum claims it's simply fighting a long-term guerrilla war againsttribal rebels. This claim ignores centuries of Arab slaving in Africa andforced Islamization. It ignores extensive evidence, including documentedprojects where Christian activists have "bought back" enslaved Dinkas fromMuslim 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 tocases in Bangladesh, India and Haiti. Captive women forced into prostitutionare 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. Thedefining 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 mediapressure. While the Sudanese Islamist regime isn't so vulnerable, Westernoil companies doing business in Sudan are.
  2. Political persuasion. A number of Christian groups have been confrontingSudan -- including evangelicals, Catholics and Anglicans. Unfortunately,some usually outspoken U.S. civil rights organizations greet this issue withawkward silence. Frankly, "Africans enslaving Africans" doesn't have a lotof domestic political punch for hypocritical hustlers like Jackson. Can'tuse the issue to wag your finger while shaking down Silicon Valley orAnheuser-Busch. Yet American civil rights organizations can play a crucialrole, particularly in West Africa. Perhaps this is an issue for a newgeneration of civil-rights leaders.
  3. Prosecution. Slavery is against the law in every one of the nationsinvolved. Combating slavery is another reason for Washington to makejudicial and legal reforms in emerging democracies key policy goals.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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