Niger: Slavery

Figure 1.--The photo shows a Niger boy enslaved by the Tuareg people. The boy in the photo, differently from free Tuare boys wears only a goat skin loincloth. The photo was taken in 1950s duruing the French colonial period. There appear to be no problems with openly declaring the boy to be a slave. Independent Niger formally abolished slavery at independence (1960), but there was no criminal or civil consequences for violating that law. So, during 43 years, in Niger slavery was illegal but someone that owned, bought or sold slaves was not procecuted or punihed. Many personal testimonies report that slavery continued in Niger. Criminal penalties were added to the penal code (2003). The Niger Government refuses to enforce the law and claims that slavery does not exist.

Niger is a Saharan state of modern creation. The slave trade began centuries before Niger was created and trade routes through Niger wre very important. Niger was part of several different empires which dominated different regions of West Africa over time. The French abolishd slavery, but did not aggressively pursue abolition. The Taureg were the tribe that most resisted the French and the tribe most committed to slavery. Niger becane independent (1960). The country abolished slavery upon independence, but made not effort to criminalize slave keeping or punish violations. Many personal testimonies report that slavery continued in Niger. Criminal penalties were added to the penal code (2003). The Niger Government refuses to enforce the law and claims that slavery does not exist. The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) found Niger guilty of failing to protect its people from slavery (2008).

Saharan Slave Trade

Caeavans across the Sahara The Sahara was one route by which cative Africans were marketed in the ancient world world and subsequently the Muslim world. The Sahara began to form as a desert (about 2000 BC). As aesult, crossing the desert ws amajor problem for slave traders. While ancient references demonstrate that this trade existed, information about it and particulsrly the dimensions of the trade is very limited.

Ancient slave trade

Carthage and Egypt in the ancient world emerged as the northern terminals for trade with West African. The primary commodities desired in the north were gold, ivory, and slaves. In return they sent salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods south back across the Sahara. Niger was on the route between the different empires of the Sahel and the empires of the Mediterranean basin. Trade continued into Roman times as Rome first destroyed Carthage and then cionquered Egypt. There are Classical references to direct travel by sea from the Mediterranean to West Africa. [Daniels, p. 22ff.] Most of the trade beyween the Sahel and West Africa was conducted through Saharan caravan routes. This trade was conducted by midddlemen familiar with local conditions which became steadily more difficult as the Sahara continued to dry out. This might have closed the Sahara to trade except for the introduction of the camel (4th century AD).

Muslim slave trade

Mediterranean economies were short of gold but could supply salt, produced at laces like the African salt mine of Taghaza. West African countries like Wangara had gold but needed salt. The trans-Saharan slave trade was also important because large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines. [Ibn Battuta, pp. 1351-53.] The West African states imported highly trained slave soldiers. Several routes became well established by traders. This varoed over time, in part the result of the rise and fall of important African kingdoms. The Ghana Empire centered on what is now Mali, Senegal, and southern Mauritania(c830 until c1235), The Ghana Empire was not a Muslim empire, but they traded extensivedly with the Muslim polities that emerged in te Sahel (North Africa) and the gradually Islamicized Berber people. As a result, the rise of Ghana paralleled the increase in trans-Saharan trade and the consolidatiin of Muslim rule in the Sahel. One of the most important was the eastern routes terminating in the north at Sijilmasa and Ifriqiya (modern Morocco). Throughout the Sahel Berber traders had increased contact with Islam abd convrsions followed over time, both by force and commercial contact. This opened a vast new marker for slaves. The Berbers could not sell in numbers to the Christian states, they could throughout the Caliphate. The Mali Empire was a Muslim kingdom, unlike the Ghana Empire which it followed (1230-1600 AD). It was also called te Mandingo Empire or Manden Kurufaba. The gold-salt trade continued. Other commodities traded incuded slaves, kola nuts from the south and slave beads and cowry shells from the north. The nuts/beads/shells might be used as cuurrency). The great cities of the Niger bend (Gao and Djenné) prospered. Timbuktu became the most important city on thetrans-Saharan caravan routes. Unlike most of the trading cities, Timbuktu became known in Europe fot its great wealth, even entering the English vernacular. Important but smaller and less kown trading centers developed in southern West Africa at the transitional zone between the tropical forest and the savanna. This included Begho and Bono Manso (modern Ghana) and Bondoukou (modern Côte d'Ivoire). The expansive Mali Empire seized control of important trade routes to the west and east. Therewere several important western trading centers, inclusing Quadane, Oualata and Chinguetti (modern Mauritania). To the east, the Tuareg towns of Assodé and subsequently Agadez (modern Niger) grew in importance. The Kanem-Bornu Empire centred on the Lake Chad (c700-1376). It came to dominate the eastern trans-Saharan trade route. The Empire consisted of Chad, Nigeria, easter Niger, and Libya. This trade route was somewhat less efficient than more easterly routes, primarily because of the large expanse of desert that had to be transversed. The length of the route in terms of slave trade affected the numbers of captives that survived the trek and thus profitability. As a result, the westerly routes varied in importance iver time. They became important when the easterly empires declined and were unable to protect the trade routes or during other periods of turmoillike the Almohad conquests (13th century). The Almohads were a Berber-Muslim dynasty that established a Berber state in Tinmel in the Atlas Mountains (modern Morocco). The Songhai Empire was located more to the east, inclusing areas of Niger (c1375-1591). The Songhai Empire was the largest and last of the three major West African empires. The capital was Gao on the Niger River. Songhai expanded in all directions from Gao. It eventully extended from the Atlantic Ocean to what is now Northwest Nigeria and western Niger. The Empire became rich from the trade routes it controlled and slaves were one of the important commodities. Gao tiday is a small Niger River trading center, but in its time was one of the most important trading centers in Africa. The Goa Mosque is one of the most notable in West Africa. The Tomb of Askia, the most important of the Songhai emperors, was also built there. The Songhai eventually seized control of Timbuktu and Djenne. The number of captive Africans transported in the Saharan slave trade is not well documented, but several historians have addressed the topic. Some 6,000-7,000 slaves may have been transported north each year (10th-19th century). [Fage, p. 256.] The numbers transported annually are smaller than the numbers transpprted each year at the peak of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (late-17th tgo early-19th century), but as the tras-Saharan slave trade was conducted over a much longer period, very large numbrs of slaves were involved. Estimates vary, but given the fact that the trade operated for centuries, the numbers were clearly very substantial. The total numbers may have been approached as many as 10 million captive Africans.

The Taureg

What is now modern Niger set as it is in the middle of the Sahara became important in the trahns-Saharan caravan trade. It was controlled in part or in whole by by both the Mali and Songhai Empires and other smaller African empires and kingdoms. This included the Dendi Kingdom, Gao, and Kanem-Bornu, as well as a several small Hausa states in what is now northern Nigeria. The nomadic Taureg became a major force in the Sahara, dominating trade routes. This made them a major player in the trans-Saharan slave trade. In modern times, the Tuareg people formed confederations and pushed south, forming alliances with various Hausa states. They engaged in extended fighting with the Fulani Empire of Sokoto, which managed to seize control of large areas of Hausa territory (late-18th century). A metal anklet camne to be a tradition in Niger for thise enslaved by the Taureg. These anklets are worn only by the slave-classes of Nigerien society. There are believed to bemore than 43,000 slaves in Niger. They do not now where the shackles commonly associated with the historic slave trade, the anklets serve as a way of identifying the slave class and setting them apart from Niger society.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (16th-19th Century)

The Portuguese set out to establish a sea route to the East to bypass Ottomon and Arab domimination of the trade (mid-15th century). They moved south along the Atlantic coast, setting up trading posts as they moved south, but not moving inland. The first such post was established (1455). The Portuguese voyages were primarily aimed at establishing trade with the East (India, Indinesia, and China), but they opened up new opportunities for trade between Europe and West Africa. Slaves were one of the commodities trades, but at first only in small numbers. Columbus' discovery of the Americas opened up an entire new continent for exploitation. At first the Spanish and Portuhuese settlers attempted to use Native Americansas a source of forced labor (16th century). Thisproved unsucessful as native American populations collapsed, largely because of lack of resostance to European diseases. Africanswere imported to replace them. At first this involved only small numbers. The focus of the Spanish moved west and was concentrated on obtaining gold and silver. The Portuguese did not find great empires with gold and silver. They did, however, begin to grow sugar cane a crop of emense value--leading to the sugar boom. The Dutch who occupied northern Brazil, brought sugar technology to the Caribbean. They and other European mariy\tine powers also attacked the Portuguese monopoly on the slave trade. Soon large numbers of Africans were being transported to the new world. This substantially reduced (but did not end) the trans-Sagaran slave trade. The Europeans were willing to pay more for captive Africans than offered by traders in the far away Sahel. Even Arab slave traders in West Africa began dealing with the Eutopeans..

Decline of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade (15th-16th centuries)

Other European countries, first the Dutch and then the English, French and Spanish, established trading posts at first along the coast of West Afrrica, especially the Gukf of Guina (early-16th century). Various products were traded, not only slaves, but gold, uivory, ahnd other commidities as well. As the sugar industry became established in Brazil and tge Caribbean, commerce becamne dominated by the slave trade. The resulting Sugar Boom created a massive demand for slaves and prices increased at the 'factories" established at the trading posts. Trade with the wealthier Europeans became of prime intereest to the Africas. Thus the slave trade moved from trans-Saharan routes to the much shorter trek south. Tgey only had to bring the caotives to the coastal trading posts. The Sahel (North Africa) had declined in both political and economic importance to the Africans. The Saharan crossing remained long and treacherous. The Taureg and other Bedouine tribes had to be either fought or paid off. The final blow to trahs-Sagaran trade came with the battle of Tondibi (1591-92). Morocco in an effort to seize cintrolof the dwindling trade disparched troops across the Sahara and attacked Timbuktu, Gao and other important Saharan trading centers. The Moroccans pillaged these trading centers. Prominent citizens including merchants were killed or exiled. This significantly disrupted trans-Saharan trade. These cities abnd trans-SAharan trade never recoverd. The animosity created with the Moroccans left the Saharans much less willing to deal with them and other Arab polities in the Sahel. Trans-Saharan trade never disappeared, it was, however, much reduced. Trade routes to the West African coast were much shorter and more reliable an traders did not have to contend ith the Taureg.

French Colonization

The Sahel economies were adversely affected with the decline of the trans-Saharan trade. They increasinly turned to piracy. The Europeans especially the Spanish and Portuguese attempted to colonize the Sahel especially as Ottoman sea power declined after Lepanto (1571). European efforts at colonization proved of limited success and very costly. The Sahel Arab polities increasingly turned to piracy, one of the objects was captives which could ransomed or sold as slaves. They became known as the Barbary Pirates. The Europeans found that the least expensive approach was to pay tribute. When America separated from Britain (1783) it had arge merchant fleet, but no navy iof any cosequence. The largest expenduture of the Federal budget proved to be tribute to the Barbary Pirates. This eventually led to the American-Barbary Wars (1801-15). The Europeans at the time were locked in the Napolean Wars (1799-1815). After Napoleon was finally defeated (1815), the Europans with increasingky formidable naval power also began taking a harder line with the Barbary States. France eventually decided to colonize North Africa. This was not only to supress Barbary piracy, but also to replace the overseas empire it had lost to Britain. This began with Algeria (1830s). Eventually France seized control of most of the Sahel and Sahara which became known as French West Africa. The relativelly small French Foreign Legion waged a decade-long struggle with Arab and Berber tribesen. Modern Niger was one of the last pieces of this vast colonial territory (1890s). They met resistance. The Tauregs who remained committed to the slave trade were not pacified for several decades. Niger became a formal colony (1921). Railway conctions were built to the Gulf of Guinea Coast. TheFrench considered building a rail line from Dakar to Algiers via the Niger bend in modern Mali, but it was never built. A short line into Niger would have connected the country. The French abolished slavery and while the more obvious aspects such as formal slave markets were supressed, slavery was not supressed. Many Niger people continued to hold small numbers of slaves. The French to maintain order did not aggresively move against domestic slavery. Another factor is that unlike the coastal colonies, French missionaries were not active in Niger. And Christianity was amajor effort in the bolition movement and efforts to end the slave trade. Unlike Chritianity there was no abolitinist movement of any importance among Islamic scholars and clerics.


The constituent parts of French West Africa moved toward independence after World war II. This process was accelerated after World war II by the Algerian Independence War (1950s) which proved disaterous to France. France granted independence to the countries of French West Africa (1960s). The French granted Niger full independence (1960). The French attempted to establish a French Community, but the Saharan states, including Niger, rejected this, although to varying degrees they retained close ties to France. Independence for Niger mean that established trade ties were cut by new national borders. Neigboring governments hostile to Tuareg nationalism made few efforts to maintain or foster trans-Saharan trade. The Tuareg Rebellion (1990s) and the Algerian Civil War (2000s-10s) further disrupted Saharan trade routes. Many Algerian roads are closed or too dangerous to use. Niger is thus more isolated now than it was before indeoendence and one of the many African countries whose economies have declined with independence. The United Nations ranked Niger as the second poorest country in the world (2004). Iliteracy is believed to total about 70 percent, perhps the highest in the world.

Abolition (1960)

Niger abolished slavery upon independence, but made not real effort to criminalize slave keeping or punish violations. Thuswhile illegal, there was not consequences to keeping slaves in Niferia. As a result, slavery has persisted in Niger. Modern communications have, however, brought slavery in the country to the attention of the international community. As a result of the international publicity, Niger finally criminalised slaving (May 2003). The provisions came into force a year later. The Nigerian human-rights group Timidria played a major role in this effort. Conviction of slaving could bring 10-30-year prison terms. Fines range from 1 million CFA francs (US $2,123), to 5 million CFA francs ($10,617). The Niger government is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation conventions against forced labor.

Government Policy

There is evidence that official Government policy is to 1) deny that slavery exists in Niger and 2) not to procecute violaters of the law. We do not know of even one person who has been arrested for slaving, let alone convicted or opunished for the crime. One anti-slavery group reports a trobling incident. There was some hope that slavery was finally ended in Niger. A Tuareg chief who headed 19 clans in western Niger feared procecution when he learnd of the new law. He promised to release the 7,000 slaves owned by his people (May 2004). The slaves were decendents of slaves owned by his tribesmen for generations. Timidria and other anti-slave groupswere delighted. These were to be the first slaves actually granted their freedom in a public ceremony. The desert ceremony was scheduled for March 5 2005 in the village of Inates, located 277 km northwest of Niamey. Agroup of international observers and journalists were invited to witness the ceremony. Anti-Slavery International was impressed an called it “exceptional” -- a worldwide event, unlike anything seen since the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1807). It was especially important because it was occurring in the MUslim world. Only when the day came, no slaves were released. Arissal Ag Amdague, the Tuareg chief, did appear. He stood before the assembled dignitaries, including a delegation from the Nigerien Human Rights Commission, and simply denied that neither he nor any of his 19 clansmen owned slaves. He essentially renigged on the written promises he made to free all 7,000 slaves his people owned in western Niger. He stated, "“Slavery doesn’t exist in Inates. Nobody has told me they have seen slaves. If someone has slaves they must tell me.” This flies in the face of extensive evidence that slavery coninued both in Inates and many other places in Niger. Many Nigeriens (and one Malian) in Arissal’s territory and the region around Tahoua (565km northeast of Niamey) have reported that they had been enslaved. [IRIN].

Personal Accounts

We have noticed several personal accounts posted by forner slaves on the internet.


Sabilia (not her real name)is a 15-year old teen ager abd tells her story. "He [her owner] forces me to sleep with him so many times. The times I have tried to refuse he beats me. This all started when I was about 7 years old. He takes me into his room, unclothes me and rapes me. It makes me so sad. I reported it to my father but he, like me, can’t do anything, because he too is a slave.” RAther unusually for a slave in Niger, Sabila was allowed by her owner to attend shool. This came about when a teacher threatened to take her owner to court if he refused to allow her to attend school. “He was afraid and agreed that if I worked for him in the mornings and evenings I could go. “I have studied up to Class Five, but now he has refused to let me go any longer. At school when the teachers taught us about slavery, they teach that it goes back to the transatlantic slave trade and that it doesn’t exist anymore. “I am too afraid to say anything.” Her owner has a daughter who married a Nigerian. He wants to take Sabila to Nigeria and give her as a gift. “When my parents found out they were not happy, and asked our master to let me stay with them. He said, 'No. She is my slave, she must come with me.' I have refused. He is preparing to go now; I am so afraid that he will kidnap me and take me with him. I am still living and working for him. I have been having problems with my periods, they have not been normal and I have had bad pains. The last time I had a period was about 3 or 4 months ago. My master raped me three months ago.” [IRIN]


Azara is 25-year old woman with two children. She tells her story of modern slavery. "he was born into bondage, like her parents and grandparents before her. She was the property of a nomadic Tuareg tribesman who roamed the vast Saharan Desert of northern Niger. “I can’t remember any specific times that were bad; my whole past is marked with hard memories. I had to pound millet and fetch water all the time. I worked day and night. I had to do whatever my master told me to do. It was out of the question to say no. If I ever I refused I was beaten so hard. I tried once to resist but he beat me.” She ran away in 2003. [IRIN]



Fage, J.D. A History of Africa (Routledge, 4th edition, 2001).

Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Twelve - Journey to West Africa.

IRIN. "Niger: Slavery-- an unbroken chain," Humanitarian News and Analysis (March 21, 2005). This IRIN story was filed in Niamey.


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Created: 8:39 PM 10/25/2008
Last updated: 1:28 AM 10/28/2013