The Shackles of Slavery in Niger

Slavery may seem like a historical relic, but in many parts of the world servitude remains prevalent. The United Nations estimates that there are 27 million slaves in the world, including victims of human trafficking, debt bondage, prostitution, child labor and serfdom.

And little seems to be reversing that trend.

In the western African nation of Niger, one of the poorest countries on Earth, despite being prohibited, slavery is rooted in the traditional customs and the culture of the country. There are more than 800,000 slaves in Niger -- more than 7 percent of the population -- and although some of their conditions have improved over the years, slavery remains a fact of life in this Saharan country.

Trafficking Report

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented a State Department report today on the problem of human trafficking.

"Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery," Rice said. "As President Bush has said, nearly two centuries after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our times.

"We must all work to end this terrible tragedy," she said.

The 150-country "Trafficking in Persons Report" focuses on the millions of people across the world who are victims of servitude and debt bondage. This type of slavery, involving millions of people every year, happens most frequently in an individual's own country and is often based on culture, heritage or lack of economic well-being. Rice said she hopes to raise awareness to counter the phenomenon of forced labor trafficking.

ABC News traveled to Niger with the help of London-based Anti-Slavery International to assess the situation of slavery in the landlocked nation where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.

Scars of Slavery

Ioukhede carries the scars of a lifetime. She works long, hard hours in the sweltering heat of the African desert in Tichinbardei, 600 miles north of Niger's capital, Niamey. She is a slave.

"I am skinny not by nature but by the ill treatment I get," she said. "The day I come back with a broken bucket will be a bad day. I will be beaten."

She's afraid to rebel because she heard that her master had once killed a slave. "Some days I look for something to hit my master with but I'm afraid he'll turn around and might even kill me," she said.

Ioukhede lives with 50 other slaves in a camp and serves masters that live in the surrounding area.

Their masters are Tuareg nomads, descendants of an ancient desert culture that hasn't changed much in thousands of years. It is an inflexible caste system where the masters are at the top and the slaves lie on the bottom. Life is ordered with the men herding the animals while the women fetch water and prepare food.

"The life of a slave is no better than a mule," said Romana Cachiolli, the Africa-Programme officer at Anti-Slavery International. "They really work from before dawn to after dusk doing the most menial tasks," she adds.

Stand Up for Your Rights

Things started to change a bit thanks to Ilguilas Weila.

Weila, president and founder of Timidria, which means solidarity, a civil rights organization, is Niger's equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. Since the 1960s, he's been fighting for the rights of slaves and the poor in his native country.

"Traditional slavery is the oldest, the oldest slavery which the world has known, and this slavery is a product of inheritance," he said. "All the slaves that we have here today are slaves from the ancestors, their parents, their grandparents. They are slaves of inheritance."

In Ioukhede's case, her master's son inherited her. "I do the same work that my parents did for my master."

She has five children, two boys and three girls, and they all also belong to her master.

Cachiolli says that children are taken away from their mothers to destroy the family links so slaves don't really know who their ancestors are. "As you can imagine in Africa, that's a very important tradition, to know who your parents are, so that's how slavery is perpetuated," she said.

Religious Excuse

One Muslim holy man explains Niger's slave policy as a religious phenomena.

"According to the Koran, a slave is a person who refuses to become a Muslim," said Al-aji Idriss Abandaba, Imam of Niamey. "This means that if you are a Muslim you cannot be a slave."

But critics say slavery has been around a lot longer than Islam and that the arrival of religion did nothing to break the chains of tradition. Some masters may even be accused of using religion as a way to brainwash their slaves and control them.

"Islam assisted in the indoctrination of slaves through the use of religion, by saying for example if you disobey your master, you will not access paradise, hence your paradise is in the hands of your master," said Weila.

Easier Said Than Done

Slaveholders' dominance may be waning, however.

"Slavery is a state of an individual on which is practiced attributes the rights of ownership, it's a human being who is the object of another," said Masouse-a-Damou, the secretary general and minister of justice of Niger, reading from the text of a new anti-slavery law.

Before this law was enacted, slaves did not technically exist. They were non-people, they weren't even defined in the legal system, but with the help of lawyers like Chebou Abdoura Hamam, Ioukhede is now recognized as a citizen and a person.

"The slave is someone who has been molded for generations, that is a form of fatalism, they have accepted their status," said Abdoura Hamam. "They think that it is God that says that we are born slaves, so there is no need to fight against it.

According to the Ministry of Justice, it's a criminal offense to reduce a human to slavery in Niger, punishable by law with a minimum sentence of 10 years to a maximum of 30 years.

Enacting the law criminalizing slavery is the first step, but applying it is a different matter. Many of the government ministers are from slaveholders' families, and are being lobbied hard by the traditional leaders to protect the status quo. In April, the government of Niger announced that slavery no longer existed.

But slaveholders are still clinging to their "inheritance," and have more or less disregarded the new law.

Losing Their Defendant

Worse still, the slaves have now lost their key campaigner and defendant. Weila was arrested and imprisoned at the end of April on charges of fraudulently trying to raise money from Anti-Slavery International. The nongovernmental organization denies the allegations. Weila has been refused bail and no date has been set for his trial.

Cachiolli says Weila is guilty of one thing: he lifted the lid on slavery in Niger. "The authorities are now very irritated that so much international attention is now being focused on Niger, particularly slavery in Niger," she said.

If you would like more information about slavery in Niger and around the world, Click Here.

ABC News' Oliver Steeds filed this report for "Nightline."

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