Children who need no chains

Over the past two weekends BBC World has been broadcasting a two-part documentary called The Slave Children, inspired by the news, last April, of the ship Etireno, which, for three weeks, had been refused entry to several West African ports because it was believed to be carrying child slaves.

It would appear that the local politicians — notably those in Benin, where the ship eventually docked —worked their callous magic and the world’s news gatherers were told that the ship had not been carrying any such human cargo.

The world’s news gatherers happily lapped up the lie and lost interest. BBC researchers didn’t. They sent an investigating television crew to Benin and neighbouring Togo and Gabon. The first thing the team discovered was that, despite the outraged political denials, the Etireno had indeed been carrying slave children — about 200 of them — ranging in age from six to early teens. Each one had been sold by his or her parents to local slave traffickers. To encourage the parents to sell their own children, traffickers promise that the children’s earnings in other countries will be sent back home to help support the family. Needless to say this promise is never honoured. Parents get £10 sterling for a child, and that’s all. The trafficker sells the child for £200.

West African child slavery is in boom times with a lucrative merchandise of about 200 000 children a year being sold and transported to other countries as unpaid labour. The childen are sold into slavery in many West African countries, including Nigeria, which alone constitutes the largest section of the market. The cruel irony is that it is Benin — formerly Dahomey — which is the worst offender. It was from Benin’s ports that the majority of the New World slaves were sold and shipped. It is through these ports that the vast majority of today’s child slaves pass.

The BBC documentaries were as telling a condemnation of what, in some ways, is a far greater crime than slavery: in effect it is a form of genocide, for all hope and human prospect for the child slaves is exterminated when they are sold and transported. From that moment on, their rights degrade. Their names are changed, they are issued with new identities and false papers, they are forced to respond to new languages. They are shipped away, sold in open marketplaces to the highest bidders. At this stage their rights become those of animals. The younger, the better. “Older children,” says one owner, “could think of escape, be able to plan it.” Five-year-olds are easier to contain because “they don’t know the way home”. One of the traffickers confirmed, “Little children don’t need chains.”

Benin, Gabon and Togo have no laws prohibiting the trafficking of slaves — children or not. And there certainly aren’t any laws on the way. In fact Benin’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Idji Kolawole, was most voluble in the programmes, saying that he believed that the snatching from their families of children of five, so that they could be sold off as free labour to households and small businesses in other countries, was actually of benefit to the children — it “educated” them. Sending them away was a part of their “tradition”.

And the BBC cameras found literally hundreds of Minister Kolawole’s “fortunate” children: working in marketplaces, as low-grade domestic servants, hoeing in the fields, paid nothing and fed the minimum to keep them alive. They were housed in hovels; some had been beaten savagely for the slightest transgressions. One girl of about 10 had a grid of whip scars across her back. The children had no access to medical help. They were all plainly terrified of their owners.

Though the children of oil-rich Gabon went to schools and enjoyed most of the benefits of a prosperous society, the slave children were denied any education at all.

Small and underfunded non-governmental groups in Gabon and Togo struggle against enormous odds to release children from this slavery. The groups have no clout under Gabon. Benin or Togo law, and are barely tolerated by the authorities. A tiny parcel of three children, trying to leave Togo under the protection of one of these groups, was told they could not leave until they paid a departure tax of £135 sterling each.

Perhaps when he’s finished running extravagant racism conferences, 2001 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Mr Kofi Annan might settle his placid gaze on Benin, a sanctuary once again for an inhuman slave trade — this time in children. Or he could just leave it to Swiss charities, as he has been doing.

I’ll lay you any money you like: the SABC will never pick this one up and rebroadcast it.

The Mail&Guardian, November 5, 2001

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