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Africa: Child-Slave Ship May Not Be Real, But African Child Slavery Is

  • Don Hill

A week ago, international child-welfare workers began a vigil in West Africa for the motor vessel Etireno, which was said to be bearing 180 small children who had been sold into slavery. Several days later, the Etireno arrived in Cotonou, Benin, but without clear evidence aboard that it was a slave ship. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill says one thing appears certain, however: There is a long-standing, thriving slave trade in children in West Africa.

Prague, 23 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, says that hundreds of thousands of black children a year routinely are sold or stolen into slavery in West Africa.

Revulsion at even the idea of slavery continuing in the 21st century is worldwide, and slavery is formally prohibited in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Even so, UNICEF says, the West African traffic in small children -- though it flourishes openly -- has failed to attract much international attention.

Until last week, that is.

UNICEF and other children's aid organizations in the small port town of Cotonou, Benin, set off a worldwide alert a week ago (16 April). They said that port authorities in neighboring Gabon and Cameroon had reported turning away the motor vessel Etireno with perhaps 180 suspected child slaves aboard.

When the Etireno failed to show up in Cotonou by mid-week as expected, aid workers worried that the captain, frightened by the well-publicized alert, may have unloaded the children in some small port or even have thrown them overboard. Newspapers around the world and international broadcasters such as CNN took up the story. The "Los Angeles Times" wrote in an editorial that "the universal willingness to believe that 180 children had been sold into slavery and were abandoned on a modern-day slave ship stranded off the coast of West Africa indicates the depth of the child-trafficking problem in that region."

UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormack in Florence, Italy, said in a telephone interview that, regardless of the outcome of the Etireno investigation, the slave trade traffic is unquestionably real.

"We estimate that some 200,000 children are traded each year in the region -- that's West and Central Africa. Throughout [history], the slave trade has never stopped in West Africa."

McCormack said that the West African countries of Mali and Ivory Coast agreed recently to cooperate with each other and with UNICEF in seeking to stem the traffic in children. He said that as a result of the world spotlight now shining on Benin, that country, too, is beginning to exhibit a political will to fight the slave commerce.

On 19 April, Benin government spokesman Gaston Zossou said that police have detained Etireno Captain Morris Emonena and members of his crew, even though they lack any firm evidence of slave trade. "It's because there is an anomaly," Zossou said. He also said: "This affair does not belong exclusively to Benin. It's a regional problem."

UNICEF's McCormack said that buying and selling of child slaves long has been overt in the region.

"It is no secret that this is going on. It is basically a trade that has gone on under the eyes of the law and of governments. It is relatively unpunished."

The Reverend Ngoy D. Mulunda-Nyanga, executive secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, says the reasons for modern-day slavery lie in a combination of poverty, unemployment, and a pervasive sense of powerlessness. Mulunda says: "Child slavery is on the increase on the continent of Africa because families have lost their power on the streets and in the marketplace. The first sin that we need to denounce and fight against is the prostitution of labor."

McCormack says there is good reason why this corner of West Africa still is marked in modern world atlases as The Slave Coast.

"Could be tradition -- I mean, history. I mean, you know, it is the area of Africa most famous for slave trading. You know, if things go on long enough, people accept it as something that is O.K."

International aid officials say that slave traders acquire children both by outright kidnapping and by persuading parents that the children will be given paid jobs on plantations. Many do end up working 10 to 12 hours a day on plantations, but the "pay" often is no more than food and shelter. Other girls and boys often are forced to become child prostitutes, domestic servants, or victims of other kinds of exploitation.

Aid officials also say that the slave trade, even where nominally outlawed, thrives under the knowing eyes of public officials. It is quite profitable and slavers can afford to pay the necessary bribes. But more than that, UNICEF's McCormack says, there is also the problem of lack of resources in some of the poorest countries in the world.

"This is true of a lot of problems in Africa, that they don't have the resources, they don't have the trained police forces to deal with this problem."

The UNICEF spokesman said he hopes that the Etireno publicity has attracted the kind of attention that will draw and sustain a flow of aid money and other assistance to fight the slave traders. Even so, he estimated, it would take another 10 years -- and another two million enslaved children -- before the effects were felt.