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Evans-Pritchard Lectures - The politics of slavery: from independence to the rise of African anti-slavery NGOs

Dr Benedetta Rossi


Wednesday, 11 May - 5:00pm



The nation-building efforts of the early independence regimes silenced references to internal slavery as a potentially divisive factor that would undermine national unification. However in some countries - such as Guinea, Mali, and Sudan - the slavery question became politicized already in the aftermath of independence and figured in party politics and labour unionism. Elsewhere, some populist dictatorships redistributed land ‘to the tiller’ and encouraged the mobilization of the masses for the cause of national development with the  onsequence of making available opportunities of social mobility for persons of slave descent. This was the case of Niger under Seyni Kountché, Burkina Faso under Sankara, and Ethiopia under the DERG regime. The political mobilization of persons of slave descent took a clearer shape from the 1980s with the creation of African antislavery NGOs, the best studied of which are in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Benin, and Senegal. The implementation of decentralization policies enabled local constituencies to elect their representatives at the municipal level. In contexts where a large proportion of the voting population was of slave descent, this led to growing political support for the struggles of slave descendants fighting against continuing discrimination. While African NGOs were beginning to develop an antislavery agenda, an internationally supported discourse on the heritage and legacies of African slavery focused narrowly on Atlantic slavery: UNESCO heritage sites and national museums that commemorate African slavery refer mainly to Atlantic slavery and say nothing about the slow death of slavery within African societies. This lecture discusses the enduring sensitivity of slavery in African politics and society, the aims of African anti-slavery movements, and the anachronisms of public history, heritage, and ‘sites of memory’. It argues that both heritage discourses and African anti-slavery movements must be interrogated as phenomena of extraversion as well as forms of resistance.