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Overcoming the Legacy of Arab Slavery and Racism in Africa – Professor Hussein Solomon

February 22, 2013

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By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 3 (February 2013)

In recent years, a burgeoning literature has appeared taking stock of the growing conflict between Muslims and Christians on the African continent. Often we are told that such conflict stems from structural reasons – such as the ongoing battle for land between Muslims and Christians in Jos in Nigeria. Other explanations refer to to the ongoing spread of a radical and militant Islamist ideology to account for such conflict. Whilst such explanations do have relevance, it does not tell the whole tale. Neither do such explanations account for the fact that in Darfur in Sudan, we see growing conflict between Muslims: between Muslims who are culturally African and Muslims which are culturally Arab. I say culturally as opposed to racially given the mixing of the gene pools between Africans and Arabs over centuries. In my view, one of the key drivers accounting for this conflict relates to the legacy of slavery and the resultant racial attitudes which materialized. 

Despite the fact that the trans-Atlantic slave trade enjoys pride of place in much literature, the Arab slave trade of Africans were far more expansive and its impact far more deleterious. Mekuria Bulcha, for instance, has estimated that over 17 million Africans were sold to the Middle East and Asia between the sixth and twentieth centuries[i]. There are other substantial differences between the Arab slave trade and the trans-Atlantic one. European slave traders never chased and captured their own slaves but bought these from African chiefs. The modus operandi for Arab slave traders was to raid and kidnap villagers by setting fire to huts at night and capture those fleeing from the blaze[ii]. Invariably many were burnt alive in the ensuing inferno. 

The conditions under which they were kept were far more monstrous than the fate awaiting those slaves from West Africa who found themselves picking cotton in the American South. Indeed. African males in Arab countries were often castrated to work as eunuchs. The luckier ones were pressed into military service and found a speedy death on some far-away front. African females often found themselves alternatively serving as domestic workers and sex slaves[iii]

In the history of the Arab slave trade of Africans, there were several “Spartacus” moments. One of the most serious of these occurred in AD 869 when a group of African slaves working the salt flats east of Basra in Iraq rose up in revolt against their inhumane conditions. After 14 years of fierce fighting, the revolt was finally put down and their leaders’ heads were paraded through the streets of Baghdad[iv]

The legacy of this slavery has cast a long shadow over Afro-Arab relations. Whilst European and American countries abolished slavery in the 19th century, the Arab slave trade has persisted into the twentieth century and beyond. Saudi Arabia only abolished slavery in 1962 and Mauritania in 1980 with reports that it still continues in countries like Mauritania and Sudan[v]. On slavery in modern day Mauritania, Garba Diallo asserts, “… our country was the last on earth to declare slavery illegal and the only state which still refuses to take any measures to end slavery. This is because the very foundation of the Mauritanian regime is based on de facto apartheid and slavery. Thus the regime has adamantly refused to legalize the anti-slavery SOS Slaves and the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights together with the Front for the Liberation of Africans in Mauritania (FLAM). The government regards those who work for democracy, human rights and the emancipation of slaves as enemies of the state”[vi]. 

The slavery legacy is a particularly poignant one in contemporary Darfur which has historically seen the enslavement of the indigenous Fur. As Arab Janjaweed militia, with the support of Khartoum’s government, would attack villagers in Darfur they would taunt them with names like abeed (slaves) and zerga (blacks)[vii]. Small wonder, then, that the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the major rebel groupings in Darfur, issued their “Black Book” in 2002 which emphasised their non-Arab ethnicity and provided an account of Arab racism in Sudan[viii]

The legacy of the Arab slave trade has unfortunately also served to inculcate racist attitudes – especially in the way Arabs interact with Africans[ix]. Commenting on the enslavement of Africans, the famous fourteenth-century traveller and historian, Ibn Khaldun stated, “… therefore, the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery because they have little that is essentially human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of animals…[x]. Conversely as noted by Setsuko Tamura, “… many Africans today still consider Arabs as cunning, crafty, dishonest and untrustworthy, not least because their cultural and racial arrogance continues to revive painful memories of the rampages of Arab slave traders…[xi]. There is little hope of overcoming such racial attitudes given the inability to bridge such divides at the personal level. Many Northern Sudanese parents, for instance, will not let their children to marry into “slave families”[xii]. At a macro-strategic level, many South Sudanese find it difficult to reconcile with Arabs insensitivity to the treatment they were handed out by Northerners and their struggle for their dignity. The Arab League, for instance, regularly issued statements labelling South Sudanese rebels as “agents of the West” and Zionist imperialists”[xiii] It is important to recognize that Al Qaeda’s own narrative is not so much different from that of the Arab League. In 2006 Al Qaeda ideologue Abu Azzam al-Ansari wrote an interesting tract entitled Al Qaeda tattajih nahwa Ifrikya [Al Qaeda is moving to Africa] where he labelled John Garang, the leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) at the time, as an “infidel” and labelled the war crimes against the indigenous peoples of Darfur as a war against the “Crusaders”[xiv]

As French and West African troops displace Islamists in Northern Mali, it is important to note even here that such racial attitudes occupy a central place in narratives on the conflict. The racial and general attitude of the northern Tuaregs (who form a key element in Islamist insurgency)  to their fellow citizens in the south of the country is best reflected in a statement by a Tuareg chief following Malian independence in 1960, “What can blacks rule over when they are only good to be slaves?[xv] These negative stereotypes existed on both sides of the north-south divide. Many Malians in the south viewed the Tuareg as “…a bunch of white, feudal, racist, pro-slavery, bellicose and lazy savage nomads.[xvi]

Racial attitudes also exist within the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali which is undermining cohesion.  In early November 2012, Hicham Bilal, the leader of a Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO) katiba comprising 100 fighters defected with his troops and is currently residing in Burkina Faso. Bilal was the only black African commander of MUJAO and he complained about the racism he and his troops had to endure at the hands of the Arab members of MUJAO, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.[xvii] 

If the international community is serious about securing sustainable peace on the African continent, then this legacy of slavery and resultant racism cannot be overlooked for reasons of political correctness. It needs to be confronted. Moreover, there is an urgent need for Arab countries to come to terms with their own malevolent legacy on the African continent and for Arab cultural elites in Mauritania and Sudan to develop more inclusive and culturally tolerant polities.


[i] Bankie Forster Bankie, “Arab slavery of Africans in the Afro-Arab Borderlands,” African Renaissance, Vol. 1, Issue 1, June-July 2004, p. 79.

[ii] Washington A.J. Okumu (2002). The African Renaissance: History, Significance and Strategy. Africa World Press, Inc. Trenton, New Jersey, U.S.A., p. 37.

[iii] Bankie, op.cit., pp. 79-80.

[iv] Okumu, op.cit., p. 33.

[v] Ibid., p. 37.

[vi][vi] Setsuko Tamura (2008), “Rethinking Pan-Africanism Under African Union Led Continental Integration: Revival of Afro-Arab Solidarity or Clash of Civilizations?,” Journal of Global Change and Governance, Vol. 1, Number 4, Autumn 2008, p. 8.

[vii] Gill Lusk, “False Premise and False Response to the Darfur Crisis,” Peace Review, April-June 2008, Vol. 20, Issue 2,

p. 169.

[viii] Ibid., p. 170.

[ix] Ibid., p. 168.

[x] Okumu, op.cit., p. 37.

[xi] Tamura, op. cit., pp. 7-8.

[xii] Lusk, op.cit., p. 169.

[xiii] John G. Nyuot Yoh, “Reflections on Afro-Arab Relations: An African Perspective,” A Paper presented to the Monthly Seminar Arab Thought Forum, p. 23. Amman, Jordan. 16 October 2001. Internet: http://johngaiyoh.com/pdf/Reflections%20%20Afro-Arab%20Relations.pdf. Date Accessed: 27 October 2011.

[xiv] Quoted in Reuven Paz and Moshe Terdman, “Africa: The Gold Mine of Al Qaeda and Global Jihad,” Occasional Papers, Vol. 4, No. 2, June 2006, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Centre. The Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM), pp.3,5.

[xv] Jean S. Lecocq, That Desert is our Country: Tuareg Rebellions and Competing Nationalisms in Contemporary Mali (1946-1996). Dissertation, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Amsterdam, 2002, <http://www.dare.uva.nl/record/106799&gt;, accessed 2 November 2012, p. 44.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] “Head of Mali extremist battalion defects”, Daily Nation, Kenya, 9 November 2012, <http://www.nation.co.ke/News/africa/Head+extremist+battalion+defects&gt;, accessed 9 November 2012.

2 Comments
  1. James McGuinness permalink

    Professor, I enjoyed your piece. A very instructive nutshell presentation. I’m curious about, and would like you to expand upon, the notion of societal and governmental “confrontation” of the slave-owning legacy. Words? Deeds? Declarations? The insidious evil of slavery, it seems to me, is that it strips all liberty from its victims as it serves to indulge what seems at times an inherently corrupt human desire to impose one’s will upon another – in the extreme. Groups of people who share a common language, appearance and comfort level with one another often demonstrate a defensive reluctance to engage, even absent a history of violent interaction such as you describe, with other, different, groups. In the US, I have seen vast attitudinal shifts in race and gender relations over the years. Positive attitudinal change strikes me as having been prompted by the guidance of representative government, an accelerated degree of social interaction and the passage of time. What course of action might you propose be undertaken in the African context?

  2. Dear James
    Thanks for your comment. I share your sentiments. Three years ago I participated in a conference on Afro-Arab Relations and when I mentioned the issue of the Arab slave trade, I was met with immense hostility by Arab diplomats. This lack of will to want to deal with the past and its current impact (which I tried to illustrate in this short piece) will forever overshadow Afro-Arab relations. The first step which needs to be undertaken is an acknowledgement of this past. In this past week, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited India and amongst other things laid a wreath and officially apologized to Indians for the massacre at Amritsar 90 years ago. A declaration such as this by Arab countries is clearly needed. At the same time in countries like Sudan and Mauritania where slavery has a more recent pedigree and where racism persists, it is incumbent upon these governments to do more at social integration and possibly affirmative action policies. I recall attending a wedding in Khartoum a few years ago and being shocked at people pointing out that the groom was much too dark for the bride. I was shocked coming from South Africa and its own polcies of apartheid.

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