Monday, 25 October 2010

African, Arab partnership must overcome history of slavery (Feature)

By Anaclet Rwegayura, PANA Correspondent Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (PANA) - When Libyan leader Mouammar Kadhafi recently apologised on behalf of Arab countries that were involved in the African slave trade, some observers regarded his remarks as whimsical, especially because few are wil ling to broach new ideas about the denigration of human dignity engendered by the subjection of Africans to the evils of slave trade.

Many in Africa learnt about slavery as part of history lessons at school, while many have also seen or travelled along the trail of sites, towns, road markers a n d seaports retracing the Arab Slave Trade in Tanzania and in the rest of East Africa. Beyon d that, not much has happened.

According to available studies, more than five million Africans were captured, e nslaved, and shipped to the Middle East, India, Asia, and also to the West.

Today's African population abhors slavery as much as their ancestors did and, as it appears, many will want more than an apology. Analysts have however commende d the Libyan leader for his courage in not only talking openly about the issue but als o apologising on behalf of the Arab countries that were involved in slave trade.

''Though coming belatedly, brother Kadhafi's apology is commendable,'' said Edis on Maige, a retired Tanzanian teacher. ''No Arab leader had shown such courage a n d openness to admit the atrocities that their forefathers committed against the Af rican race.

''Despite the passage of time, hidden grudges are still there in our societies a gainst foreigners who perpetuated slave labour. Accounts of people who had suffe r ed under Arab slavery have been handed down from generation to generation. This explains why local people of Arab descent are sometimes detested, especially when they seek in fluential positions,'' Maige said.

As an outcome of entrenched slavery, Arabs became major planters of coconuts, cloves and other spices in Zanzibar and along East African coastal areas in the 1800s. The crops have since then been the economic mainstay of the islands, though their production no longer booms as they used to be until the 1970s.

Official abolition of slavery in the isles in 1897 did not make a big difference for the majority of the population. The abolition decree by the colonial rulers

and the measures taken to implement it, as it turned out, were designed to bolster Arab slave own ers, to tie ex-slaves to the plantations through contracts and to discourage the independence of workers.

For several years, it became apparent that the number of slaves who were being f reed remained modest and that ex-slaves were restricted from accessing free labour market.

According to records, the end of the slave trade in coastal East Africa, including Zanzibar, came through the gradual destruction of the complex networks that g a thered and distributed slaves.

Zanzibar's clove plantations had survived to enrich Arabs because of slave labour, while slavery itself became an integrated social system under which Africans w ere controlled as personal property.

The changing political landscape of East Africa greatly contributed to the freed om of slaves and reduced their economic dependence on Arab landowners. The expan s ion of British imperial activity increased the demand for caravan porters and Zanzibar became a centre of recruitment.

With Mombasa port in Kenya becoming a staging area for caravans to Uganda and co nstruction of the railway linking the two countries, new demand for workers were

Therefore, slave owners in Zanzibar witnessed a great exodus as slaves escaped t o freedom and new economic opportunities in railway camps.

Although the work in those camps was menial and often dangerous, a slave who deserted his master in the late 1890s could survive in dignity. Wages on the rail road were above the going rate for hired labour on the coast, where economic options for ex-slaves were narrower.

They had no difficulty with the concept of wage labour, but they wanted to contr ol the condition under which they worked, to make cash earnings part of their ec o nomic lives rather than to subordinate themselves to plantation labour. The fertile soils of Zanzibar made it possible for a small plot to produce enough crops for a family ' s subsistence and a surplus for sale.

With a cash income, they could buy all provisions for which they had in the past relied on their owner.

Arab landowners eventually failed to keep ex-slaves as personal dependents tied to their estates and, as the wind of freedom swept across sub-Saharan Africa, th e role of the Arab sultanate and the colonial state in Zanzibar came into question.

By 12 January 1964, the Arab predominance and their ruling structure were topple d by a revolution that gave birth to the present Zanzibar, where all citizens enjoy the social and economic benefits of the state.

Despite the history of slavery involving Arabs, however, the relationship betwee n Africa and the Arab world is not so much represented by the fate of slavery victims.

According to Maige, it is heartening to see African and Arab leaders coming together to put a new life in the relationship of their worlds.

''The basis of our relationship had to change fundamentally. We no longer accept subordination in whatever joint ventures the two sides may agree to undertake,' ' he said.

But Maige warned that African politicians should not use slave trade as an excus e for Africa's underdevelopment.

''Slave trade did not mean the demise of the African race. Renewed partnership w ith the Arab nations should not be a source of disputes with Africa, but it shou l d enable populations on both sides to advance to better standards of living beca u se we all need each other,'' he added.

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