It was another devastating blow for black Africa’s most powerless from the world’s most powerful black American. Like in his 2009 African visit when he visited a former European slave depot in Ghana, during his recently concluded 2013 African tour U.S. President Barack Obama again deemed that the defunct trans-Atlantic slave trade was the only past black African slavery worthy of his attention.
While paying homage to the victims of the trans-Atlantic trade is obviously necessary for myriad reasons, the U.S. president failed once more not only to mention Africa’s other historical slave trade, Arab slavery, that also involved millions of black Africans, but also to speak up against its thriving and equally savage, modern-day version. And what makes this grievous omission on Obama’s part even more glaring is that it did not occur through lack of opportunity.
On the contrary. Obama’s first stop on his three-country African tour was the West African state of Senegal, where he took time to visit a former slave fort on Goree Island, a World Heritage site located just offshore from Dakar, the country’s capital. In an image that went around the world, he was photographed framed in the fort’s infamous Door of No Return, through which untold numbers of black African captives went to board the slave ships bound for the Americas. Obama described his Goree Island visit as “a very powerful moment.”
“This is a testament to when we’re not vigilant in defense of human rights what can happen,” said Obama afterward. “Obviously, for an African American president, to be able to visit this site gives me even greater motivation in terms of human rights around the world.”
It is tragic, however, that the “greater motivation in terms of human rights” his Goree Island visit gave him did not motivate Obama to take the opportunity to denounce the inhuman Arab slave trade that currently plagues Africa, thereby promoting the human rights of its black African victims as well as giving them hope.
Ironically, Obama would not have had to stray far from his African tour’s itinerary to do so. Just across Senegal’s northern border in Mauritania, for example, the anti-slavery organization SOS Esclaves estimates that there are about 500,000 black African slaves in the country’s population of 3.1 million. Their masters are the Arab and Berber Mauritanians, who share only the same Islamic religion with their chattel. Unlike the slaves who went through the Door of No Return, though, who were often captured in the old-fashioned, village-burning slave raid (as currently occurs in Sudan), the Mauritanian African slaves are the product of a system that has kept them in a state of bondage going back, in some cases, several hundred years.
Mauritania has banned slavery several times in its history, indicating its prevalence; the most recent anti-slavery law was issued in 2007. But Samuel Cotton, an African-American writer who investigated slavery in Mauritania in the 1990s, called these decrees “woefully ineffective mandates,” observers saying they were made for foreign consumption. An indication of the Mauritanian government’s insincerity regarding slavery’s abolition occurred in 2011. Four Mauritanian anti-slavery activists were sentenced to six months in jail for protesting the enslavement of a ten-year-old girl. No punishment was ever handed out to her female master and the girl disappeared.
Even more ironic, if Obama truly was interested in the issue of black African slavery and promoting human rights, as he stated he was, all he had to do was look over his shoulder when he was on Goree Island. According to Cotton’s book, Silent Terror: A Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery, the result of his trip documenting slavery in Mauritania, Mauritanian Arabs and Berbers bring their black slaves with them to work in Dakar almost within sight of Goree Island. Cotton quotes from a book by an African scholar, Garba Diallo, who spoke with two such slaves working in their master’s store in Dakar.
“Shockingly, no one seems to notice that a black slave is still being kept in bondage, right in the heart of Dakar, by his Moorish master,” Diallo stated. Apparently, Obama didn’t either.
Obama’s other lost opportunity to be “vigilant in the defense of human rights” and draw the world’s attention to the evil of the Arab slave trade, both past and present, occurred in Tanzania, the last stop of his 2013 African tour. However, while Obama made time to visit Goree Island, he never ventured near Zanzibar, an island belonging to Tanzania and a former bastion of the Arab slave trade in East Africa. At its slave-trading height in the 1860s, Zanzibar disposed of 20,000 slaves annually. Some were exported to Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India and European plantations on Indian Ocean islands. Thousands more stayed in Zanzibar to work on cloves plantations or were sent to farms on the East African coast.
If Obama had visited Stone Town, the slave trade’s former center on Zanzibar and now a World Heritage site, it would have been an eye-opener. He would have learned that while Goree Island had its Door of No Return, Stone Town had its equally infamous “whipping post.” It was here that the slaves, when being auctioned, were tied and whipped. The point of this cruelty was that the slave dealers received a higher price for those unfortunate black Africans who didn’t cry out, their silence being regarded somehow as an indicator of strength. And the whip used was reportedly the tail of a stingray.
An Anglican church now occupies the spot of the old Stone Town slave market, built with the help of former slaves, to mark the end of slavery in Zanzibar and the slave market’s closure, under British pressure, in 1873. Its altar stands over the spot where the whipping post was located. But the most remarkable tribute to the suffering of the former slaves is the stunning monument constructed, near the church, above the 15 damp, bare underground cells where they were kept in cramped conditions until their sale.
The monument consists of five stone figures in a pit, representing captured slaves, who appear to be rising out of the earth. They are wearing original shackles around their necks that were once worn by the humans they portray. And while Obama, whose focus on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and lack of interest in Arab slavery probably has much to do with catering to the African-American vote, did not consider it fit to recognize the suffering of the millions of black African victims of Arab slavery, an African-American traveler managed, however, after she had visited the site, to capture in words the essence and the horror of this slave trade the monument so powerfully depicts:
“Male and female figures jut out of the earth like cement plants, sunflowers without a sunny story to tell. The humaneness of their features and the abject expressions on their faces made me feel like they were real, standing there, chained forever to one another and to the earth. They looked tired and weary, but still strong, like they really walked all the way from Lake Tanganyika to stand in this cement box and remind you what had happened before it was a grassy patch outside an unassuming church. The artist knew what he was doing when he made those penetrating, yet lifeless cement eyes, protruding collar bones and muscular deltoids. I can’t help but hope the lasting, stinging impression left on me is felt by every visitor…”