slavery activists mauritania masters

Why Should Lands And Houses In Ghana Be Sold
hutu repatriation freehold leasehold stool lands

Activists' trial puts spotlight on anti-slavery law

While slaves may not buy land, those who may can’t dodge the parasitic middleman. We trim, blend, and append three 2011 articles from: (1) IRIN, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs which does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations, Jan 4, on slavery; (2) IRIN, Jan 10, on reintegration; and (3) GhanaWeb, Jan 8, on leasehold by Otchere Darko.

by IRIN and by Otchere Darko

Six anti-slavery activists are in prison in Mauritania. The six, members of Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitioniste (IRA), are set to go on trial in the capital, Nouakchott. The authorities claim they had attacked security forces while demonstrating against slavery.

The NGO SOS Esclaves says nearly a fifth of Mauritania’s 3.1 million people were slaves as of 2009. Romana Cacchioli with Anti-Slavery International said the 2007 law -- adopted unanimously by Mauritania’s National Assembly -- criminalized slavery. But to date, no one has been prosecuted for keeping slaves.

The six activists were calling for allowing the group’s leader to attend the questioning of two girls -- aged nine and 13 -- allegedly kept as slaves. “Each time a slave is questioned, the police don’t want [IRA president] Biram Oula Dah Ould Abeid to attend,” IRA member Hamady Lehbouss said. “This way the police are able to manipulate the slaves.”

Leïla Ahmed, IRA member and Ould Abeid’s wife, was at the police station; she said she felt teargas and saw policemen beating IRA members, including her husband.

Former slave Haby Rabah told IRIN, many people in slavery do not know their rights or are afraid to leave.

“My masters told me: ‘The slave depends on his owner and in order to go to paradise he must obey his owner. Otherwise he will go to hell’,” said Rabah who, with IRA’s help, was liberated "three years and four months" ago.

“I knew no one but my masters. I belonged to them and that seemed normal to me. When I was young my owners beat me; when I got older they threatened to take me to the police if I disobeyed them.”

Local experts say slavery continues in cities as well as in rural areas in this Sahelian country which lies geographically and culturally between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa. Most affected are the Harratin -- black Moors, descendants of slaves -- who are generally owned by upper class white Moors, the minority ruling elite of Arab-Berber descent, according to SOS Esclaves. Slaves generally do household work or attend to livestock; they are not allowed to own land.

A common saying among Mauritanians is: “The ground is the slave’s bed, fire his clothing.”

The deputy head of SOS Esclaves in Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Khalifa, said the authorities generally classify such cases simply as disputes between an employer and his or her employees.

Activists said part of the difficulty in criminalizing slavery is that it is so widely practised. “The authorities themselves keep slaves,” Khalifa said.

After living abroad as refugees for years -- in some cases decades -- many of the half-million people who have returned to Burundi since 2002 are having to cope with a severe shortage of one of the tiny country’s most precious commodities: arable land on which to undertake subsistence farming and securing shelter.

Those returning -- especially those who fled in 1972 after a rebellion prompted mass killings of Hutus -- often found that the state had taken over their property and used it to cultivate lucrative crops, making land claims more intractable.

Célestin Sindibutume, the general manager in charge of repatriation, resettlement and reinsertion of IDPs and refugees in the Ministry of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender, said the landless returnees were “the most vulnerable and difficult to reintegrate".

More than 20,000 disputes over land have been registered by the National Commission on Land and Other Properties, of which some 13,000 had been resolved, often amicably.

Manassé Havyarimana, chairman of the Bujumbura section of the commission, said, “We have, on the one hand, the law protecting the occupant after 15 years of regular occupation if the property was acquired in a legal way, or 30 years of regular occupation whichever way the occupant got it. On the other, we have a returnee who could not come to claim ownership of his property because his absence was not voluntary."

The government and its partners have also constructed eight integrated rural villages to settle landless returnees and other vulnerable people.

Hugues van Brabandt, associate external affairs officer for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said the long periods of exile also exposed refugees to social dislocation. Some lost family members. In addition, some -- especially returnees born in exile -- are "culturally and linguistically alienated and this also complicates their reintegration.

It has become almost impossible to buy land as a freehold in Ghana. Instead, Ghanaians must pay for leaseholds.

All leases have annual fees payable by the lessees to the lessors that never end, as long as the leases remain enforceable. Every year, the SHC writes to request me to come and pay land rents due on my land. With some private sellers, often these payments are not followed up and enforced after the sale of such properties.

One of the reasons for the prevalence in Ghana of leasing land is the phenomenon of “stool lands” (throne lands or crown lands), which are deemed by most customary laws and practices across the country to be “not saleable”. In the past, stool lands have usually been given freely to businesses and institutions by chiefs for reasons of “promotion of development”. In other cases, chiefs have rented out stool lands for cash or in-kind.

In the community where I come from, lands that did not form part of “stool lands” were either owned collectively by families or owned individually by individuals. Family lands could only be sold in the past with the consent of all the clan heads. Personally-owned lands could be sold by the people who owned them, with or without notifying family members.

Government of Ghana is said to be the historical owner of every land in the community where I come from, by virtue of a proclamation made during the colonial era. This makes buying of land in my community even more complicated than elsewhere, because of this seeming “double ownership”.

JJS: While many people desire the freehold ownership of land, that arrangement of not owing one’s community anything has its own slew of problems: speculation, recessions, excessive debt, etc. A solution might be geonomics; that is, to pay for land, but not to a chief or private absentee owner but to one’s community -- into the public treasury then back out again a dividend. The obligation of paying land dues makes it easier to settle land claims, since people would have to pay for what they take, and so won’t want to claim too much. It also helps end slavery since it helps close the wealth gap, which is based on some owning Earth, others not. All of us being entitled to some land and to a share of her worth is the moral underpinning of geonomics.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.

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