There are few people who announce their candidacy for their country’s presidency only days after being released from prison. But anti-slavery activist and slave descendant Biram Dah Abeid is an exceptional man facing exceptional circumstances.
“I am from the servile community that makes up 50 per cent of the population (of Mauritania),” said Dah Obeid, a lawyer. “Twenty percent of the fifty percent have been born as property of other men. We were inherited by other people.”
Abeid, a prominent and fearless anti-slavery activist who has been jailed and tortured numerous times in his struggle to abolish slavery in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, was released from prison last December 31, having been incarcerated on “an order from above.” Only days later, he again announced his candidacy, having also run for president in Mauritania’s 2014 federal election.
At that time, Dah Abeid, who heads the anti-slavery organization Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), presented Mauritanians with the extraordinary and ground-shaking sight of a slave descendant (his father was a freed slave while his mother and uncles remained slaves) under sentence of death of a sharia court and imprisoned numerous times standing for president. Nevertheless, he won eight per cent of the vote, coming in second. Abdel Aziz, a former army general, won with 81.94, not unusual for an African dictatorship.
“We are the only ones to have a different ideological position,” Dah Obeid told Le Courier de Sahel during that campaign. “We are fighting against slavery, against racism, against government waste and corruption.”
Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the School of Africa and Oriental Studies at the University of London stated the reason for Aziz’s overwhelming victory: “Mauritanian elections under President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz are neither free, fair nor transparent.”
Dah Abeid agrees: “If these elections were held under normal circumstances, I would get between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote.”
Estimates of the number of black African slaves in Mauritania range from 90,000 to 500,000 among a population of 3.1 million, possibly the highest number of chattel slaves in the world (Dah Abeid’s IRA has freed about 2,000 of them). But experts agree more exact numbers are difficult to arrive at because of slave-owning, nomadic tribes and those “hidden within mansions.”
In 2013, indicating the extent of the slavery tragedy, Global Slavery Index ranked Mauritania number one in the world for its prevalence there. Which caused Dah Abeid, a constant thorn in the side of Mauritania’s leaders, to sarcastically praise them: “We will never stop commending you on this enviable place on the international stage you managed to achieve…”
The slaves’ masters are Arab and Berber Mauritanians, or “whites,” who share only the same Islamic religion with their chattel. They make up about 20 per cent of the population and almost all of the political, business and military elite that controls the country. Therein also lies the problem. It is very difficult to get this elite class to abolish slavery when many of its members own slaves.
“The problem is that Mauritania’s Arabs sincerely believe that blacks are inferior and are born to be slaves,” wrote African American scholar Samuel Cotton in his book Silent Terror: A Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery, written after an exploratory trip to Mauritania. “They believe that a black man, woman or child’s place in life is to serve an Arab master, and it does not matter to them whether that black is a Christian, or fellow Muslim.”
Another problem is that this slave-owning class believes it is doing nothing illegal. The Prophet Muhammed owned slaves and Islam’s Sharia law justifies the practice. The eminent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, wrote that “…the institution of slavery is not only recognized but is elaborately regulated by Sharia law.”
Unlike in Sudan, or with the Boko Harem or Islamic State, where slaves are captured in violent slave raids, Mauritania’s slaves find themselves in this cruel, life-destroying institution because they are born into it and inherited as chattel. Some families have been slaves for centuries.
African scholar Garba Diallo stated the slaves “are so brainwashed, that they would consider it a sin to escape from their masters.
“Their ancestors were kidnapped into slavery long ago, and their offspring have been brought to believe Allah created two groups of people, slaves and masters, each playing specific and eternal roles in society,” Diallo said.
Several times in the last century slavery was banned in Mauritania. The first time was under the French colonial government in 1901. But Mauritania became the last country in the world to formally prohibit it in 1981. Slavery was criminalized in 2007, but only four people have ever been successfully prosecuted. However, anti-slavery activists, like Dah Obeid, are often imprisoned.
Cotton called the slavery bans “woefully ineffective mandates” that “were never enforced and slavery continued to exist.” The abolition decrees, observers say, were simply made for foreign consumption.
“This is state racism that has become institutionalized, that has caused pogroms, purges, murdering of the black population…” Dah Abeid, whose last name means ‘slave’ in Arabic, at a UN conference.
Abeid has staged attention-grabbing anti-slavery protests in the past. In one, held outside a mosque, Dah Abeid symbolically destroyed a copy of sharia law after first removing all references to the Prophet Mohammad and the Koran. Dah Abeid does not believe sharia is divine law but simply outdated codes drawn up in the Middle Ages.
For this protest, as befitted a slave state, the government violently raided Dah Abeid’s home and imprisoned him. A sharia court declared him an apostate, which put him under a sentence of death. Mauritania’s president had also once called for his death.
“There were TV programs broadcast that talked about how I was going to be hanged…,” Dah Abeid said. “And they said on television we will kill him, like we kill a cat.”
For his struggle as the world’ foremost abolitionist, Dah Abeid was awarded the prestigious UN Human Rights Prize in 2013 by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York. Past award recipients include Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who is Abeid’s hero.
Tragically, despite such international recognition, Dah Abeid’s anti-slavery struggle remains largely unknown and unsupported by the international community, especially by the mainstream media. Most people, including most African Americans, have probably never heard of the world’s foremost abolitionist.
Leftists and liberals, for example, who worked themselves into paroxysms of moral outrage over apartheid in South Africa, have been hypocritically silent about this enslavement of hundreds of thousands of black Africans. This silence, especially on the part of Western countries, Dah Obeid finds, is particularly difficult to understand.
One important reason for leftist/liberal silence is that they want to maintain the image they have carefully constructed that America and Israel are the world’s only oppressors. The Left promotes the Arabs as victims of Israeli violence. Admitting that Arabs are enslaving black Africans would only undermine this campaign.
As well, liberals and leftists, like former President Obama during his visits to Africa, want to keep the attention focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It has always been a useful weapon to attack the United States.
Without the international media support that Nelson Mandela received, Dah Abeid has a hard road ahead of him. Fortunately, there are a few bright spots. When behind bars last year, he was elected to Mauritania’s national assembly, which, he says, will make it easier for him to move around the country.
As well, while the leftist U.S. establishment media smears President Trump as a “racist”, it is telling that the U.S. president has done what leftist black ex-president Barack Obama never did: he ended trade benefits to Mauritania last November “due to insufficient progress in eradicating forced labor and slavery.” Dah Obeid would now like Europe to follow suit.
With or without international support, one thing, however, is certain: like Nelson Mandela, the heroic Dah Abeid will never give up. During one of his incarcerations, he wrote in Churchillian fashion:
“I refuse to throw in the towel. I refuse to be silenced. I refuse to abandon…those who have been ruined by slavery.”