- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2001

The recent disappearance and recovery of the Nigerian-registered ship, MV Etireno, has cast the spotlight on the increasing traffic in child slaves in West and Central Africa. In doing so it has also drawn attention to the failure of African governments to purge the continent of one of the great evils of their history, which persists to this day.
On March 30, the Etireno set sail from the capital of Benin, Cotonou, and headed for Gabon and then Cameroon. In both ports, officials feared the ship contained illegal cargo and refused to grant docking rights. The vessel then vanished on the Atlantic Ocean and relief workers sounded alarm bells: Perhaps 250 child slaves were on board and would be tossed into the ocean to avoid detection. At midnight, on Tuesday, April 17, the ship did arrive in Cotonou, where its captain denied he was carrying child slaves.
However, 31 unaccompanied children (mostly aged between four and 14) were found on the ship. They were interviewed by UNICEF, the United Nations Agency for Children. The majority of these youths have now been placed in a Swiss organization, Terre des Hommes. But what about the 200,000 children which Unicef estimates are sold into slavery every year?
Slavery in West and Central Africa has been expanding since 1995 when plantation owners became more and more desperate for cheap labor. Children are sold into servitude from poor countries, such as Benin, Togo, Mauritania and Mali, to wealthier African nations, such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Gabon. This modern slavery differs from the notorious Transatlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries: Victims are not kidnapped and delivered to European traders, but are lured by friendly traffickers (sometimes a relative or a family friend), promising lucrative salaries abroad. They are then held captive, forced to work 12-hour days on plantations or as domestic servants, given little food and inadequate shelter, and subjected to repeated beatings or sexual abuse. Escaped slaves recount horrifying tales of how they lost their freedom, lost their childhood and sometimes even lost the will to live.
The plight of enslaved Africans is gaining increasing prominence in Washington. The Republican Party, which gained less than 1 in 10 black votes in the last election, hopes to change its public image by demonstrating greater sensitivity to the needs of black Americans and to the concerns of African nations. Among other efforts is a bipartisan movement in Congress to impose economic sanctions on Sudan in order to halt the governments participation in the slave trade. This effort is now supported by the NAACP, which was at first slow to respond to the cause, but today regards sanctions on Sudan as one of its goals.
African governments need to place the elimination of the slave trade high on their list of priorities. While it is undeniable that Western nations bore a large burden of responsibility for transatlantic slavery, by the end of the 19th century, once public opinion changed, Europeans led a crusade to clean up the inhuman trade. African governments ought not let it be said that they cared less for their own people than their former imperialist masters.


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