Some African leaders are living off the modern slavery in Mideast households

Saturday November 19 2022
suffering in Saudi Arabia

A Kenyan woman narrates the suffering her daughter was going through in the hands over her employers in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It has been only a short 13 years, but many might have already forgotten a fierce Nigerian and pan-Africanist called Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. Taju, as he was popularly known, was an adopted son of East Africa.

He was General-Secretary of the Kampala-headquartered Pan-African Movement and the Deputy Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign of Africa, based in Nairobi, when he died in a car crash in the wee hours of May 25, 2009, as he raced to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to catch a flight to Kigali.

Taju was as brilliant a writer as he was provocative. He would get quite angry at the exploitation of the African people by their leaders, as by Western racists and neo-imperialists.

He argued that one of the tragedies of Africa was that while millions of its people were taken violently by slavers in the 16th to 19th centuries, if a ship docked today at any of the old slave ports with false promises of opportunity, an even greater number of Africans would voluntarily rush for what, most often, turns into a life of servitude abroad.

Trafficked to Myanmar

Mid-week, The EastAfrican published a depressing story about dozens of East Africans — mostly Kenyans, Ugandans and Burundians — being trafficked to Myanmar with the promise of $2,500 jobs in Thailand and other East Asian countries. It is a ring run mainly by Chinese cartels. They end up working in rebel-held areas or underground factories in the region for virtually no pennies.


Some end up dead, and several who return after being rescued are on crutches, having been extensively abused by their masters. Some return far lesser men and women than they left, with a kidney, skin or bone ligaments missing, stolen by illegal organ harvesters.

The horror stories of African workers treated with unspeakable cruelty by their employers in the Gulf and the Middle East nations, who return home broken people or in body bags, run into the thousands.

Taju would probably be shocked that he was optimistic in his view of the desperate conditions many African peoples find themselves in: That the reality was worse. They are not waiting for the ships to dock. They are making perilous journeys to find the ships.

Tens of Africans trek daily through forests, onto the Sahara desert, and then Libya, or Morocco, in a bid to get on a rickety boat and cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Littered with remains

The Sahara is littered with the remains of thousands of them. As many have died in the sea after their boats capsized. The rest remain in Libya, enslaved and treated no better than their forefathers and mothers of centuries past.

Despite the horrors, hundreds of mostly young Ugandan women in hijab and uniform line up at Entebbe International Airport every week, being ferried to the Gulf and Middle East labour camps. The sight of several such groups from other parts of Africa gathered there in transit at Ethiopia's Bole Airport can be unsettling.

This elegant human trafficking is one of the most lucrative and fastest growing economic activities for African politicians and their business allies. It is a result of catastrophic political failure.

You don't see lines of young Batswana, Namibian, or Rwandan women in funny uniforms lining up at the airport, heading for gruelling underpaid work in a Gulf sweatshop.

For all these young people flying out, walking, or chancing it on a dubious boat with nothing but hope, it can't be easy to come to terms with how much their countries have failed them.

Crossing the Mediterranean

A few years ago at the Mail & Guardian Africa, we did an analysis of the odds that a pregnant Nigerian woman and her unborn child faced crossing the Mediterranean to Europe against staying home. We found that she was far more likely to die in childbirth or her child to perish at birth at home than on a leaky boat trying to get to Lampedusa. That the latter is the far better option is a huge indictment of the Nigerian state today.

But it's not only wretched conditions in many parts of Africa driving this human trafficking and dangerous migration. Part of it is a product of Africa's great advantage; the fact that it has the world's most youthful population. By 2050, at least 33 percent of the world's young people and a quarter of its workforce will live in Africa. However, the demographic dividend has eluded the continent.

The demand for young Africans with well-functioning kidneys or strong backs to work in labour-intensive industries in countries with dwindling young populations keeps soaring. Without the free movement of labour globally, the margins for traffickers and middlemen and women able to provide the bodies are huge, and they will go to great lengths and devise the most criminal schemes to keep the pipelines flowing.

On the surface, it also seems that in some of the countries from which these desperate Africans come the cartels who benefit from trafficking them have captured presidents and policy — even the state — and are able to ensure that the deprivation that drives them away, cannot be ended. "Product" has to be supplied.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]