Article of the month: April

The past and presence of slave trade in Ethiopia

Article of the month

Ethiopian royalty accompanied by their slaves

It was said only when Haile Selassie came into power that the Ethiopian slavery in Ethiopia and/or the trade in enslaved people was firmly abolished. However many of his predecessor had seriously reduced the trade. This was done in 1924 in a bid to “clean-up” Ethiopia’s image for admission into the League of Nations.

Ethiopian slavery differed from the plantation slavery of North America for example, in that it was essentially domestic. Slaves thus served in the houses of their masters or mistresses, and were not employed to any significant extent for productive purposes, Slaves were thus regarded as members of their owners’ family, and were fed, clothed and protected- but not paid any wage, either in kind or cash. They generally roamed around freely and conducted business. Freedom of religion and ethnic culture were also not restricted, they maintained their cultural identity, their names, etc.

The Ethiopian slave trade was by no means unregulated. On the contrary, the Fetha Nagast prohibited the sale of Christians to non-believers. By the time of Emperor Susneyos, in the early 17th century, it was also established that Christians were not allowed to sell slaves of any faith – though they were allowed to purchase them. The Fetha Nagast’s restriction applied only to Christians – with the result that Muslims were entirely free to sell slaves – and had in fact a virtual monopoly in the business. Islamic paramountcy in the slave trade was reinforced by the fact that slave exports went very largely to Muslim territories, most notably Arabia, Sudan and Egypt, as well as Muslim areas of India.

The Ethiopian slave trade, like other trade, was originally carried out mainly on the basis of barter, for example the exchange of slaves for guns, or with the help of amolé, or bars of rock salt. By the early 18th century increasing use was however also made of Maria Theresa thalers, or dollars. A slave-girl on the trade route to the port of Massawa is said to have exclaimed: “Is it this what serves to purchase children and men?”

Since the inquiry into child trafficking conducted so far in Ethiopia is inadequate, and because of the clandestine nature of the operation, it is difficult to put the exact figures of victims. That the network of child trafficking is too complicated within the country coupled with the inability of children to protest about the crime perpetrated against them and socities’ silence about what goes on right under their nose have kept the issue a secret for long.

Mahider Bitew, Children’s Rights and Protection expert at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, says that some isolated studies conducted in Diredawa, Shashemene, Awassa and three other towns of the country indicate that the problem of child trafficking is very serious. According to a 2003 study about one thousand children were trafficked via Diredawa to countries of the Middle East. The majority of those children were girls, most of whom were forced to be sex workers after leaving the country. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has identified prostitution as the worst form of child labor.

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