Soundjata Keita, founder of the Mali empire, first world leader to abolish slavery in the 13th century
Friday, June 27, 2008
The recent Experts Meeting on Slavery held in Banjul from 10th to 13th June, 2008 a follow-up to the World Conference on Racism and in preparation for next year's Durban Review Conference, was a historic success for The Gambia.
Not only did it follow a series very successful Plenipotentiary Conferences and Experts Meetings in the recent past, including the unforgettable AU Summit, ECOWAS and sub-regional organisations meetings, but it was also a fitting recognition of The Gambia's primordial and vanguard status and role in pioneering in the 1980s the institutionalisation of and respect for Human Rights in Africa.
Another source of national pride and satisfaction is the prominent, if not dominant role, played by Gambians, whose compelling historical ramifications I will recall later, did not come as a surprise. The AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Mrs Julia Dolly Joiner, who addressed the Meeting on behalf of the African Union is a Gambian who had served with distinction in senior and strategic positions in the Gambian Public Service as Permanent Secretary, Department of State for Foreign Affairs and Secretary General Office of the President successively before her appointment as Head of OAU and subsequently AU diplomacy. Her statement is a clear testimony of the significant progress made in the Continent in the matter of human rights awareness and practices since the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Gambia courageously led the way in vigorously advocating the setting up of a home-bred African institutional framework that will promote the respect for and full enjoyment of human rights by every African without
any distinction of any kind.
The second dominant aspect at the Meeting was the presence of the SOS for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, Hon. Crispin Grey Johnson, who officially opened the Meeting on behalf of His Excellency the President with a Keynote Statement that touched on many relevant and important aspects of the theme of the Meeting - Slavery.
Not surprisingly Hon. Grey-Johnson rose to the occasion, with the spontaneity and coherence of the scholar and diplomat he is, and appropriately highlighted the main historical benchmarks that characterised mercantile slavery introduced by Europeans when they started visiting our shores in the 14/15th century ostensibly for normal trade purposes.
As aptly recalled by the Hon Secretary of State, the resultant heinous trans-Atlantic trade that lasted till the middle of the 19th century was responsible for the forced migration of millions of able- bodied Africans to the Americas where they were enslaved and sold as chattel to provide free labour in the cotton fields and sugar cane farms. Paradoxically some of the so-called slaves came from noble and royal backgrounds while many of their massas were criminals or their descendants who immigrated to the New World as the only escape from the gallows in England especially.
Recalling Alex Haley's Roots and the International Roots Homecoming Festival was opportune in that both buttress what has just been postulated and remind all, at the same time, of the indissoluble cultural, ethnic and family bonds between Africans who did not leave the mother continent on the one hand and their brothers and sisters of the diaspora and particularly those in the Americas.
I take the opportunity to congratulate our two distinguished compatriots (SOS Grey-Johnson and Commissioner Joiner) for flying the Gambian flag so high in the not too often clear African skies, and to seize this unique occasion to make my own humble contribution to a debate that should interest and involve all Africans, especially intellectuals, scholars and students, historians and traditional communicators as well as religious leaders. For my part I simply wish to recapitulate two events of great relevance to this debate.
Firstly, the Banjul Meeting is an opportune event to recall that Soundjata Keita founder of the great Mali Empire was the first Head of State in the world to abolish slavery. Following the defeat of Soumaworo Kante, (real name Soumaworo Jarrasso, king of Soso not be mistaken for the Susus of Fouta Jallon), at the final battle of Narina in 1235, after nearly a decade of exploitation, oppression and suffering of the people of Manden during Soundjata's seven-year self exile, the new Mansa Manden - Soundjata - vowed that he would never sit on the royal hide (throne) unless he succeeded in uniting all the people of the New Mande. He solemnly declared that "the management of the affairs of our country shall not be the affairs of one family alone; it shall be the affairs of all.".
To achieve this objective, revolutionary for its time, Soundjata created the Great Council of Manden, an Assembly composed of the diverse people of Manden and submitted the Proclamation of the Fundamental Charter of the New Manden which was read out to the people gathered at vast town square of Dakadjalan Sundjata's birthplace.
The Charter had 7 main articles preceded by a preamble that read as follows: "Manden is founded on expectation and love, liberty and fraternity. This signifies that there will neither be ethnic nor racial discrimination in Manden". In article 5 it was stated "Hunger is a bad thing, and slavery is not a good thing either; and as long as we have our bows and arrows (power) hunger will no longer kill anyone in Manden; War shall never again destroy villages in order to capture slaves to go and sell them; No one shall be beaten or put to death because he is the son of a slave.".
Article 6 is even more equivocal. It reads: "The existence of slavery is ceases definitively today from one end of Manden to the other, and raids are banished in Manden with effect from today." The last article (art.7 provides that) Man has a soul which makes him see three things: see what he wants to see, say what he wants to say and do what he wishes to do. If one of these is missing his soul will suffer and he will deteriorate as a human being. It concludes "Consequently as of now every one is entitled to the integrity of his own person, and each person has freedom of his own action but must respect what is forbidden and the laws of the land".
Significantly the Charter concludes thus "Such is the Charter of Manden proclaimed for the ears of the entire world". Thus Soundjatta proclaimed the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Abolition of Slavery and trading in slaves. But this unprecedented historic event seems to have been totally ignored by western history which continues to bask in its erroneous pretensions and egoism that Africans have no History prior to the arrival of Europeans explorers and the beginning of the colonial occupation from the 15th to the late 19th century.
For them Mali and it glorious past was, at best, a legend that should not be given any prominence in African and world history even though Soundjata's epic universal abolition of slavery and slave trade preceded by many centuries the United Kingdom Bill of Rights, 1688; the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, 1789; and the United States Bill of Rights, 1791.
And it was only over SIX HUNDRED years after the Manden Charter that the western imperial and colonial powers made any effort to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833 in West Africa to end the infamous and lucrative triangular trade that forceably transferred millions of our ancestors to the Americas and the West Indies.
At the international level it was only after the First World War (1914-1918) that the international community started addressing the problem of slavery.
In l926 the Slavery Convention was adopted by the League of Nations and amended by the UN Protocol of 1953 followed by the Supplementary UN Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, 1956. At the continental level, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, born out of a Gambian initiative dating back to the Decision (XVI) of the OAU Monrovia Summit in 1979 and 2 Ministerial meetings in Banjul in 1980 and early 1981, was finally adopted at the 18th OAU Summit in Nairobi in July 1981.
This is the second major event I alluded to earlier on which also partly explains why Banjul became the capital of African Human Rights with the OAU unanimously deciding, in recognition of the lead role The Gambia had played in the process leading to Nairobi, to locate the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in Banjul at Kairaba Avenue presently.
It is significant and interesting that almost all the Human Rights instruments adopted in modern times and cited above bear a very close resemblance to the Manden Charter especially with regard to its Articles 2, 5, 6 and 7 guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and proscribing slavery to the point that it is tempting to believe that their authors were privy to the contents of the ancient Proclamation on the founding of the Mali Empire.
The recent Banjul meeting's success must also be appreciated in the most appropriate historical perspective in which The Gambia's contribution has been impressive and unequalled. But as Africa moves ahead in this momentous process towards the Durham Review Meeting in 2009, we have to re-write our own History in a manner that will respect the imperatives of objectivity, authenticity and intellectual integrity, all of which western history about Africa generally lack. This is an indispensable and urent act in correcting the wrongs of subjective western history and the restoration of the dignity of the African and his valiant ancestors.
NB The name Mali was used by the Arabs and neighbouring Peuls to refer to Manden also known as Manding.
Alhaji Ebou Momar Taal is a career diplomat who has been Gambian plenipotentiary to Brussels (Kingdom of Belgium ), Guinea Bissau and Senegal amongst other countries. As a trained economist, he served as a senior staff of the African Development Bank (ADB), in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. He was also the first Permanent Secretary at the Department of State for External Affairs.
Author: by Alhaji Ebou MomarTaal