Dirt road in a half-desert-like landscape with a rusty sign saying: Mambiri
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Rethinking the Climate Change-Migration-Conflict Nexus in the Sahel: A Plea for Intersectionality to Include Descent-based Slavery

By Mamadou Sène Cissé, Lotte Pelckmans, and Marie Rodet

Since October 2018, more than 3,000 people have been displaced in Western Mali due to community conflicts and violence. These forced displacements have been far less publicised than the massive internal displacements experienced by more than 240,000 people from Northern and Central Mali due to the so-called security crisis caused by a military coup and terrorist activity in the northern and central regions of the country since 2012. However, the displacements in Western Mali – neither linked to terrorism nor the often-cited ecological degradation – deserve far more attention, as they are the ultimate result of cumulative waves of forced migrations happening throughout the twentieth century, which are linked to slavery, and are largely ignored by the authorities, as we will explore in this piece.

Increasingly, recent studies and reports criticise the usually assumed causal links inherent to the climate-change-migration-conflict nexus (Gleditsch 2012, Benjaminsen 2021; Charbonneau 2022) that suffers from what Benjaminsen and Svarstad have called ‘new climate reductionism’ (2021). Yet, grey literature (such as NGO reports and government documents) as well as academic research still overlook the role of internal social hierarchies and class in triggering conflict and displacement in regions under increased environmental pressure. While some studies have included ‘modern’ slavery into the nexus, we argue that an intersectional perspective that includes the societal consequences of descent-based slavery is key to any understanding of power dynamics and forced displacement, at least for the Sahel region.

Descent-based slavery’ is defined as:

‘a situation where people are born into slavery. This is usually because their ancestors were captured into slavery, and their families have ‘belonged’ to the slave-owning families ever since. The slavery status is passed down the maternal line.’

Anti-Slavery International

We underline ‘usually’ to include the fact that (the ancestors of) some of those considered descendants of the enslaved today may have never been captured and sold as slaves, but were categorised as of ‘slave status’ after moving to a new community, where as strangers and newcomers, they were forced to assimilate with this low-status group.

Despite the abolition of slavery in West African French colonies in 1905, many descendants of those enslaved continued to inherit ‘slave status’ and their labour continued to be controlled by the local historical ruling class, a system that allowed historical hierarchies to persist until today in a society which never fundamentally questioned the ruling class ideology. Of course, local, regional and national variations in the experiences of descent-based slavery exist.

In her previous work Rodet analysed historical forms of slavery-linked displacement in the form of ‘slave rebellions’ in western Mali (Rodet 2015 & 2018). More recent forms of smaller-scale, individualised displacements linked to descent-based slavery elsewhere in Mali (e.g. Pelckmans 2011, 2012, 2013; Diallo 2019) in Niger (Boyer 2005; Rossi 2017; Pelckmans 2020, 2021), and the wider Sahel region have also been signalled. Past and present forced displacements linked to conflicts over access to resources (land) and citizenship between the enslaved and their enslavers, as well as their descendants, have yet largely remained under the radar of international and regional organisations. There is a long history of homogenising all types of ‘crisis’ under the banner of ‘fashionable’ presentist explainers (Bonnecase 2011; Bonnecase & Brachet 2021; Olivier de Sardan 2023), and the same goes for post-slavery displacements, which tended to be linked to abolitionism in colonial days, and to climate-change induced conflict and migration today. In fact, recent displacements in western Mali are part of a longer-term exodus linked to continuing legacies of internal slavery and are being de-historicised when explained through the lens of climate change-induced conflict.

Furthermore, using the sole narrative of climate change and resilience to understand displacements in the Sahel contributes to de-politicising local power dynamics and conflicts and reinforces or at least upholds the hegemonic discourse of traditional elites, who usually are former enslavers. These elites are not only historically privileged, but also benefit from recurrent decentralisation measures aimed at returning power to the ‘traditional’ village authorities in Mali, which exacerbate serious conflicts over e.g. land tenure arrangements.

Map of Western Mali highlighting the location of the villages of Bouillagui and Mambiri

In this blog, we will discuss descent-based slavery-related conflict and subsequent displacements in two villages, which have both hosted slavery refugees one hundred years apart: the Soninke village of Bouillagui in the northern part of Western Mali’s Kayes region and the Malinke village of Mambiri in the Southern part of the Kita region. For Bouillagui we focus on oral historical material (1914-1919), while for Mambiri we look at quantitative and qualitative data collected in Mali and France between 2020-2022. While we do not want to deny the potential impact of ecological degradation on people’s livelihoods in the region concerned, we nonetheless demonstrate that lived experiences, explanatory models and prior motivations for displacement by the people we have interviewed clearly lie at the heart of opposition to enduring political and social hierarchies more than anything else.

Bouillagui (1914-1919)

Rodet’s long standing research deals with historical ‘slave rebellions’ and resilience in Western Mali in the early twentieth century.  We’re revising here some of her hypotheses proposed in previous research where she suggested that the famine may have disrupted the renegotiated moral economy and triggered revolts and migration.

Two middle-aged black women standing in a harvested field, wearing brightly coloured dresses in turquoise blue and crimson red respectively.
Diangou Diakité and Hawa  Sissoko, two proud women of Bouillagui whose ancestors founded the village. Copyright John Kalapo, 2019.

Upon further oral historical investigation conducted by Rodet since 2014, the work obligations of the (formerly) enslaved towards their enslavers do not seem to have been fundamentally renegotiated but rather have been upheld, yet adapted to the changing legal environment, including the 1905 abolition of the colonial slave trade in French West Africa. This allowed the continuing circulation of a cheap workforce and the maintaining of a slavery-based economy. Yet, the people, including the (formerly) enslaved, were increasingly made aware of the colonial legal changes in Western Mali in the first decade following abolition. This is probably why in the 1910s the case of a noble woman from the Soninke village of Serenati claiming the harvest of the rice field that she had lent to Mansita, a woman she considered being her slave, provoked such an outcry among the population still considered as of ‘slave status’. As a consequence, the latter preferred to destroy the harvest rather than letting the village nobility collect it. This case demonstrates how the post-abolition moral economy of maintaining obligations was not so much about mutual renegotiations, but rather about hegemonic upholding of slavery practices, which were consequently contested, even though this meant for the victims of slavery ‘cutting in their own livelihoods’. Following the destruction of the rice field harvest the enslaved from Serenati organised their ‘escape’ to relocate and start a new life independent from their masters. They ultimately resettled in a place that they called Bouillagui around 1914. Yet, as soon as they arrived, they encountered numerous difficulties. The lack of rain caused poor harvests. Famine took hold and the newly settled population had no choice but to eat the leaves and fruit that they foraged in the bush to survive. They then decided to disperse, some returned to Serenati, the village of enslavement, while others settled in surrounding villages. They stayed there until the ecological situation stabilised. Then, they made another attempt to settle in Bouillagui, but again not without difficulty. The nobles of Serenati tried to dislodge them claiming that the land of Bouillagui belonged to them. They even attempted to poison their wells. Despite this, the settlers managed to remain in Bouillagui after securing their land rights with the colonial authorities by the end of the First World War, as remembered in the local oral tradition. The first settlers of Bouillagui transmitted this history to their descendants, who are still very proud today of their ancestors’ resistance against slavery.

Mambiri (2019-2022)

Dirt road in a half-desert-like landscape with a rusty sign saying: Mambiri
The road to Mambiri. Copyright Bakoo Coulibaly, 2022.

Since 2018 and steered by the successful use of social media in the Soninke diaspora, a new anti-slavery movement called Ganbanaaxu Fedde, meaning the ‘federation of equality’ in Soninke (Pelckmans 2023), has given impetus to a polarisation of intergenerational social conflicts linked to descent-based slavery in Western Mali and beyond. These conflicts have recently resulted in significant renewed rural-rural displacements of people with ascribed slave status from the Northern part of the Kayes region  towards villages down south, such as Mambiri (but also towards major cities such as Kayes, Nioro, Diema, Kita and Bamako). Data collected with those currently displaced in the host community of Mambiri, both in Mali and its diaspora in France, give insights into how their displacements have been instigated due to socio-political causes, including forced ‘embargoes’, i.e. the total exclusion from vital resources and social life in the home villages. These severe tensions were directly linked to the consequences of conflicting interpretations over ‘pacts and traditions’ (‘laada’ in Soninke language) that prescribed in particular the rights and obligations of contemporary citizens with ascribed ‘slave status’. The populations categorised as ‘descendants of slaves’ henceforth refused to be called ‘slaves’ and to follow the ‘laada’ dictating their obligations linked to their ascribed ‘slave status’. As in the case of the harvest destruction in Bouillagui described above, populations with ascribed ‘slave status’ in their home village who took refuge in Mambiri actively chose to move out and not to return, even though this meant a highly significant loss of resources, such as decades of diasporic investments in cement housing, as well familial lands cultivated over several generations. The choice of taking refuge in Mambiri was neither obvious nor completely random. They knew the village as a stopover on their way to Bamako, the capital city. Yet, they were also aware that the river historically separated Mambiri from the former kingdom of which their ancestors were said to have been enslaved. Many explicitly underlined how return was thus not an option at all, not even if their land and houses would be given back to them. Their main argument was that after years of tension, and the final destruction of their gardens, fields and houses as well as physical violence against them, peaceful cohabitation was no longer possible.

Two black men of different generations sitting on chairs in front of a house.
Moussa Fofana and Oumou Fofana, Copyright Bakoo Coulibaly, 2022.

Moussa: I would prefer everyone to work together and make changes to put an end to this atrocity.

Oumou: [This conflict] has impoverished me and created scars that I can’t forget. I prefer peace and cohesion from all sides

As indicated in the above quotes, those displaced in Mambiri have defined their displacement first and foremost as linked to internal power conflicts linked to descent-based slavery (called ‘atrocity’ by Moussa), and have not mentioned security issues, nor natural resource degradation or climate change, as important drivers for their displacement. In contrast, it is following their displacement that they encountered most environmental challenges with massive livestock loss (due to livestock illness), a far more restricted access to land in Mambiri (due to land scarcity), as well as much more pressure on existing village resources, such as clean water.

Women in front of thatched huts carrying a multitude of colourful plastic water canisters

three women drawing water from a well
Looking for water at one of the wells of Mambiri. Copyright Bakoo Coulibaly, 2022.

Conclusion

Conflicts and displacements in Western Mali, both past and present, are not linked primarily to land pressure due to ecological degradation as such. They are rather linked to the political economy of resource control (access to land and land use) in the region which continues to be permeated by a long history of hierarchical power relations inherited from slavery and its aftermath. These are more fundamental and immediate threats to livelihoods compared with environmental crises or climate change per se. The subsequent displacements have thus to be analysed primarily politically as a protest against descent-based slavery rather than as climate resilience. It is only once equitable political resilience has been built through equitable resource management that climate resilience can be deployed.

Comparison of empirical data from the early twentieth century in the village of Bouillagui and from the village of Mambiri in the twenty-first century indicates how low-status groups, in the face of excessive exploitation and heightened conflict linked to (legacies of) slavery, had to move out, even at the cost of renouncing their existing means of living – their land and housing in the respective home villages.

Past and present displacements and related lack of or limited resilience in Western Mali have to be understood through the lens of continuing forms of intergenerational violence, rather than as ad hoc responses to a specific, sudden and new environmental crisis. Disputes over access to natural resources and land right insecurity may have sometimes been exacerbated by ecological crises, but they were not triggered nor caused by them. Today, these forced displacements have also to be understood against the backdrop of the lack of national legal regulation where victims of descent-based slavery lack state protection, especially in terms of securing land rights, which exacerbate long-standing insecurities.

In conclusion, adopting the lens of contemporary ‘crises’ such as the discourses of climate change and resilience, as well as presentist security concerns (e.g. terrorism) tend to obscure structural power imbalances linked to (descent-based) slavery. This invisibility is contributing to the perpetuation of profound intergenerational and structural violence interlinked with histories of rural displacements.

Literature

Benjaminsen, T.A., Svarstad, H. (2021). Climate Change, Scarcity and Conflicts in the Sahel. In: Political Ecology: A Critical Engagement with Global Environmental Issues. Palgrave Macmillan Cham.
Benjaminsen, T. & Alinon, K. & Buhaug, H. & Buseth, J. (2012). Does Climate Change Drive Land-Use Conflicts in the Sahel?, Journal of Peace Research (49): 97-111.
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Boyer, F. (2005) L’esclavage chez les Touaregs de Bankilaré au miroir des migrations circulaires. Cahiers d’études africaines 2005/3-4 (n° 179-180).
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Pelckmans, Lotte (2020) “Fugitive Emplacements: Slave Concubines in Niger-Nigerian Borderlands.” In Invisibility in African Displacements, edited by Jesper Bjarnesen and Simon Turner, chapter 12, p. 216-235. London: Zed Books.
Pelckmans, L. (2021) « Récits cinétiques » : le déplacement comme récit de contestation des wahayu, concubines de statut servile dans les régions frontalières du Niger et du Nigeria ». Esclavages & Post-esclavages, number 4.
Pelckmans, L. (2023) Documentary movie ‘Ganbanaaxun Fedde: a transnational anti-slavery movement’. SporMedia, Denmark.
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Authors

Mamadou Séne Cissé

Mamadou Séne Cissé

he/his

Mamadou is general-secretary of Donkosira, a not-for-profit organisation promoting local knowledge in West Africa. He is working with underrepresented rural communities in West Africa, helping to highlight and share their traditions, languages, art and cultural history through the use of information technology and digital communication, one of the significant challenges of the millennium. He was Co-I on the UKRI GCRF supported projects ‘Slavery and Forced Migration in Western Mali’ (2020-2024) and ‘Equitable Climate Resilience in West Africa’ (2019-2023).

Marie Rodet

Marie Rodet

she/her

Marie is Reader in the History of Africa at SOAS, University of London. She has extensively published on the history of slavery and migration in Western Mali. She was the PI of two major research projects supported by the UKRI GCRF fund: ‘Slavery and Forced Migration in Western Mali’ (2020-2024) and ‘Equitable Climate Resilience in West Africa’ (2019-2023).

Lotte Pelckmans

Lotte Pelckmans

she/her

Lotte is Associate Professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies (AMIS), University of Copenhagen. An anthropologist by training, she has two decades of research experience on descent-based slavery, post-slavery and anti-slavery movements in Mali and beyond. She was Co-I on the UKRI GCRF project ‘Slavery and Forced Migration in Western Mali’ (2020-2024) and researcher in ‘Authoring Slavery,’ a project focusing on different genres of texts and authorship about slavery across different time periods in Ghana.

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