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CAIRO: Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi apologized for the slave trade on behalf of Arabs at the second Afro-
Arab summit in Libya on Sunday. It may be the first time an Arab leader has admitted – much less apologized for – enslaving Africans.
While completely unprecedented, the statement falls in line with Qaddafi’s decade-long policy of aligning himself with African nations.
“I regret the behavior of the Arabs… They brought African children to North Africa, they made them slaves, they sold them like animals, and they took them as slaves and traded them in a shameful way. I regret and I am ashamed when we remember these practices. I apologize for this,” Qaddafi was quoted as saying.
A number of African leaders, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, were in attendance at the summit which covered topics ranging from the Palestinian issue to Sudanese separation.
Gaddafi continued his statement by saying, “Today we are embarrassed and shocked by these outrageous practices of rich Arabs who had treated their fellow Africans with contempt and condescension.” Gaddafi’s statement was broad, leaving a time reference open for debate.
There is very little documentation about the African enslavement in the Arab world. Most documentation and research focuses on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but until the turn of the 19th Century, Arab slave traders dealt in a lucrative business in African slaves from the Congo, Rwanda, and particularly East Africa. In the middle of the ninth century, a revolt of the Zanj, African slaves held in modern-day Iraq, lasted for nearly fifteen years.
The Arab slave trade was also excuse used by Europeans, including King Leopold II of Belgium, to move into Africa during the age of European colonization.
There is some documentation of Arab enslavement up until the mid-1900s. According to a report by the United Nations in 1957, as much as 20% of the population of Saudi Arabia consisted of slaves. The report listed the worth of a girl under 5 years of age to be between 200-400 British pounds on the Jeddah slave market, while a man under 40 averaged 150 British pounds.
It is plausible that Gaddafi’s statements referenced modern enslavement by Arabs, from the era of European colonization to the present day. “We should now recognize this issue, denounce it vigorously and place it in its true dimension,” Ghaddafi said in his statement.
In September, UK Channel 4 released a film version of the story of a Nubian woman named Mende Nazer. The film, titled “I Am Slave,” tells the true story of a girl who was abducted from the Nuba mountains and was eventually sold into domestic servitude with an Arab family in London.
In 2000, Nazer’s story made international news when she managed to escape. Although the numbers of people living in such circumstances are difficult to determine, an August article in the UK’s Telegraph estimated around 5,000 people are currently working as domestic slaves in the UK.
Either way, the Libyan leader’s statement is remarkable, even for a man who likes to make headlines.