Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Quest for Honor and Citizenship in Post-Slavery Borgu (Benin)

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Quest for Honor and Citizenship in Post-Slavery Borgu (Benin)

Article excerpt


Are Persons Property? ask Margaret Davies and Ngaire Naffine in a legal debate about the fabrication of persons and things.1 This question is not only important in relation to child fosterage and adoption, human trafficking, forced prostitution, or other contemporary similar issues. It is a central question to the understanding of the ideology that justifies slavery and its legacies in post-slavery Africa. Indeed the abolition of African slavery by French and British colonial powers more than a century ago did not close the debate once and for all. One reason for that is the co-existence of competing legal norms. Some of this legal framework tolerates, encourages, legitimizes, or regulates slavery.2 The other reason is that the fabrication of persons and things is not only a matter of laws, but also of social norms.

Neither slavery nor the discourses that legitimize it have been eliminated by legal means. In many contemporary African post-abolition societies, slaves' descendants are still considered as property. These moral considerations justify a series of discriminations against people of slave descent and impede their access to a variety of rights (e.g., access to land, marriage outside the group, access to religious and political office). In reaction to this situation, a number of anti-slavery social movements, NGOs, and associations of people of slave descent emerged recently and simultaneously in the Sahel and beyond, while the number of conflicts that oppose groups of slave descent to groups of noble or free descent is rising in a variety of contexts.3 These groups mobilize different strategies and tactics to challenge slavery and its legacies and to gain effective rights and access to resources.

In contrast to most of the literature on African slavery and emancipation, this article brings current emancipatory struggles under the lens of citizenship.4 By citizenship, I mean a set of rights, privileges, obligations, and interdictions of people belonging in a political community (a religious group, an ethnic group, a nation-state, a municipality ...). I wish to expand the understanding of citizenship beyond its typical formal meaning as "national citizenship" in order to explore the rights and duties that slaves possessed or acquired in African slavery societies.5 Whereas "belonging in" refers to the position of the slave as a member of a group, "belonging to" alludes to the notions of ownership and property. I will therefore adopt hereafter a perspective that articulates citizenship with property.6

Current debates about slavery in Northern Benin are closely related to the concept of property. In the Borgu region, Gando people-who are generally considered as slaves' descendants-have long been categorized as property. As a Fulani herder simply puts it:

The Pullo [i.e., a Fulani herder] and the Gannunkeejo [i.e., Gando] are the same but the Pullo owns the Gannunkeejo.7

The author of this claim of ownership is the son of a former Fulani slave holder. Although the slave of his father was freed about forty years ago, he claims that a Gando is defined as the property of a Fulani. How shall we understand such a claim to a man as property, in a post-slavery context?

Gando people are no longer the dependants of any master in contemporary Borgu; they are free (with very few exceptions), they can dispose of themselves and have families, they have the full right to the fruits of their labor, they can possess things and are often wealthy (eventually richer than their former masters), they vote and even become political figures.8 How then can one speak of slavery in terms of property? This is certainly no longer "slavery." Yet, this view is not anachronistic or nostalgic. It not only reflects current understandings of reconfigured slave-master relations in contemporary Borgu, but also sheds light on continuities and ruptures in the meaning of the concept of property and the concept of slavery itself over time in West African post-slavery societies. …

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