May 7, 2001
After fifteen days of sailing back and forth in the Gulf of Guinea, the freighter Etireno arrived April 17 in the port of Cotonou. On board were 147 passengers including some 40 children and teenagers, 210 fewer than the number of youngsters on board when the ship left Cameroon. Had they been unloaded, transferred to another ship or even thrown overboard as several humanitarian organizations feared?
The publicity about this freighter and its cargo –children destined to be sold as slaves –turned the spotlight on the reality of a generalized slave trade along the coast of all west Africa. According to UNICEF more than 200,000 children are sold into slavery just in the area running from Gabon to the Ivory Coast.
The majority of the child slaves come from the poorest villages of Togo, Benin, Mali and neighboring countries devastated by a decade of civil war. Some of them have been sold by their families who had been stricken by famine. Others were forced into slavery. The traffickers buy them for a few dollars and then later resell them for ten times more to their new owners. The 5-to-6 year old girls become domestic servants, and the boys become laborers in cotton or chocolate plantations, or carriers of loads in the mines. They are housed in locked barracks, fed boiled corn, beaten, and threatened with having their feet slashed if they attempt to escape. They are true slaves until they pay back their purchase price and food with bitter labor, without the least wage.
Those who share responsibility and the profits of this ferocious exploitation are the slave traffickers, the governments that go along with it (the African countries and still more the rich countries), and especially the great international capitalist companies. Even when they aren't the direct owners of the plantations, mines and factories where these child slaves are exploited, these companies buy up at a tiny price the slaves' products, which have made the fortunes of companies like Nestle and Hershey and the riches of their owners today.