Abduction in Modern Africa

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Abduction in Modern Africa

During the last four decades of the twentieth century, the most notorious and widespread abductions of children in Africa have been closely associated with armed conflict in such countries as Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, among others. On the other hand, pervasive poverty, large demands for child labor, and the huge profits to be made by child-marketers have created a massive trade in African children within and outside of Africa. Some of the children sold in this network are abducted. Less visible but more persistent and equally deleterious, child abductions thrive in the context of a host of sociocultural practices.

In precolonial Africa, large-scale abductions of children occurred in the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries in West Africa, and in the eastern and central African Arab-Swahili slave trade, which peaked in the nineteenth century. In both cases, children were sold into slavery to lands beyond the continent. Traders created intricate conduits for conveying abducted populations from the interior to the coastal trading houses. Perpetrators included individual traders, brokers, royal houses, and European partners, the latter stationed at the coast.

Additionally, localized ethnic conflicts produced limited and intermittent abductions of children as war hostages during the precolonial period. The common practice was to integrate the children into the families and social structures of their captors. The children were looked upon as additional social capital vital for productive and reproductive activities.

As illustrated in the case of Zena (discussed below), the practice of abducting child brides has evolved beyond customary sanction and has increasingly attracted greater attention in judicial circles. There is also an emerging phenomenon of infant abductions traced to desperate childless women. Children of unsuspecting mothers in hospitals and crowded townships become easy targets of such desperate women. It appears also that there is a market for abducted children among childless women who feign motherhood upon returning to their homes. A breakdown of extended family networks has robbed childless women of the benefit of access to communal child-rearing responsibilities. This may have forced the women to child abduction.

Elsewhere, amidst political instability and the emergence of religious cults, there are reports of child abductions associated with ritual sacrifice. Whether the children are targeted for their innocence, and hence ritual purity, for their vulnerability, or as vital social capital, adults, in their efforts to transact political, economic, or social-religious contracts, brutalize children.

Abducted Child Soldiers

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, civil wars constitute the single major cause of child abduction in Africa. The scale, complexity, and brutality of modern, armedconflict-related child abductions dwarf the precolonial situation by far. Both rebel forces and governments perpetrate the abductions. Abducted children serve as domestics, porters, messengers, and general camp followers. Girls, some as young as ten, become sex slaves for the soldiers. Boys, and some girls, are forced to perform armed combat duties.

While internal precolonial abductions sought to integrate their victims into the captors' society, modern abductions seek to isolate, separate, brutalize, and intimidate the children into malleable errand boys and girls. Thus, in addition to being forced into regular combat, abducted children are also forced to commit rape, torture, and killings, sometimes directed at fellow children. This serves as initiation into a life of violence, and serves as warning of what will befall them should they become recalcitrant, or try to run away. In order to elicit and sustain such criminal responses from the children, some captors are reported to drug the children. Thus children become both perpetrators and victims of violence.

Present-day concentration of settlement has made children more vulnerable to abductions. Schools are popular hunting grounds for rebel armies. For example, between 1994 and 1998, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda abducted about 8,000 children, most of them schoolchildren. In April 2001, the UN High Commission for Human Rights reported that more than one-third of the more than 26,000 abduction cases recorded so far in Uganda were children under the age of eighteen. Some were as young as nine. In 2002, most schools in northern Uganda had been shut down for fear of further abductions. In Angola, child soldiers were as young as eight.

The LRA is also said to sell children in exchange for arms and ammunitions. The resurgence of slavery, and the juxtaposition of child abduction and the trade in weaponry, constitute new variables in the child abduction syndrome. The cordial relations between the LRA and the Sudanese government imply government complicity in the trade in children.

Modern Africa has surpassed other regions in using children to fight its wars. This is a new development. Abducted children comprise an appreciable proportion of child soldiers. In some countries, including Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), child soldiers have played pivotal roles in civil wars. For example, in the DRC, it has been claimed that child soldiers, referred to as kadogo, or little ones, constituted the majority of the rebel soldiers used to oust dictator Mobutu Sesse Seko in 1996.

Straddling an international military network, these child soldiers operated among Ugandan and Rwandese soldiers. The new regime in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to use demobilized child soldiers on street patrols, while in rebel-held sections of the republic continuous child abductions have forced parents to pull their children out of schools. In Angola in 1994, 12 percent of the rebel Unita forces were children.

Trade in Children

The astronomical resurgence of a clandestine trade in children in West Africa is an open secret. Some of these children are abducted. The trade is especially rampant in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Mali, and Togo, countries that are not engaged in civil wars. This is a marked contrast to the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which fuelled wars that in turn provided war captives.

The current trade in children constitutes a wide network of porous, cross-border trade conduits including destinations in Europe, the Gulf states, and Lebanon. Demand for child labor in the domestic, sex, and drug trafficking networks, coupled with massive profits from these circuits, has revived, and massively expanded, child-kidnapping practices.

The majority of the children thus traded are girls, up to 95 percent in the Benin-Nigeria circuit. They are between the ages of seven and seventeen. Storage depots, office markets, and ships for transportation have been established to facilitate the disbursement of kidnapped and other enslaved children. In a 2002 debacle in Côte d'Ivoire, children abducted from Mali for employment in the cocoa sector were set free by the Ivorian government, but not before an international uproar. The government of Côte d'Ivoire was quick to blame immigrant Malian cocoa producers and residents from Burkina Faso for the abductions.

Child Bride Abductions

In the precolonial period, the general practice of forced marriage also involved the abduction of girls below the marriageable age, with or without the knowledge of their parents. In some regions, this practice had the social sanction of the community. In others, the practice was represented as jestful theatrics, implying that there was no forced removal and that the screaming bride was merely joking. While still evident, today the practice has been criminalized and in some cases the abducted child brides, or their parents if they are not party to the abduction, at least in theory have re-course to law. In fact, however, their legal position is ambiguous. This is demonstrated by an ongoing legal battle in Swaziland, which is complicated by the fact that the prospective bridegroom is a man of great social and political standing. In October 2002, eighteen-year-old Zena Mahlangu was abducted from school by two royal messengers to await marriage to thirty-four-year-old King Mswati III. The king is reported to have nine other wives. Zena is a victim of a convoluted practice still sanctioned by customary law but criminal under common law.

While historically the Swazi royal household was expected to consult with the families of prospective brides, this did not happen in Zena's case. More daunting is the fact that under Swazi law neither the king nor the queen can be arrested, sued, or prosecuted. Efforts to make the king a defendant seem unlikely to be successful. In a dramatic turn of events, press releases in late October 2002 stated that Zena Mahlangu had declared that she was ready to be married to the king and that she had settled into her new life. This change will likely bring the litigation to an end.

Modern child bride abduction is often occasioned by males' desire to marry a virgin in the belief that virgins are free from HIV/AIDS. The loss of their virginity upon marriage ensures that even if they flee from their unwanted marriages most of these girls would not return to their homes since this would bring dishonor to their families, and on their ethnic group as a whole. The juxtaposition of a modern scourge and an age-old practice render girl children even more vulnerable than before. So too do child and maternal deaths due to the undeveloped physiology of child mothers. Child marriages also increase school dropout rates among the girls, depriving them of economic independence in the long run.

To the victims, abduction is psychologically traumatic. The torture, killing, and exploitation of abducted children increasingly call into question the conscience and morality of a whole continent. The conniving of a cross-section of global participants, driven by struggles for political power, and by avarice, sexual depravity, and individual inadequacy, have created a horrifying milieu for a large number of African children. All abducted children are robbed of their childhood and most are blatantly exposed to an adult world of senseless killing.

See also: Abduction; Child Labor in Developing Countries; Juvenile Justice: International; Soldier Children.


de Temmerman, Els. 2001. Aboke Girls: Children Abducted in Northern Uganda. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers.

Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia. 1994. New York: Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project.

Edwards, Paul, ed. 1996. Equiano's Travels. Oxford, UK: Heinemann.

Effah, Josephine. 1996. Modernized Slavery: Child Trade in Nigeria. Lagos, Nigeria: Constitutional Rights Project.

Falola, Toyin, and Paul Lovejoy, eds. 1994. Pawnship in Africa: Debt Bondage in Historical Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Tabitha Kanogo