The mere mention of slavery or the slave trade today evokes the memory of a dark and fiendish chapter in human history, dark, despicable, brutish, heinous and horrific comparable only to the holocaust, the mass extermination of millions of Jews in the times of Hitler's Germany.
You don't need to be a student of history to know how inhuman the traffic in human being was. Or to have read the Roots by Alex Haley, this great, great grandson of ex-slave parents, who through the epic search for his origin in West Africa, traced his roots to the Gambia and the famous family of Kunta Kinte, to appreciate how reprehensible it is for anybody or organised group to evoke today the memory of this heinous act of man's inhumanity to man.
Yet in Libya today, in this age, in the current millennium, slavery and slave trade have become a thriving commerce and a new war has to be waged for the abolition of this modern day slavery, this tragic trade in human commodity.
But it hurts. It is a sad confirmation for those who still believe that the black race is either a cursed race or it is made up of sub human species of the homo sapiens who, for some sprinkle of potato chips or some other filthy lucre, are prepared to sacrifice their fellow human beings for money. Those who think the worst of us, and they are spread all over the so-called civilised world, America most especially, have got something new in their armoury.
Wind back to 1984. In February 1984, I was in Tuskegee University in Alabama, United States. This all-black- university was founded by Booker T. Washington in the time of racial segregation arising from slavery. Like Howard University in the centre of Washington DC, this institution was founded to provide an academic haven for the blacks who were not allowed to mix with the white in the other universities.
I was there as part of my one month tour of the United States of America on the invitation of the U.S. government. Before getting to Tuskegee, I had had some useful engagements at Howard University as well as the Lawyers Club where I met and had an exciting discussion with journalist, writers and other professionals, among them John de St Joore, author of Nigerian Civil War.
It was an interesting time to be in the U.S. The military had just overthrown the democratically elected Shagari administration and as editor, National Concord, I had just interviewed the new military Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, in company of my colleagues, Dele Giwa, editor of Sunday Concord and Ray Ekpu, chairman of the Concord Editorial Board. I had a lot to say on military rule and democracy in Africa to an enthusiastic audience. I spent three days in Fort Brag, North Carolina, reputed to be the world's largest military installation, to talk to members of the American Armed Forces who were due to be posted out to various countries in Africa as military attaché and other assignments.
But the story was different in Tuskegee. It was there I had what I regard as a nasty encounter with some angry black lecturers, some of them distinguished professors. The conversation this time had nothing to do with military rule in Africa or what hope there was for democracy in the African continent where most of the countries were under the arms of the military.
The gentlemen in Tuskegee turned the table against me in an uncontrolled display of bottled up bitterness. I was just coming from Africa. How, they asked, could I justify what our great grandfathers did by selling their own great grandfathers into slavery in exchange for ordinary mirrors and such other useless ornaments of decoration? It was not exactly a question. And I was not in the frame of mind to answer. Was I not ashamed, they asked, to be flown all the way from Nigeria to come and exchange banters with them, they who had been reduced to mere dregs of the society because of the folly of our ancestors.
Again I had no answer. How could I answer, I a mere victim by proxy? In fact, their excessive bitterness, borne out of centuries of deprivation and traumatised psyche, did not give room for any academic exchange or some philosophical engagement.
The tirade in Tuskegee was not an isolated one as many African visitors to the U.S. would testify. This dehumanising stigma of slavery became more poignant for me six years later. In 1990, I was among the 22 member Commonwealth Foundation Fellows who were engaged in charting a new course for the foundation. We spent two weeks in Europe and two weeks in the Carribean countries touring places as far as Trinidad and Tobago, the Republic of Guyana, Barbados, Dominica and Jamaica. Earlier, on route to Trinidad from London we had a stopover in St Vincent, a small island country, to pick some members of the local organising committee of the foundation in the West Indies.
One of them, a fellow black, was beside himself seeing me and a female broadcaster from the Gambia. Two of us were the only blacks in the team. Were we truly from Africa? He wondered. After many centuries of traumatisation on the slave plantation by his great grandfathers, he could not wean himself from the obvious intoxicating effect of brainwashing and indoctrination they had been subjected to. They had been trained to believe that their forefathers lived on trees back in Africa and had long tails. He was curious to know how I hid my own tail. And he wanted to know how big the African country, not continent, was? How come, he wondered, that I could speak fluent English? Did we have up to two universities in Africa?
But after two weeks of embarrassing moments together and having witnessed some enthusiastic Jamaicans rolling literally on the ground in obeisance to a brother and a sister from mother Africa, this my unfortunate fellow black, the great grandson of an ex-slave from St Vincent, became a little wiser.
Is that what Libya, a fellow African country would choose to do to fellow Africans, no matter their pitiable conditions after Muammar Gaddafi? Some old habits, we are told, die hard. Some don't die at all. Wikipedia's account shows that Libya has had a long history of slave raids and trade in human commodity dating back to between the 16th and 19th centuries when more than one million Europeans were captured by pirates on the high seas.
Indeed, the post Gaddafi Libya has proved to be a failed state almost akin to Somalia. Unfortunately, migrants from Africa, especially Nigeria and Ghana continue to use this God forsaken territory as both transit and destination country.
It is spectacularly unfortunate that Nigerians, like the Ghanaians of yore, have continued to troop into these uncharted territories in search of succour from the current economic situation in the country. It is even more unfortunate that some mindless fellows who choose to play politics with this human tragedy conveniently blame the Buhari administration for this exodus, forgetting also conveniently that this soulless search for greener pasture especially in Italy where numerous women, including married ones, troop to for prostitution predates this era. Many NGOs have teamed up with the government to preach the stay at home gospel hoping that those who have two ears would make use of them appropriately.
But despite the horror stories emanating from the various slave camps in Libya and the tragedy of those who continue to perish in the high seas on their way to Italy, there are still many others still being lured to their death and destruction as we speak. It is like these desperados have a date with destiny; it is either they make the money or perish in the process. Maybe the sages are right after all. Didn't they say that those the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad?