The Enduring Life of Exploitation On Modern Slavery in Africa

In the contemporary moment, we are becoming increasingly aware of how the many structural, social, political and economic inequities that underpin exploitation in all its guises have been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in print in our latest issue on Modern Slavery in Africa. Buy the issue here

This special issue comes about as a result of efforts to cultivate collaboration and partnerships which challenge exploitation in its various guises, with this understood as modern slavery or otherwise, in some African contexts. The work of the Antislavery Knowledge Network (AKN) has ranged, for instance, from exploring the challenges faced by survivors and returnees in Nigeria, communities tackling discrimination and descent-based slavery in Mali and Niger, ex-child soldiers rebuilding their lives in Uganda and supporting and safeguarding victims of trafficking in Kenya, Uganda and across the region.

As a co-produced issue between the AKN and The Republic magazine, this complements the wider work of the AKN in exploring, together with our African partners and colleagues, how the arts and humanities can be used creatively to comprehend and confront exploitation. We offer here a glimpse into some of the conversations pertaining to modern slavery in Africa, which of course could not hope to cover the full breadth and complexities around exploitation across the entire continent. They constitute here an invitation for further thinking about and research into how we respond to the challenges of the enduring life of exploitation, whether understood in historical terms as part of the legacies of slavery and colonialism, or as a manifestation of contemporary relationships of power and hierarchy, themselves not synonymous with nor separate from, these histories.

In the contemporary moment, we are becoming increasingly aware of how the many structural, social, political and economic inequities that underpin exploitation in all its guises have been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The conversations and thought-pieces collected here give an insight into understandings of how those inequities have been accrued and play out in selected African contexts. We hope these essays can contribute to the important cross-sectoral thinking and practice that will enable better understandings and approaches to confronting exploitation in the present. Such efforts are required now more than ever to develop the equitable partnerships and collaborations in research and knowledge production needed to challenge the enduring life of exploitation.


The Antislavery Knowledge Network, funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), was set up to explore how creative approaches could address contemporary forms of enslavement by adopting a community-engaged, human rights focus. The AKN has, between 2017 and 2021, commissioned 14 innovative, community-engaged projects across eight countries in Africa—in Niger, Mali, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, DRC, Uganda, and Kenya. These projects have involved collaborations between 32 partners (including universities, community enterprises, charities and faith-based organisations) and represent research approaches that draw from at least 18 different disciplines (including, among others, politics, history, heritage, archaeology, film-making, communication studies, drama and architecture).

The projects funded through the AKN have delivered arts-based outputs that address modern slavery and have directly reached thousands of people. The foundations of each project are the requirements to be collaborative, address local needs and to be impact driven. Focusing on the centrality of communities, each of these projects champions the use of the arts and humanities as a resource for social change. They concretize one of the core aims of the network in exploring the ways in which participatory arts-based strategies, rooted in heritage and memory, can enable Global South communities to play a central role in tackling contemporary slavery. The results—ranging from animations and graphic novels to instruments and guidance for practitioners and policymakers; from resources and educational packages to capacity development of local researchers and activists; from large national-level events to the production of exhibitions and artworks designed to shift public opinion—raise awareness, and improve services to the most vulnerable, including projects co-developed and co-led by survivor groups.

We asked all of the 14 projects to relate to at least one of three overarching themes, not as prescriptive guidance, but rather as an exemplification of the kinds of work and thematic areas possible: ‘Voices for Freedom’, ‘Liberating Heritage’, and ‘Picturing Emancipation’. Each of these themes was designed to encourage projects to develop innovative, interdisciplinary and rights-based challenges to slavery and related forms of exploitation (including child labour and forced marriage). The first theme, ‘Voices for Freedom’, centres on narratives and the lived experiences of slavery, with projects imagining new and challenging ways to collect, record and archive testimony from individuals and communities in the area of focus. The ‘Liberating Heritage’ theme joins projects that connect space, place and memory around slavery with contemporary human rights and development challenges. Finally, ‘Picturing Emancipation’ covers projects that utilise visual arts and photography to expose and reflect upon the experiences and legacies of slavery as well as efforts to resist and overcome its consequences.

Within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), modern slavery is viewed as a development issue. Several SDGs include reference to human trafficking, but SDG 8.7 commits specifically to ‘tak[ing] immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’. An ambitious goal, like all the other SDGs, this serves to illustrate the global nature of efforts to ‘end’ modern slavery and establishes this as a concrete and fundamental global challenge that is eradicable within the decade.

By locating targets to address modern slavery within SDG 8 (decent work) and connecting these closely with socio-economic change, there is a potential for a responsive agenda that is rightly an important part of the work around poverty and development. Yet, using the most up to date evidence, the recent Developing Freedom Report found that sustained antislavery efforts would contribute to addressing no less than 113 of the UN’s 169 SDG targets. Meaning that a more multidimensional understanding of the ways in which exploitation is constituted and manifests itself in multifarious contexts across the globe would enable the setting of a more nuanced antislavery agenda that would go a long way towards addressing many of the most pressing global challenges of our time including those relating to health, education, equality and sustainable communities as well as decent work.


In order to realize the far-reaching potential of antislavery efforts, and contribute to the ambitious aims of the SDGs, it is crucial to conceptualize the longue-durée problem-space of modern slavery in ongoing conversation with local partners and communities. Without such exchanges, even the most innovative tools and well-funded initiatives will struggle to gain traction or realize any lasting change and they may even do harm. Question marks around the effectiveness of current international development approaches to the measuring and tackling of modern slavery point to a disconnect from local contexts, an obscuring of historical legacies, and a privileging of policy and practice that centres on Euro-American rules and norms pre-disposed to problematize certain areas over others. In relating to Africa, such approaches have been criticized for their reductive tendencies which can designate the entire continent a trafficking ‘hotspot’ without sufficient attention to the diversity of national, let alone more localized, experiences, understandings, histories, infrastructure, resourcing and initiatives.

In response, AKN has sought to adopt a broad and open approach to these contentions– whereby we have invited our local partners to identify what constitutes modern slavery in their context and relatedly to shape the methods and measures of success in addressing these challenges. We recognize the limits of statistical and other generalizations and the AKN has worked to move away from sensationalist and hierarchical ideas of ‘Africa’, with sensitivity to the ways in which power relations structure knowledge production, and an awareness that exploitation is both created locally and yet also part of global and planetary conditions of precarity.

This special issue of The Republic contributes to and continues that work—asking a broader range of voices to converse with us in defining what constitutes modern slavery in Africa. Contributions are broad and diverse in their response. A creative contribution by Khalih, a survivor of modern slavery and international human trafficking, was produced during a series of writing workshops supported by AKN and conducted in partnership by teams at HAART Kenya, Worldreader and the University of Nottingham’s Rightslab through the Survivors Voices, Stories and Images project. Khalih’s narrative reminds us of the vital and powerful insight that can be offered by those with first-hand experience of exploitative practices, as well as the value of arts-based tools as a means by which to share stories of exploitation and survival.

With further attention to survivors’ experiences in Sierra Leone and Uganda, Allen Kiconco argues for expanded legal definitions and social provisions that more fully engage with experiences of wartime sexual slavery and their longer-term impacts. In conversation with displaced populations in the Kayes region of Mali, Marie Rodet, Lotte Pelckmans, Bakary Camara and Marie-Christine Deleigne, demonstrate how current international development approaches to modern slavery are ill-equipped to identify descent-based slaveries in West Africa. In response they make the case for context-sensitive, historically considered, intersectional perspectives which can render these ‘invisible’ and ‘illegible’ slavery practices evident.

Oyinkansola Wumkes discusses the problematic implementation of ‘solutions’ to modern slavery in African contexts, emphasising the value of a postcolonial framework to challenge existing approaches, and using it to explain why the international community’s attempts to address the issue in Africa have thus far been disappointing. The pieces by Prince Fater, Adeniyi and Martino on migration, child marriage and the historical formations of regimes of forced labour further reveal the wider gamut of issues that fall under the remit of modern slavery. They allow us to contend as well with the intersections of historically shaped legal infrastructures and their applications in the present, and the concomitant implications for various forms of exploitation. Mobility and exploitation remain at the fore, with the recent cases in Libya foregrounding the conversation in different African countries. Child labour and child exploitation are in this year, the focus of the International Labour Organisation, and more historical work continues to unravel the legacies of slavery and colonialism on contemporary exploitation in Africa.

We hope that these contributions, made possible by the willingness and enthusiasm of The  Republic in collaboration with the AKN on this significant issue, are a positive addition to the conversations on exploitation, elicit productive and critical responses, and enable the development of further collaborations and partnerships

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].