ABUJA, June 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Barack Obama was elected the first Black U.S. president in 2008, Anthony Uzoije noticed less contempt towards descendants of slaves like him in his south-eastern Nigeria community.
Uzoije, from Ogbaru in Anambra state, now hopes Black Lives Matter protests globally will inspire similar change for him and the Igbo people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa and principal group enslaved during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
It is estimated that between 10 and 20% of Igbos - amounting to many millions of people - are descendants of slaves and still face significant discrimination, which has sparked unrest and violence in recent years in some areas.
Slave descendants are banned by traditional law and custom from traditional leadership positions and belonging to prestigious local groups. So-called “freeborn” people are forbidden from marrying them, according to the culture in many communities.
“People began to see that if the white man can allow Obama to be president, why can’t you allow your fellow black to occupy whatever position. People began to realise that what they were doing is nonsense,” said Uzoije, 67, who is the chairman of the Ogbaru People’s Convention, an association of slave descendants.
“When people here see that there is more equality between the black and the white people in America, it will affect the way they treat their fellow black brother,” Uzoije told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via phone from his home in Onitsha.
The British colonial administration officially abolished slavery in Nigeria in the early 20th century and finally eradicated it in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the descendants of slaves retained the stigma of their ancestors.
The discrimination continues and not just against descendants of slaves in south-eastern Nigeria, with similar reports from countries across Africa, including Ghana, Senegal, and Benin Republic.
For while no data exists on the number of slave descendants in Nigeria or in Africa, communities know about every family’s history and lineage so it is impossible to hide.
Laws against such discrimination exist in the Nigerian constitution and, in 1956, legislators in what was then the Eastern Nigeria house of assembly, voted overwhelmingly for a law banning the discrimination against slave descendants.
But these laws are difficult to enforce, especially at the grassroots level where people pay more attention to traditional beliefs than to the country’s constitution, and where there are social implications of violating local laws.
For the past three years, 44-year-old Oge Maduagwu has been travelling to different communities in south-eastern Nigeria to advocate for equal rights for descendants of slaves.
With the recent BLM protests, she hopes those responsible for the ongoing discrimination in Nigeria and across Africa will re-examine their attitudes, and that more Africans globally join the fight against the inequality in their own homelands.
“They should realise what the black people in America are going through is exactly what the slave descendants here are going through,” said Maduagwu, founder of the Initiative for the Eradication of Traditional and Cultural Stigmatisation in our Society (IFETACSIOUS).
“(They must) find a way to abolish it here before they raise their voices against what the whites are doing over there.
Maduagwu’s activism was inspired by the widespread opposition to marriage with slave descendants.
She is not a slave descendant herself but witnessed the discrimination while growing up in Oguta in Imo State of south-eastern Nigeria.
She finally decided to do something to bring it to an end after a close friend was prevented from marrying someone she loved because he was descended from a slave.
“She was devastated and moved in with me for two weeks and we inconsolably cried together,” Maduagwu said from her home in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.
“Her pain became my pain. The humanity and activism in me came alive.”
Maduagwu founded the charity IFETACSIOUS in 2017 to facilitate dialogue between traditional leaders and descendants of slaves, providing a forum where they can address the laws and customs that promote discrimination.
Her work has taken her to about five of Nigeria’s 36 states, including Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo.
She has achieved some success, with a handful of traditional leaders openly declaring an end to all discrimination against slave descendants.
For Maduagwu it is vital this is a peaceful process. She is concerned that the agitation for equality has turned violent in the past, as has been the case in some parts of the United States.
“Healing will not come through fighting,” she said.
While there are hundreds of slave descendants in Uzoije’s community, the Ogbaru People’s Convention has 40 registered members whose activism has prompted some changes.
For example by pressuring religious leaders to intervene in cases where romance with slave descendants was opposed by families, some of their children have gone on to marry so-called “freeborn” citizens.
“When a young man sees a lady he wants to marry, they should allow them. That is the important thing,” Uzoije said.
He noted, however, that the change in attitudes following Obama’s election was not necessarily accompanied by a change in laws. Descendants of slaves in Ogbaru are still not allowed to run for local leadership positions.
"Change is gradual. It's not automatic," he said. (Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)