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Abolition in the Land of Lincoln

Abolition Institute co-founders Bakary Tandia, left, and Sean Tenner, center.

Story highlights

  • New group called the Abolition Institute forms in Illinois
  • It will tackle the issue of slavery in the West Africa country Mauritania
  • John Sutter: The group offers hope that things will change in Mauritania
  • The institute brings together veterans of the Save Darfur and Hotel Rwanda campaigns

"Abolition" isn't a word you hear much in 2013. It should be, though. And a group of modern-day freedom fighters in Illinois is resurrecting the term -- with its echoes of 1800s America -- to combat ongoing slavery in a faraway West African country.

The Abolition Institute, which launched its website on Monday, is a newly formed group trying to end slavery in Mauritania, a remote outpost in the Sahara where an estimated 10% to 20% of people are enslaved, according to a U.N. expert.

"There's just a special connection between Illinois, where President Lincoln and President Grant and President Obama are from, and Mauritania," said Sean Tenner, the group's co-founder, who also hails from Illinois. "(They're) different places, but with the same path."

Hopefully that path leads to universal freedom.

I traveled to Mauritania in December 2011 to report on the issue for CNN's Freedom Project. It's an amazing and gut-wrenching place, full of vast potential but struggling to break slavery's psychological chains. More than a year later, I'm left with a deep sense of hope and cautious optimism that Mauritania will be able to break them.

Tenner and his nascent group are one reason for that. He saw the CNN report online in March 2012 and decided he wanted to do something to help abolish slavery in a country he'd never visited, in the name of people who he's mostly never met.

    John D. Sutter

    "To say it changed my life and changed other peoples' lives would be an understatement," he said.

    The Abolition Institute has applied for 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit organization, Tenner said, but has not been granted that status yet. Its website lets users quickly petition the United States and other world governments to put pressure on Mauritania to prosecute slave owners "instead of protecting them." It calls slavery in Mauritania "one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time."

    Tenner assembled a well-connected board of directors to raise awareness about the issue and to collect funds for anti-slavery groups who work on the ground in Mauritania.

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    The board includes veterans of Obama political campaigns, the Save Darfur movement, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation -- as well as Mauritanian human rights activists who are now living in North America. Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda" and who is credited with rescuing 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide in that East African country, spoke at the Abolition Institute's grand opening.

    Tenner, a 35-year-old from suburban Chicago, is following the path of many brave abolitionists in Mauritania -- several of whom I was lucky enough to meet.

    Since our online project published last year, Biram Dah Abeid, head of one local abolitionist group, was arrested for burning Quornic texts he says condone slavery. Later, after being released, he was given the Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk by a human rights group in Ireland.

    Meanwhile, Boubacar Messaoud, head of a group called SOS Slaves and one of the long-standing heroes of the country's abolitionist movement, has provided assistance to women who recently escaped slavery or who come from the enslaved class. Tenner had a Chicago Cubs jersey made with Messaoud's name on it -- and wants to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

    Tenner's first goal, though, is to make people aware that slavery exists in Mauritania, although government officials have denied its existence.

    And he's smart to do so by forging ties between his state -- home to the American president who banned slavery and the country's first African-American president -- and a country in West Africa that continues to struggle for freedom.

    "The more people around the world who are aware of the issue the more pressure will be generated on ... Mauritania," he said, "and the better the situation will become."

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