Among the numerous allegations levelled against the government of Sudan, that of slavery has perhaps had the greatest negative impact. How could slavery be allowed in this day and age, is a common refrain heard in the west.
The allegations first made by Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a Swiss-based Christian organisation in the forefront of the anti-Sudanese campaign, picked up momentum last March, when the Baltimore Sun made some sensational allegations. The Sun correspondent participated in the ‘purchase’ of two slave boys in Sudan, it was reported. The American paper even published photographs of the boys. These were then reproduced by others around the world (On February 9, the Toronto Star carried a large photograph of John Eibner of CSI allegedly paying for ‘slaves’ in Sudan.)
With such convincing ‘evidence’, could anyone really deny charges of slavery? Lord McNair, a member of the British house of Lords, has dismissed these allegations as untrue. In a report released last November, he says he found no evidence of slavery in North or South Kordofan, the two provinces most widely reported to be involved in slave trade.
The British peer had personally visited Sudan a month earlier and travelled extensively in areas where slavery was alleged to be widespread. He was accompanied by two members of the Sudanese parliament including Reverend Adi Ambrose, a southern Protestant clergyman and vice chairman of the Sudanese parliament human rights committee.
In his report, McNair said: ‘Firstly, we could find no evidence of slavery. Secondly, the main concern of the community leaders we met was for the hundreds, if not thousands, of Nuba and Arab children who had been abducted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces of John Garang.’ He went on: ‘They appealed to us for help in having the children returned. . . ‘
What he found was that cases of abductions and kidnappings had increased as a result of weapons supplied to rival tribes by the regime of Sadiq al-Mahdi (1986-89) and colonel Garang’s SPLA. With such weaponry, inter-tribal rivalry intensified with each side carrying out raids against its rivals. Ironically, Mahdi has now joined the southern rebels and is being helped in the anti-Khartoum campaign by the west, especially CSI of Baroness Caroline Cox, when he was responsible for assisting in the intensification of inter-tribal warfare in the first place.
As early as 1991, the US State department had reported that Garang’s forces had kidnapped more than 10,000 children from southern Sudan (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1991: US State Department, Washington DC, 1992. p.382). ‘The plight of these children has been well documented by Human Rights Watch/Africa, the Children’s Rights Project and others,’ says the McNair report.
Lord McNair goes on to question why Christian Solidarity International supports the SPLA for whom abduction of children and keeping them in forced labour camps is a matter of deliberate policy. ‘Many of these children have died in the course of the war, either through being forced into combat by the SPLA, or through the squalid conditions in which they were kept. . . these children appear to be living in conditions qualifying as slavery,’ the report says.
Giving the background to allegations of slavery in Sudan, Lord McNair said that these first emerged in the mid-eighties, especially after the resumption of civil war in Southern Sudan in 1983 launched by Garang. ‘It is clear that the civil war has been a viciously fought conflict, and has caused enormous suffering to the civilian population in the areas affected by the war.’ As part of a deliberate policy, the SPLA brought the war to previously uninvolved states of Darfur, Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. To make matters worse, Garang armed those tribal militias who were sympathetic to the SPLA.
‘Overnight, what had hitherto been limited inter-tribal disputes over water and pastures, between nomadic Arabised tribes such as the Rizeigat and their Dinka neighbours, suddenly escalated and was made all the more lethal by the introduction of sophisticated weaponry,’ said McNair in his report. The Mahdi government, which came to power in 1986, also vigorously pursued the policy of arming rival tribes, encouraging them to take the war to Dinka communities suspected of supporting the SPLA.
It is interesting to note that slavery-like conditions are most pronounced in areas where the government’s control is weakest. The present government has tried valiantly to combat these practices. Anti-Slavery International has documented the fact that in November 1989, the governor of Darfur, Abu al-Gasim Ibrahim, ‘acted decisively when made aware of the concerns of Dinka communities that Rezeigat tribesmen had captured Dinka children in the course of the inter-tribal fighting’ (Peter Vemey, Slavery in Sudan, Sudan update and Anti-Slavery International, London, 1997). Similarly, a US embassy cable from Khartoum dated May 12, 1994 confirmed that ‘government authorities in Wau and Aweil had freed kidnapped women and children held by tribal militias.’
Despite these recognised efforts, western media reports persist in making spurious allegations. In fact, the situation is made worse by the intrusion of western journalists - the Baltimore Sun, for instance - whose sensationalist reports have actually encouraged kidnappings and abductions. Rival tribes now vie with each other in hopes of getting large sums for releasing children and others abducted by them.
For the western media, it is one more example of the ‘evidence’ of slavery in Sudan. For people living with its consequences, it is a vicious game in which they are pawns. Once the cameras are gone, and the television crews and journalists have departed, they have to pay the ransom to get their abducted children back.
If slavery exists in Sudan, it is being practised and promoted by Garang and his backers in the Christian Solidarity International. What better way to deflect attention than to blame others for the crime?
Muslimedia: February 16-28, 1998