The Reality of Slave Redemption in Sudan

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Civil war has raged in Sudan off and on between the Sudanese government and rebels in southern Sudan since 1955. After a ten year period of peace the conflict reignited in1983, and the war in the south has been fought since then by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). (1) Since the mid-1990s several organisations and anti-Sudanese activists have claimed that as a consequence of this war there is a flourishing “slave trade” in Sudan in which the Sudanese government and its northern forces raid southern villages and “enslave” Dinka tribesmen, women and children. Groups such as Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and British activists such as Baroness Cox claim that the people involved in the “slave trade” are governments forces including northern Arab “slave traders” and “militiamen”. These groups and activists then further allege that in the course of visits to parts of southern Sudan they have engaged in “slave redemptions” whereby southern Sudanese tribesmen, women and children are supposedly “bought back” from northern Sudanese tribesmen said to have abducted them. These groups claim to have “bought” back or “redeemed” thousands of slaves, often several hundred at a time, from Arab traders . (2)

There is a considerable body of independent opinion that finds these claims deeply questionable. It should perhaps firstly be noted that the claims made by Baroness Cox and CSI have long been criticized by human rights organizations and activists. Amongst these have been the United Nations and its agencies such as UNICEF. (3) The respected human rights expert, and Sudan specialist, Alex de Waal, while co-director of the human rights group African Rights, has also said of the claims made by Baroness Cox that:

“(O)vereager or misinformed human rights advocates in Europe and the US have played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage. Christian Solidarity International, for instance, claims that “Government troops and Government-backed Arab militias regularly raid black African communities for slaves and other forms of booty”. The organization repeatedly uses the term “slave raids”, implying that taking captives is the aim of government policy. This despite the fact that there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade.” (4)

De Waal further observed:

“the issue is a slippery one: slavery slides off into issues such as hostage taking. The difference between a hostage and a slave is important. It shows how Sudanese history must be seen in its local context, and how it is a mistake to impose stereotypes from elsewhere. It also points to solutions: intertribal negotiations rather than indiscriminate ‘buying back’ – which runs the risk of inflating the ransom beyond what families can afford and, even worse, creating an incentive for further raiding and abductions.” (5)

Peter Verney, the author of an official 1997 Anti-Slavery International report on allegations of Sudanese slavery, has also commented on allegations of government involvement in slavery:

“[T]he charge that government troops engage in raids for the purpose of seizing slaves is not backed by the evidence.” (6)

The claims made by CSI and Baroness Cox have also clearly been of concern to groups such as Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organization. In a submission to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Anti-Slavery International publicly stated:

“There is a danger that wrangling over slavery can distract us from abuses which are actually part of government policy – which we do not believe slavery to be. Unless accurately reported, the issue can become a tool for indiscriminate and wholly undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. [WE] ARE WORRIED THAT SOME MEDIA REPORTS OF “SLAVE MARKETS”, STOCKED BY ARAB SLAVE TRADERS – WHICH [WE] CONSIDER DISTORT REALITY – FUEL SUCH PREJUDICE.” (7) (emphasis added)

The judgment of some of those most vocal in allegations of “slavery” and “slave redemption” in Sudan has been called into question. As a general view on Baroness Cox’s reliability on Sudan, it is worth nothing that in Andrew Boyd’s sympathetic biography of her, ‘Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless’, Dr Christopher Besse of Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin), a humanitarian aid organization with which Cox is closely associated (Dr Besse and Baroness Cox are both trustees of Merlin), is quoted as saying:

“She’s not the most popular person in Sudan among the humanitarian aid people. She has her enemies, and some of them feel she is not well- enough informed. She recognizes a bit of the picture, but not all that’s going on.” (8)

For someone who is even said by her friends to only recognize “a bit of the picture, but not all that’s going on” to be making the sort of claims she has on Sudan is regrettable. The Times newspaper was perhaps somewhat unkind when in reviewing her activities in Sudan it stated that “Cox means well but looks ever so slightly unhinged”. (9)

“Slave Redemption” Challenged by Independent Sources

With regard to the specific issue of “slave redemption”, one of the few neutral sources against which the claims made by Christian Solidarity International and Baroness Cox can be assessed is the report by the Canadian government’s special envoy to Sudan, John Harker, into human rights abuses in Sudan. The Harker report, ‘Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission’, was commissioned by the Canadian government and published in February 2000. One of the two missions with which John Harker was tasked was to:

“independently investigate human rights violations, specifically in reference to allegations of slavery and slavery-like practices in Sudan.” (10)

While Harker was critical of many human rights abuses in Sudan, he clearly questioned claims of large scale redemption. He specifically touched on the credibility of claims of large-scale “slave redemption” made by Christian Solidarity International:

“[R]eports, especially from CSI, about very large numbers were questioned, and frankly not accepted. Mention was also made to us of evidence that the SPLA were involved in “recycling” abductees…

“Serious anti-abduction activists…cannot relate the claimed redemptions to what they know of the reality. For example we were told that it would be hard not to notice how passive these “slave” children are when they are liberated or to realize how implausible it is to gather together so many people from so many locations so quickly – and there were always just the right number to match redemption funds available!”

The Harker Report also detailed how fraudulent “slave redemptions” were being used to raise money for the SPLA, money which he stated is used to purchase arms and ammunition:

“Several informants reported various scenarios involving staged redemptions. In some cases, SPLM officials are allegedly involved in arranging these exchanges, dressing up as Arab slave traders, with profits being used to support the SPLM/A, buy weapons and ammunition…”

The Harker Report documented the deliberately fraudulent nature of many “slave redemptions”:

“Sometimes a “redeeming group” may be innocently misled, but other groups may be actively committed to fundraising for the SPLM/A & deliberately use “slave redemption” as a successful tactic for attracting Western donors.

“We did speak with an eyewitness who can confirm observing a staged redemption and this testimony conformed with other reports we had from a variety of credible sources. The “redeeming group” knew they were buying back children who had not been abducted or enslaved. The exchange was conducted in the presence of armed SPLA guards. The “Arab” middle man/trader delivering the children for “redemption” was recognized as a member of the local community even though he was dressed up in traditional Arab costume for the event.” (11)

Evidence of staged “slave redemptions” had started to emerge several months earlier. In a July 1999 article entitled ‘The False Promise of Slave Redemption’, published by ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, American journalist Richard Miniter provided unambiguous first hand evidence that there was fraud and corruption in the process of “slave redemption” in Sudan. (12) He had visited southern Sudan accompanied in the company of James Jacobson, the president of Christian Freedom International to investigate the “redemption” process. Jacobson, a former Reagan Administration official, had previously served as Christian Solidarity International’s Washington representative. In 1998, the American branch of Christian Solidarity International USA went its own way as Christian Freedom International, with Jacobson at its head. He was an enthusiastic supporter of “slave redemption” until he actually visited southern Sudan to see the “slave redemption” situation for himself. Jacobson subsequently publicly disowned “slave redemption” because the financial incentives involved encouraged both the taking of captives as well as fraud and corruption.

Clear SPLA Involvement in “Slave Redemption” Fraud

Miniter and Jacobson made contact with the “Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association” (SRRA), an arm of the SPLA. Miniter’s article unambiguously documented the involvement of what he terms “middle level” SPLA/SRRA officials in fraudulently presenting “slaves” to visiting Western would-be “redeemers”.

The following is a direct quote from Miniter’s article:

Quote:

“I witnessed an attempted slave redemption that was unquestionably problematic during a recent visit to Nyamlell, a large settlement about fifty miles south of the Bahr al Arab river, in southern Sudan. Nyamlell has been the location of many slave redemptions covered by the U.S. media. The night before my visit officials from the local branch of the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association in Lokichokio, Kenya, asked for a meeting with James Jacobson, who had been hoping to redeem the slaves in Nyamlell. After half an hour of small talk the officials got down to business. “How much money are you bringing for slave redemption?”

“Four thousand dollars,” Jacobson said.

“Ah, that is very helpful. There are forty slave children to be redeemed.”

“Forty children? That would be a hundred dollars each. Don’t other groups pay fifty dollars each?”

“No. Everyone pays a hundred.”

“What about Christian Solidarity International?”

“Ah, they are different. They buy in much larger quantities.”…

“Jacobson exchanged no money, but two mid-level SRRA officials insisted on accompanying him and me to Nyamlell. When we landed on the dirt runway, a local commissioner named Alev Akechak Jok met our plane. He refused to make eye contact with the SRRA officials, and was adamant about meeting privately with Jacobson and me…The commissioner offered tea and an admission: “There are no slaves here for you to buy.”….Hadn’t the SRRA radioed his village the previous day and learned that there were forty children to be freed? He shook his head no.

“As we returned to the airstrip, the SRRA officials rejoined us. One said that he had just found a trader and ten children to be redeemed. Jok suddenly became angry and pulled me aside: the officials could not hear us over the whirling propeller. “You must leave now!” he demanded. Are the children slaves? I asked. “No,” he said, “they are the children of the village.” Jok has since been removed from his post, probably in retaliation for his honesty.”

Unquote:

The simple fact that Alev Akechak Jok was punished for his actions would clearly indicate continuing SPLA involvement in this fraud, a fraud which has obvious propaganda and financial advantages to the rebels. Miniter also documented a further way SPLA officials are involved in fraud with regard to “slave redemption”:

“Corrupt officials set themselves up as bankers and insist that redeemers exchange their dollars for Sudanese pounds, a nearly worthless currency…The officials arrange by radio to have some villages play slaves and some play slave-sellers, and when the redeemers arrive, the Sudanese pounds are used to free the slaves. When the redeemers are gone, the pounds are turned back over to the corrupt officials, who hand out a few dollars in return. Most of the dollars stay with the officials, who now also have the Sudanese pounds with which to play banker again.”

This is not the first time that an American journalist has questioned SPLA involvement in the whole issue of “slavery” and “slavery redemption”. William Finnegan, in his article ‘The Invisible War’, which appeared in ‘The New Yorker’ in January 1999, tells of having himself come across a “slave trader” at Nyamlell similar to the one spoken of by Miniter:

“To me, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the mystery surrounding Nyamlell’s slaver rescuer was his relationship with the S.P.L.A. If he was in fact a double-dealer, running a nefarious business, could the local rebels be in league with his operation? They certainly seemed to endorse his work.” (13)

That the SPLA/SRRA officials have a clear propaganda or financial interest in presenting these Western visitors with “slaves” to be bought back is clear. Yet it is the SPLA that continues to “facilitate” the “slave redemptions” for groups such as Christian Solidarity and people such as Baroness Cox.

Several points should be made with regard to the SPLA and these activists. Firstly, Baroness Cox is an unabashed political supporter of the SPLA, eager to assist their cause, and there is no doubt that the allegations of “slavery” in Sudan advances the SPLA’s propaganda campaign against the Khartoum government. Secondly, one should place on record the SPLA’s capacity to deceive. Dr Peter Nyaba, a SPLA national executive council member, has described the SPLA’s “sub-culture of lies, misinformation, cheap propaganda and exhibitionism” vividly: “Much of what filtered out of the SPLM/A propaganda machinery…was about 90% disinformation”. (14) Thirdly, it is also important to put the SPLA into perspective. The ‘New York Times’, a vigorous critic of the Sudanese government, states that the SPLA: “[H]ave behaved like an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging.” (15) It has also described the SPLA leader John Garang as one of Sudan’s “pre-eminent war criminals”. (16) Given the SPLA’s track record there is no reason to doubt that they might also engage in fraud for financial or propaganda reasons.

Fraud and Corruption Confirmed by Reuters

Interviewed after his visit to Nyamlell with Miniter, James Jacobson told the ‘Denver Post’ of his clear reservations about “redemption”:

“I just felt everything was not as it appeared to be. You don’t know if after several days these groups of people get re-abducted.”

The ‘Denver Post’ reported that the leaders of major human-rights organizations were stating that abductions are “not only…increasing but that the increases almost certainly are related to the sudden availability of Western money for buybacks”:

“It’s like paying hostage takers ransom, they say, arguing that any payment lends credibility to the notion of buying and selling human beings. They say the money encourages scams…” (17)

Speaking to Reuters, Jacobson stated that:

“It has turned into a circus. The problem now is that Western dollars are making the situation worse, both in terms of abductions and in terms of corruption.” (18)

A Reuters report in July 1999 confirmed the “massive corruption” reported by Jacobson:

“Local aid workers…say that they have seen children who they have known for months passed off as slaves…And Reuters interviewed one boy in Yargot who told a completely implausible story of life in the north, a story which he changed in every respect when translators were swapped.” (19)

In May 1999, the ‘Christian Science Monitor’ also clearly stated:

“There are increasingly numerous reports that significant numbers of those ‘redeemed’ were never slaves in the first place. Rather, they were simply elements of the local populations, often children, available to be herded together when cash-bearing redeemers appeared.” (20)

It is clear, therefore, that there are at least three direct concerns with regard to “slave redemptions” in Sudan.

Firstly, are the people said to be “slaves” not more accurately described as victims of inter-tribal abduction or kidnapping? Given that there has clearly been a history of intertribal raiding and abduction between the northern tribes and the Dinka within the areas in question – southern Kordofan and northern Bahr al-Ghazal – why has this been described as “slavery” when almost identical patterns of inter-tribal raiding and abduction between the Dinka and Nuer, two black southern Sudan tribes, two or three hundred kilometers to the south, have not been described as “slavery? (21) Is it possible that the label “slave” has been used either as the result of what African Rights described as lazy assumptions or as a propaganda weapons against the Sudanese government?

Secondly, assuming that the people being presented at these “redemptions” have indeed been the victims of abduction or kidnapping, is there not the danger, as pointed out by several human rights groups, that if, for whatever reason, nave Westerners introduce vast amounts of cash into the process, this may well fuel further abductions for precisely that new Western market? It is sadly all too possible that hundreds if not thousands, of Sudanese civilians may have been abducted specifically to cater for those Western organizations who, for political and religious reasons, have been willing to pay large amounts of money in order to project anti-Sudanese propaganda.

Thirdly, it is now clear that many “slave redemptions” are staged. Independent sources have stated that while some of those outside groups involved in these “redemptions” may have been innocently misled, other outside groups may be purposefully using “slave redemptions” in order to raise money for the SPLA.

These “slave redemptions” therefore fuel the Sudanese conflict in at least two ways. They echo inaccurate and stereotyped propaganda images of Sudan and the Sudanese conflict which serve only to misinform the international community, which in turn can distort positions taken by countries such as the United States. And, if what credible outside commentators have said is true, the money raised through fraudulent “slave redemptions” is actually used to procure weapons for the SPLA which are then used to prolong the war.

And, just as in Northern Ireland where much of the resistance to a peace settlement has come from those paramilitaries involved in organized crime as part of that conflict, those SPLA war lords involved in widespread “slave redemption” fraud worth several hundred thousand dollars have little reason to embrace any peace process.

Perhaps the final word on the “redemption” of abductees should be given to those closest to the issue. Referring to the CSI/SPLA -arranged purchase of “slaves” by the ‘Baltimore Sun’ in 1996, a source close to the Dinka retrieval committee – the Dinka community’s own grouping which exists in the affected areas to secure the return of abductees – was quoted by Anti-Slavery International as saying that they were concerned that:

“Such outside intervention with big sums of money may make matters worse and can encourage others to capture and “facilitate” the retrieval of more children for economic motives.” (22)

Writing in 1998, de Waal echoed what would come to be very justified concerns about the process of “buying back” slaves when he stated that:

“It is easy to envisage how this could be manipulated by traders and local officials, and could even create incentives for kidnapping children for ransom.” (23)

Peter Verney, the author of the 1997 Anti-Slavery report on Sudan has stated:

“It is not clear what impact hundreds of dollars are having. Maybe it’s even maintaining the set-up. Market forces mean that you can probably buy a child if you want one.” (24)

There is every reason to believe that everything warned about by de Waal, Anti-Slavery International and the Dinka retrieval committees, and worse, has come to pass. It is clear that exactly the very situation warned of above has come about, fuelled by partisan and nave groups such as Christian Solidarity International and activists such as Baroness Cox.

Notes:

1.  The SPLA is sometimes also referred to as the SPLM/A, a reference to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. 

2.  See, for example, ‘Five Thousand Sudanese Slaves “Freed”‘, News Article by BBC World Africa Online on 22 December 1999 at 18:24 GMT and ‘Swiss NGO Buys Freedom for 4,000 Sudanese Slaves’, News Article by Agence France Presse on 1 February 2000. 

3.  See, ‘UN condemns aid group for buying slaves’, ‘The Times’ July 9, 1999, ‘UNICEF slams buying freedom for Sudan slaves’, News Article by Reuters on Feburary 5, 1999 at 12:42:37. 

4.  Alex de Waal, ‘Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War’, ‘Covert Action Quarterly’, Spring 1997. 

5.  Alex de Waal, ‘Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War’, ‘Covert Action Quarterly’, Spring 1997. 

6.  Peter Verney, ‘Slavery in Sudan’, Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery International, London, May 1997. 

7.  The reference number of this submission to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is TS/S/4/97, and is available to view on the Anti-Slavery International web-site at http://www.charitynet.org/asi/submit5.htm

8.  Andrew Boyd, ‘Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless’, Lion Publishing, Oxford, 1998, p.324. 

9.  ‘The Times’, 30 January 2001, p.27 

10.  John Harker, ‘Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission’, Prepared for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ottawa, January 2000, available at http://www.dfait-maeci.gc-foreignp- 3110186-e.pdf, p. 1. 

11.  Ibid., pp.39-40. 

12.  The article was published in two parts in ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ and is also available online in two parts. Part one is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jul/9907sudanslaves.htm and part two at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jul/9907sudanslaves2.htm. Miniter’s work has previously appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Reader’s Digest. 

13.  William Finnegan, ‘The Invisible War’, The New Yorker, 25 January 1999. 

14.  Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997. 

15.  ‘Misguided Relief to Sudan’, Editorial, New York Times, 6 December, 1999. 

16.  Ibid. 

17.  Rescue of slaves backfiring’, ‘The Denver Post’ August 22, 1999. 

18.  ‘Aid group tries to break Sudan slavery chain’, News Article by Reuters on July 11, 1999 at 23:40:58. 

19.  ‘Aid group tries to break Sudan slavery chain’, News Article by Reuters on July 11, 1999 at 23:40:58. 

20.  “Slave ‘Redemption’ won’t save Sudan”, ‘Christian Science Monitor’, 26 May 1999. 

21.  This contradiction is examined in more detail in ‘ “Slavery” in Sudan. When is a “Slave” not a “Slave”: An Examination of the 1999 Wunlit Accords’ The British-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, December 1999, available at http://www.espac.org 

22.  Peter Verney, ‘Slavery in Sudan’, Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery International, London, May 1997, p.20. 

23.  Alex de Waal, ‘Exploiting Slavery: Human Rights and Political Agendas in Sudan’, ‘New Left Review’, No 227, 1998, p.145 

24.  ‘Indecent interest in genocide’, ‘The Observer’, (London), 26 July 1998.

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

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