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 criticised by human rights organisations 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
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."
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
"[T]he charge that government troops engage in raids for the
purpose of eizing 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 organisation. 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 judgement 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 organisation 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 recognise
"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 unkinder when in
reviewing her activities in Sudan it stated that "Cox means
well but looks ever so slightly unhinged". (9)
It is not just Baroness Cox's judgement that has been called
into question. The veteran southern Sudanese politician Bona
Malwal directly challenged claims made by Baroness Cox to
have "redeemed slaves". In a letter to her Malwal stated that:
"On at least three different occasions, you have come into
Twic County without the permission of the local leadership,
using Messrs Stephen Wondu and Martin Okeruk [SPLA officials]
as your license to do so. You then say each time that your
mission was to redeem slaves and that indeed you have done
so, when in each instance this had not been the case. The
latest episode was in October  when you landed at Mayen
Abun without even the courtesy of informing the local area
I know that you have put out for propaganda, and maybe for
fundraising purposes as well, that you redeemed slaves at
Mayen Abun in October when nothing of the sort happened. I
sincerely hope that this type of game stops...I sincerely
hope that you do see the harm that could be caused and that
you will refrain from this activity in the future. " (10)
Malwal's standing within the southern Sudanese community is
unassailable. Malwal is the publisher of the 'Sudan Democratic
Gazette'. He is a former Minister of Information and Culture
and was the editor of the 'Sudan Times', the largest English-language
newspaper in Sudan before 1989. He went into exile when the
present government in Sudan came to power a decade ago, and
teaches international affairs at Oxford University. Baroness
Cox has herself previously described him as "one of the well-respected
elders of the Dinka tribe". (11) The implications of Bona
Malwal's letter to Baroness Cox are clear and it is for the
reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
"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." (12)
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"
"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
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." (13)
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. (14) 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:
"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
"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."
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
"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."
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". (16) 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."
(17) It has also described the SPLA leader John Garang as
one of Sudan's "pre-eminent war criminals". (18) 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
"I just felt everything was not as it appeared to be. You
don't know if after several days these groups of people get
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..."
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." (20)
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." (21)
In May 1999, the 'Christian Science Monitor' also clearly
"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." (22)
The German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel has also reported
that Dutch, South African and German journalists being taken
to a CSI-arranged "slave redemption" in southern Sudan noticed
that all the villages in the vicinity of the "redemption"
were totally deserted. CSI and SPLA attempts to explain this
away were said to have been less than convincing. (23)
It should also perhaps be noted that Jacobson subsequently
revealed that following his exposure of the "slavery redemption"
scandal, the SPLA banned him from travelling to certain parts
of southern Sudan. (24) 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 kilometres to the south, have
not been described as "slavery? (25) 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, naïve
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 organisations who,
for political and religious reasons, have been willing to
pay large amounts of money in order to project anti-Sudanese
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
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 organised 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." (26)
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." (27)
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." (28) 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 naïve
such as Christian Solidarity International and activists such
as Baroness Cox.
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
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 Letter from Bona Malwal to Baroness Cox, 23 January 2000
posted on South Sudan Net (http://southsudanet.net/baroness_caroline_cox_1_arnellan.htm).
11 'A Response to the Sudan Foundation' s "Questions" and
Criticisms of CSI's Work in Sudan', CSI Magazine, Issue 90,
December 1997 available at http://home.clara.co.uk/csiuk/90page4.html.
12 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,
13 Ibid., pp.39-40.
14 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.
15 William Finnegan, 'The Invisible War', The New Yorker,
25 January 1999.
16 Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan:
An Insider's View, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997.
17 'Misguided Relief to Sudan', Editorial, New York Times,
6 December, 1999.
19 Rescue of slaves backfiring', 'The Denver Post' August
20 'Aid group tries to break Sudan slavery chain', News Article
by Reuters on July 11, 1999 at 23:40:58.
21 'Aid group tries to break Sudan slavery chain', News Article
by Reuters on July 11, 1999 at 23:40:58.
22 "Slave 'Redemption' won't save Sudan", 'Christian Science
Monitor', 26 May 1999.
23 'Sklavenhandel am Gazellenfluss ', Der Spiegel, Number
30, 24 July 2000.
24 Jim Jacobson, 'A Bad Ultimatum', 'Frontline News ', Christian
Freedom International website at http://www.christianfreedom.org
25 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
26 Peter Verney, 'Slavery in Sudan', Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery
International, London, May 1997, p.20.
27 Alex de Waal, 'Exploiting Slavery: Human Rights and Political
Agendas in Sudan', 'New Left Review', No 227, 1998, p.145
28 'Indecent interest in genocide', 'The Observer', (London),
26 July 1998.