|Published October 2001
AND DIVISION IN SUDAN?
THE DUTCH GOVERNMENT'S FUNDING OF THE
'VOICE OF HOPE' RADIO STATION
On 14 December 2000 the Dutch government
officially launched the 'Voice of Hope' radio station, a station
broadcasting into Sudan and aimed at a southern Sudanese audience.
This station is funded by the Dutch Ministry for Development
Cooperation, the Catholic grouping Pax Christi, the Dutch
national radio world service and the Dutch Christian broadcasting
company NCRV. Effective day-to day-control of the radio was
vested in the New Sudan Council of Churches. 'Voice of Hope'
began broadcasting later that month.
It is instructive to note that the Dutch Minister for Development
Cooperation, Eveline Herfkens, in announcing the launch, stated:
"The Netherlands is actively committed to the difficult
search for peace in Sudan.With a few interruptions, Sudan
has been suffering from the violence of war since August
1955. A struggle between successive governments in Khartoum
and rebels in the South. And not only between north and
south. Also within the north itself. And within the south.
Many cultures, many languages, many religions. An incredibly
She stated that the Dutch government strategy was "to
help where possible to increase the population's self-sufficiency.
And hence the input to a process of peace and reconciliation":
"Helping to pay for Voice of Hope fits in excellently
with this approach. Southern Sudan is very isolated.So radio
is an extremely important medium. It can contribute to the
creation of a 'civil society'. Particularly at very lowest
level. Hence the 'mission statement' says that the project
wants to give a voice to the voiceless. To enable them to
play an active part in the peace process, or to help get
it off the ground.Radio allows the people to hear their
own views.The radio project is not an isolated project,
but part of a wider project entitled 'Strengthening civil
society inside southern Sudan'".
She did acknowledge "we must tread carefully with activities
designed to foster peace. The Netherlands attaches great importance
to a neutral role in Sudan, so that it can engage in an open
dialogue with all the parties.If any party in the conflict
has the impression that an initiative supports one party or
agenda more than others it is doomed to failure. That risk
is also inherent to Voice of Hope. The station focuses exclusively
on the South. And it is run by organisations that not all
Sudanese parties regard as neutral." The minister specifically
warned: "No propaganda. That is the clear agreement".
It is clear, however, after almost one year of broadcasting
that 'Voice of Hope' has been a disappointment and embarrassment
to the Dutch government, having been party to, amongst other
things, blatant anti-government propaganda. This project was
indeed deeply questionable for at least two reasons from the
The New Sudan Council of Churches and the SPLA
In the first instance, the Dutch government's choice of partners
in the venture was ill-advised. The New Sudan Council of Churches
(NSCC), exists within areas of southern Sudan controlled by
the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The NSCC
was formed in February 1990 from Catholic and Episcopal churches
in southern Sudan. Despite the Dutch government's willingness
to leave the Voice of Hope in the hands of the NSCC, the extent
of its independence from the Sudan People's Liberation Army
(SPLA) in southern Sudan has been questionable from its very
inception. Even its use of the expression "New Sudan"
directly echoes words and themes central to SPLA terminology.
As the respected human rights organisation, African Rights,
has pointed out: "The NSCC could not have been created
without the support of John Garang". African Rights further
quoted "a leading churchman" as stating that: "The
Movement was behind the formation of the NSCC." Garang
himself, in addressing a NSCC General Assembly publicly stated
that he saw the NSCC as the "spiritual wing of the Movement".
It is an organisation religiously tied to a distinct minority
within southern Sudan. The NSCC is at best a group willingly
identified with the SPLA and at best a body cowed into submission
by SPLA intimidation - with the end result that it is seen
as a vehicle for SPLA positions such as they are.
It should be noted that the SPLA has been described by The
New York Times, no friend of the Sudanese government,
as "brutal and predatory" and "an occupying
army, killing, raping and pillaging". SPLA leader John
Garang has been described by the same newspaper as a "pre-eminent
war criminal". In December 1999, Human Rights Watch stated
that: "The SPLA has a history of gross abuses of human
rights and has not made any effort to establish accountability.
Its abuses today remain serious." Established and respected
humanitarian organisations such as CARE, Save the Children,
World Vision, Church World Service and the American Refugee
Committee have jointly stated that the SPLA is guilty of "the
most serious human rights abuses". Agence France Press
also reported that: ""Much of the relief food going
to more than a million famine victims in rebel-held areas
of southern Sudan is ending up in the hands of the Sudan People's
Liberation Army (SPLA)"
While the New Sudan Council of Churches is publicly committed
to speaking on behalf of southern Sudanese people, particularly
in respect of political, civil and human rights, the NSCC
has been deafeningly silent on all these and many other gross
violations of human rights by the SPLA throughout southern
Sudan. Leaving aside its politicised origins, it is only fair
to note as African Rights has also stated, that the NSCC exists
"in a society which is dominated by armed.movements",
and that its leaders are "personally vulnerable".
It is a matter of record, for example, that the chairman of
the New Sudan Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Bishop
of Torit, Bishop Paride Taban, has, in the words of African
Rights, been subjected to "vicious treatment". He
has been imprisoned and publicly humiliated by the SPLA. African
Rights also reported that nuns under his care had been raped
by SPLA forces. Church property has been looted or destroyed.
Given this level of intimidation, it is perhaps unsurprising
that any NSCC criticism of human rights abuses has been mostly
directed at the government. This has been reflected in 'Voice
of Hope' output. The inability or disinclination of the New
Sudan Council of Churches to speak out on the appalling human
rights violations amongst their very own parishioners can
only but detract from their objectivity and reliability as
commentators and witnesses on Sudanese affairs, and their
ability to run a neutral radio station.
The New Sudan Council of Churches, forced or otherwise, has
certainly followed a pro-SPLA line. African Rights quotes
the leader of another rival southern Sudanese political grouping
as saying that: "As a structure, NSCC is behind Garang.
He was the one who started it, and they are still close to
him. Their resources are almost all channelled to his areas."
This is a clear example of the political fragmentation of
politics within southern Sudan, and the fact that in supporting
the NSCC and 'Voice of Hope' the Dutch government is merely
supporting one of several southern Sudanese political and
In addition to identifying with one particular political faction,
and one particular religious minority within southern Sudan,
the New Sudan Council of Churches is also essentially identified
with one ethnic group amongst many within southern Sudan.
The simple fact is that the SPLA is seen as essentially a
Dinka-based organisation. The Economist, for example,
has referred to the SPLA as "little more than an armed
gang of Dinkas". The SPLA's ethnic cleansing in parts
of southern Sudan has also been documented. John Prendergast,
a former American government specialist on Sudan cited one
observer as saying "The overwhelmingly 'Nilotic' character
of the early SPLA was.enough to alienate many Equatorians"
and personally states that the SPLA is seen in Equatoria as
"an army of occupation." The NSCC is therefore identified
with a particularly oppressive Dinka grouping within a Sudan
divided by deep ethnic rivalries.
Despite the fact that it is clearly compromised, the New Sudan
Council of Churches is presented to, and accepted by, many
outsiders as an independent body in southern Sudan. This state
of affairs is not a healthy one. Given its political affinity
with the SPLA, and a marked reluctance to criticise the SPLA
to any meaningful extent, for international observers to unreservedly
accept NSCC perspectives on human rights, political developments
and peace in Sudan can only but serve to further distort an
already muddied picture. At best the NSCC serves as an apologist
for the SPLA, and at worst a docile propagandist.
Even a cursory examination of the 'Voice of Hope' web-site
on a key issue such as human rights amply illustrates the
unacceptable slant of those running the radio station. On
human rights 'Voice of Hope' has reproduced what can only
but be described as anti-government propaganda. Virtually
all the postings within the radio's human rights section are
by Mr Eric Reeves, a crass anti-government campaigner based
in the United States. Not only is Reeves overtly anti-government
but he has been repeatedly criticised for deeply questionable
- in some cases overtly Islamophobic - sources, factual inaccuracies
and plain untruths. Not one instance of human rights abuse
by the SPLA is listed. This is quite some way away from the
Dutch government's claims that 'Voice of Hope' would "report
on human rights.Because even within southern Sudan there is
misunderstanding and division. Information presented well
can contribute to mutual understanding". African Rights'
study Great Expectations: The Civil Roles of the Churches
in Southern Sudan, placed on record the fatal limitations
on the New Sudan Council of Churches - limitations all too
evident in 'Voice of Hope''s content, especially regarding
"Church leaders in the New Sudan recall the anti-church
stand of the SPLA in its early days, and observe continuing
repression against dissenters. Even the most courageous
Church leaders have been selective in their criticisms,
choosing not to name certain commanders responsible for
Undermining Peace in Sudan?
The second reason for questioning the Dutch government's close
involvement in this project is a simple one of common sense.
While the Dutch government has publicly recognised that there
are several religions in Sudan and particularly southern Sudan,
The Netherlands appears to have decided to fund those associated
with only one of these religions. From a religious point of
view the Dutch government's funding and support for 'Voice
of Hope' merely serves to distort what is an already incredibly
complex situation. It empowers one particular religious and
political minority within a collection of minorities in southern
Sudan. Many Sudanese - north and south - are further disturbed
that other partners in 'Voice of Hope' are Pax Christi - an
anti-Sudanese campaigning group and NCRV - a Dutch Christian
Nationally, seventy percent of the Sudanese population is
Muslim, animist religions are followed by 25 percent and Christians
account for five percent of the population. The 1994-95 Economist
Intelligence Unit country profile of Sudan states that Christians
made up 15 percent of the southern population. This figure
is also cited in Human Rights Watch Africa's 1996 report on
Sudan. It is claimed as many southern Sudanese may be adherents
to Islam. By far the most southern Sudanese, some sixty percent
of the population, however, are neither Christian nor Muslim
- they are animists. The NSCC can therefore at most hope to
represent about 15 percent of southern Sudanese. Its political
association with the SPLA also ties it to one of several southern
Sudanese political factions.
Far from giving a "voice to the voiceless people inside
southern Sudan", 'Voice of Hope' merely articulates the
narrow, anti-government views of only one section of southern
Sudan's body politic and religious community. For all its
stated concerns about "neutrality", the Dutch government
is in danger of undermining its, undoubtedly sincere, attempts
to foster peace in Sudan. It is clear that the 'Voice of Hope'
project demonstrably "supports one party or agenda more
than others": the extent of its failure is becoming self-evident.