The McNair Report on Slavery and Slavery-like Practices in Sudan

Originally published
Edited with an Introduction by Sean Gabb
An occasional paper published by
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1997: The Sudan Foundation, Sean Gabb

All opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Sudan Foundation.


The Sudan Foundation is very pleased to have received permission from Lord McNair to publish his Report on Allegations of Slavery and Slavery-like Practices in Sudan. This work comes at a time when many of the allegations of slavery levelled at the Government of Sudan are being systematically re-examined and found wanting.

Lord McNair is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. It is clear that he has followed Sudanese Affairs for some time, and has visited the countyr on several occasions. It is also clear that he has taken a courageous stace in challenging what had hitherto passed as accepted wisdom on Sudan - allegations, for example, of Sudanese Government involvement in slave raiding and support for international terrorism. Indeed, he states in his report that "it is... clear that there has been something of an international campaign to isolate Sudan by means of these allegations".

The McNair Report on Allegations of Slavery and Slavery-like Practices in Sudan is a combination of both physical invetigation in remote parts of north and south Kordofan, as well as an overview of some of the literature outlining allegations of slavery in Sudan. Lord McNair states that he found no evidence for allegations of Government-directed slavery and slavery-like practices in those areas he visited. His conclusions echo those of professional human rights activists such as Alex de Waal, the Co-Director of African Rights, and Peter Verney or Anti-Slavery International, in finding that the Sudanese Government was no involved in slave raiding of the slave trade. He further agrees with these human rights organisations that the instances of slavery, and claims to have "bought" slaves, made by groups such as Christian Solidarity International, and newspapers cush as the American Baltimore Sun, were unfounded, sensationalist and irresponsible.

Lord McNair's report also touches on the plight of thousands of young Nuba and southern boy children who have been abducted by the rebel forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army group led by John Garang. The tragedy of these children, who through use as forced labour or forced conscripts arguably does constitute a slavery-like practice by the SPLA, was brought home to Lord McNair in meetings with tribal leaders and communities in the Nuba Mountains.

Sean Gabb
The Sudan Foundation
December 1997

See also Lord McNair's speech in the House of Lords, December 1997, on Sudan.

The McNair Report
on Slavery and Slavery-like Practices
in Sudan,
November 1997

I have recently returned from a working visit to Sudan, from 4 - 11 October. This visit was the culmination of an examination of slavery allegations made against the government of Sudan, and took me to the states of South and North Kordofan.

My first trip to Sudan was in September 1994. Before this first visit to Sudan, I had read several negative press reports of abuses on the part of the government against political opponents and against Christians in the south of the country. My overall impression was that there was something contrived about some of these reports which suggested to me the possibility of a deliberate campaign from some quarters to discredit the government. I spent one week in Sudan in September 1994 and visited Khartoum, Juba and Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan. My feeling that the Sudanese government was being unfairly portrayed was confirmed to a degree. In February 1996 I received an invitation to observe the parliamentary and presidential elections due to take place in March. I discovered that the entire electoral process was being shunned by all the countries of the "North".

Between these two visits a new issue had emerged. Serious allegations of government involvement in slavery and slavery-related practices had been made by groups such as Christian Solidarity International, and its president, Baroness Cox, a deputy speaker of the British House of Lords. Understandably, the allegations attracted the attention of the media, of other members of parliament, and of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Any allegations that slavery is being inspired or endorsed to any degree by any government is a very grave matter indeed. My initial scepticism about the accuracy of these allegations increased in the face of the earnest good intentions I had noticed in the government officials I had met in 1994. I was, however, new to Africa and the Sudan and I decided to withhold judgment on this issue until I had a better understanding of the situation. I followed the allegations as they appeared until my most recent visit in October 1997.

My October 1997 Visit

On the occasion of this visit I accepted the invitation of the Human Rights Committee of the Sudanese Parliament to investigate the allegations of slavery. As an integral part of this investigation I visited the states of Northern and Southern Kordofan, the site of many of the allegations. I was accompanied by the vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee, the Reverend Adi Ambrose, and the Member of Parliament for Kadugli East, Emir Hamid Harim, who is a traditional leader from the Nuba mountains.

We travelled first to El Obeid in North Kordofan and then to Dellinge and Kadugli in South Kordofan. We had a number of different meetings in locations in both states. Two themes emerged. Firstly we could find no evidence of slavery. Secondly, the main concerns 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. They appealed to us for help in having the children returned, and various ideas for achieving this were discussed.

Indeed, it would appear to me that the abduction by the SPLA of upwards of ten thousand mainly southern Sudanese children over the past decade or more is a far more tangible manifestation of slavery or slavery-like practices than anything alleged by Christian Solidarity International. As early as 1991, the American state department had reported the forcible conscription of "at least 10 000 male minors"[1]. The plight of these children has been well documented by Human Rights Watch/Africa, the Children's Rights Project and others. 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. There is no doubt that the abduction of these boys was a deliberate act of SPLA policy. It is a matter of record that these boys have been isolated in camps far away from the public gaze. They are held in preparation for forced labour or forced military service. From my understanding of what Human Rights Watch/Africa calls slavery, these children would appear to be living in conditions qualifying as slavery. It is puzzling to find Christian Solidarity International supporting the SPLA for whom such practices are deliberate policy.

I hope that Christian Solidarity International will use its close association with the SPLA to persuade John Garang to release those children whom he is holding. It is well documented that the ICRC has for a number of years sought the release of these children. This has not been possible because of the intransigence of John Garang and the SPLA.

I have, as I mentioned, followed the issue of slavery allegations for some time. This visit, together with my other research, has led me to the conclusion that there is no slavery, certainly within North and South Kordofan which have been the focus of many of the allegations. Having reviewed the literature over the past three years, and having visited the areas in question on two occasions, I note that these allegations may have arisen out of inter-tribal conflict over water and pastures, a regrettable but nonetheless ever present source of difficulty between settled and nomadic peoples in those parts of Sudan.

A review of allegations of slavery in Sudan

Allegations of slavery and slavery-related practices began to emerge from Sudan in the mid-to-late 1980s. The backdrop to these allegations was the Sudanese civil war. This conflict has essentially been fought intermittently between the central government and sections of southern Sudan's political opposition since before Sudanese independence in 1956. The 1972 Addis Ababa agreement between the government of Sudan and the then southern rebel leadership resulted in an end to conflict, and this lasted until 1983. In that year, the present Sudanese civil war started between the government in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, which came to be led by Colonel John Garang. It is clear that the civil war has been a viciously fought conflict, and has caused enormous suffering to the civilian populations in the areas affected by the war.

Allegations of slavery specifically emerged in the wake of a policy decision by each of the belligerents. In the mid-1980s the SPLA deliberately chose to bring the civil war to the hitherto uninvolved states of Darfur, Kordofan and into the Nuba mountains. SPLA units attacked an Arab village in southern Kordofan, killing sixty tribesmen and wounding over eighty others. Following this the government of the day armed large numbers of Baggara tribesmen and used them as tribal militias. The SPLA also similarly armed tribal militias sympathetic to them.

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. The Sadiq al-Mahdi government came to power in 1986 and vigorously continued with the policy of arming tribal militias with all the consequences that brought with it. The tribal militias were encouraged to take the war to Dinka communities suspected of supporting the SPLA. There is also no doubt that these militias were undisciplined and out of control. This indiscipline led in part to the infamous El Diein massacre in March 1987 when one thousand Dinka men, women and children were killed in actions which the Sadiq al-Mahdi government attempted to cover up.

In the past, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the official United States government publication on human rights world-wide, has stated that any slavery-like practices that did exist were the result of the civil war in western Sudan, that they were concentrated in areas in which government administration was weak or non-existent, and that the arming of militias was a factor. In 1990, for example, the entry on Sudan stated that:

"Slavery reportedly exists in those remote areas where government control is weak and where displaced persons fleeing the war zones come into contact with armed groups...The revival of slavery is often blamed on economic pressure and the civil war, especially the practice of arming tribal militias"[2].

The present government of Sudan has had to deal with the legacy of this policy of the Sadiq al-Mahdi government. It is clear that most of the questionable practices and unacceptable patterns of behaviour occurred under the Sadiq al-Mahdi government

Responses of the Government of Sudan to allegations of slavery

I am satisfied that the present Government of Sudan is deeply concerned about allegations of slavery within its borders. I have reached this conclusion after a number of discussions with senior Sudanese government ministers and with the governors of several of the states concerned as well as open-air discussions with tribal elders in the Nuba mountains.

I note that Sudan is a signatory to several of the conventions on the abolition of slavery, slavery-like practices and institutions, and the slave trade. These include the 1926 Slavery Convention, as amended by the 1953 New York protocol, and the Supplementary Convention, ratified in 1956 and 1957. I further note that Sudanese law is clear in unambiguously criminalising any of the practices, such as kidnapping, abduction, unlawful detention, forced labour and unlawful confinement, that could be construed as slavery, crimes punishable by imprisonment. It is also noteworthy that in its 1992 official government publication, the Sudan Yearbook, the government stated that:

"The issue of the slave trade has been, and will continue to be for ever, the most atrocious practice ever known in history".

It is also clear, and a matter of record, that the Government of Sudan has from its earliest days in power been responsive to instances of abduction and kidnapping brought to its attention. Indeed, Anti-Slavery International clearly documents 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 inter-tribal fighting. These concerns had been brought to the attention of the government by a Dinka "retrieval committee".

The Governor of Darfur brought representatives of the Dinka community to his state guest house, and provided them with accommodation, while he organised an inter-tribal conference for the return of the children. This conference was held in mid-December 1989, and resulted in the return of 103 children. Anti-Slavery International records that the work of the Dinka retrieval committee has continued to this day:

"when it collects information about the slaves, it presents it to the government of south Darfur. If the evidence is accepted, its representatives are given a police escort to confront the captors, and the children are then taken back without any money changing hands".

The Dinka retrieval committee has also been active in the neighbouring southern state of Bahr al- Ghazal, where "the committee was able to bring cases of abducted children to the attention of the Bahr al-Ghazal authorities". The committee has continued to recover abducted children from both Darfur and Bahr al-Ghazal states.

Anti-Slavery International also records that the Dinka community have brought cases of abduction to trial in al-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan state. In mid-1994, for example, two Dinka leaders went to court in connection with a number of children abducted in 1987, during the administration of Sadiq al-Mahdi. The court ordered the release of the children in question[3].

It is also of note that in its 1994 publication, Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan, Human Rights Watch/Africa cites a United States State Department cable reporting that government authorities in Wau and Aweil had freed kidnapped women and children held by tribal militias[4].

I also note that in Human Rights Watch/Africa's 1996 study, Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan, for example, numerous further instances of direct Sudanese government intervention to secure the release of various numbers of illegally held people are recorded. Human Rights Watch/Africa stated, for example, that in 1995 government authorities in Aweil freed 500 captured women and children who had been taken prisoner during fighting between tribal militias.

In Nyala, two young Dinka women were freed after their relatives brought the case before a court. Government authorities in El Diein also ordered the release of "dozens of Dinka children brought to El Diein and surrounding villages by raiders who had captured them from the area around Aweil in Bahr El Ghazal in early 1996". The government then handed the children over to the Dinka community in El Diein. Human Rights Watch/Africa also provided the example of an orphaned Dinka boy, kidnapped in 1986 under the Sadiq al-Mahdi government. The boy's uncle found him and sought the help of the Sudanese police: "The police issued a warrant for the release of the boy to the uncle"[5]. Thus, on both a macro and micro level, the evidence clearly exists, as presented by reputable human rights organisations, that the present Sudanese government has, in its many components, intervened to free victims of inter-tribal raiding and violence - many of them illegally held since the days of the Sadiq al-Mahdi government.

The Sudanese government has made a further point which is that, in definitions of slavery, there must be an intention to permanently deprive people of their liberties. The government has argued that in inter-tribal clashes captives are taken and that they are usually returned following a resolution of the particular problems, be they water or pastures, that led to the conflict. It has also been documented that traditional inter-tribal conferences have attempted to settle what has been a regrettable feature of inter- tribal life in western and west-central Sudan. Human Rights Watch/Africa's 1996 report, Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan, describes what can only be seen as an inter-tribal conference for the settling of issues and exchange of prisoners:

"In late 1995, meetings reportedly were held between representatives of the Dinka and the Rizeigat (Arabized western tribes, originally nomads in Darfur), a subgroup of the Baggara. In exchange for access to the fresh pasture land and water controlled by the SPLA, the Rizeigat agreed to release Dinka "prisoners" captured during their raids. They reportedly brought with them to a meeting a list of 674 children already identified and whose release has been promised. They were given Ls. 250,000 (US $473) for the immediate transport and clothing of twenty children said to have been gathered in Nyala in Southern Darfur"[6].

In the light of this and other evidence, I find that there is no foundation for the allegations of slavery levelled at the government of Sudan. I also note that several international human rights organisations and activists have also found little evidence for such allegations. Alex de Waal, co-director of African Rights, for example, has stated:

"there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade"[7].

Anti-Slavery International has also stated that

"the charge that government troops engage in raids for the purpose of seizing slaves in not backed by the evidence"[8].

It is also worth recording that the 1992 entry on Sudan in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices clearly states:

"Sudanese law prohibits forced or compulsory labor and there was no evidence of organised or officially sanctioned slavery"[9].

It is my conclusion that what was true in 1992 as far as the United States Department of State was concerned holds true for Sudan at the time of my writing this report.

Because of this conclusion, I have also attempted to trace the origin and inspiration for many of these allegations of slavery. I am sad to place on record that the single most prominent vehicle for these allegations has been Christian Solidarity International. I find that their allegations are unsubstantiated. I must also place on record my deep concern at their sensationalist claims, and those of others they have brought to Sudan, to have "bought slaves" . I am personally unconvinced that these people were "slaves" in any accepted sense of the word. Both African Rights and Anti-Slavery International have also been critical of such claims on this issue. Alex de Waal, for example, has stated:

"It is most probable that they were in fact paying a ransom to a go- between in a scheme whereby families pay, through a middleman, for their hostage children to be redeemed. They were not in a slave market".

I feel the interventions by CSI and its President, Baroness Cox, on this issue have been inflammatory and irresponsible. They have deliberately sought publicity and, in so doing, have endangered what is at best a delicate process.

The Baltimore Sun expedition

Perhaps the incident which received the most attention in respect of allegations of slavery was the claim by the Baltimore Sun newspaper to have "bought" two slaves in Sudan. It is this incident that both African Rights and Anti-Slavery International have referred to in the above paragraph on the ransoming of hostages. The Baltimore Sun sent two journalists to investigate claims by Christian Solidarity International that slaves were available for purchase. Indeed, the trip was arranged by Christian Solidarity International. The newspaper claimed that this proved slavery in Sudan.

It is clear to me, however, that the journalists from the Baltimore Sun were in no way "buying slaves". What they were taking part in was a corrupted example of the way some Sudanese families are forced to redeem children or other relatives who have been abducted in the course of the inter-tribal raiding and conflict that has spiralled in Sudan because of the continuing civil war. The man they paid money to for the two children was not a slave trader, and the venue was not a slave market. The views of African Rights and Anti-Slavery International are cited above.

This type of journalism concerns me for several reasons. First of all it is media sensationalism at its very worst. The claim that such coverage proves slavery is obviously false, it proves no such thing. What it does do, however, is fuel the propaganda and mythology that has blighted Sudan over the past few years. Secondly, such Western intervention clearly inflates the price that is being paid in such hostage-exchange situations, pricing ordinary Sudanese families out of the market. This is a clear concern to those hostage-retrieval committees that exist in local communities in Sudan. Anti-Slavery International, for example, quotes from "a source close to the Dinka retrieval committee":

"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"[10].

Thirdly, and perhaps more worrying is that such sensationalist efforts could in themselves fuel the process whereby children and others are abducted to provide "slaves for sale" to nave Western journalists or publicity hunters.

Fourthly, this sort of coverage concerns me because it fuels already distorted international images of Sudan, sometimes even within Sudan itself. The absurdity of this situation was manifested in the course of my fact-finding visit to North Kordofan. Our delegation visited the impressive Roman Catholic church in El-Obeid. We met and talked with Father Tombe, a widely-respected Sudanese Catholic priest. Father Tombe had previously spent several years in Kadugli building up a flourishing congregation and had also served as a priest in Darfur state. We asked him whether he had any evidence for the allegations of slavery. He said no, he had heard reports, and had read or heard about them in the media, presumably the international media.

We were thus confronted with the absurd situation that a veteran Roman Catholic priest with several years of service in the Nuba mountains, other parts of Kordofan, and Darfur, had seen no evidence whatsoever that substantiated allegations of slavery. He did say that he had heard about the allegations in the international media. If the allegations had been true, his congregation, as Christians, would presumably have been the target of any such slaving activities.


In conclusion, I found that after several years of interest in this issue, which has included visits to Kordofan, the allegations of slavery made against the government of Sudan are unfounded. It is additionally clear that there has been something of an international campaign to isolate Sudan by means of these allegations. I echo the concerns of several international human rights organisations which have condemned the inflammatory nature of these allegations and I question the motivation behind them. It is my sincere hope that the British government will look at the reality of the situation in Sudan as distinct from the view put forward by Christian Solidarity International and I hope also that CSI will distance itself from those with a political axe to grind who have compromised its good intentions.


1. Country Reports on Human Rights Practises, 1991, US Department of State, Washington DC, 1992, p.382.

2. Country Reports on Human Rights Practises, 1990, US Department of State, Washington DC, 1991, p.397.

3. Peter Verney, Slavery in Sudan, Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery International, London, 1997, pp.16-17.

4. US Embassy, Khartoum, Sudan, cable released 12th May 1994 in Washington DC.

5. Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan, Human Rights Watch/Africa, Washington DC, 1996.

6. Ibid., p. 309.

7. Alex de Waal, "Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War", Covert Action Quarterly, Washington DC, Spring, 1997, p.63.

8. Verney, op. cit., p.20.

9. Country Reports on Human Rights Practises, 1992, US Department of State, Washington DC, 1993, p.262.

10. Verney, op. cit., p.20

All data The Sudan Foundation, London, 1997. Please note that the documents and links given access to above do not necessarily contain material with which the Sudan Foundation agrees.

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