Sudan: A one-sided view of civil war

Africa's new slaves? Slavery in Sudan is often confused with the banditry of local militia groups and abductions

Recent coverage of slavery in Sudan has been rather one-sided, contends KHADIJA MAGARDIE

The lead article in the Mail & Guardian (January 28 to February 3) on "Africa's new slaves" demonstrated a one-sided view of the civil war in Sudan.

The three crucial flaws in the article were Cameron Duodu's failure to probe the role of Christian Solidarity International (CSI) in the alleged "slave trade" and in the war itself; whether it can be classified as "slavery"; and the simplistic analysis of the conflict as being solely of "both of racial nature and a religious one".

The article implies the Sudanese government turns a blind eye to the practice and even encourages it, but fails to provide any supporting evidence.

During the past 13 years, the population of Khartoum has increased by several million. Most of the new inhabitants are refugees from the war in the south -- the very black people Duodu says the government is trying to either convert to Islam or exterminate. They could have gone anywhere -- most logically, fled further south, into neighbouring countries. Instead they go to Khartoum. If they are at so much risk of being enslaved, why Khartoum? It is rather like Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe seeking refuge in Berlin.

There is no evidence to support the claim that slave-raiders have the blessing of Khartoum. To the contrary, Sudan's government has signalled its intention to eradicate practices such as "abduction, forced labour and kidnapping", all of which are in any case unlawful in terms of the country's statute books.

Slavery in Sudan is often confused with the banditry of local militia groups, where abductions and killings form a means of reprisal against rival militias for the purposes of ransom and forced labour. While kidnapping is as heinous a crime as slavery, there is a significant difference between a hostage and a slave.

It appears the CSI only associates itself with individuals and organisations antagonistic towards Khartoum. Topping the list would be the curious coalition of Sadiq al-Mahdi, Umma Party president and former prime minister of Sudan, and Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) head John Garang. It is the close relationship between the CSI and the latter that raises questions about the Swiss organisation's impartiality.

Most of the CSI travel in Sudan is within areas controlled by the SPLA, but because no CSI members speak either Arabic or Dinka, SPLA cadres serve as "guides" and "interpreters". Beyond a passing mention, Duodu does not question why, last year, Garang was presented as a CSI "guest member" at the Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva.

Duodu never broaches why the SPLA, which portrays itself as a defender of human rights, allows "slave markets" to operate on its territory.

He reduces the pressing question of whether the CSI's actions could be feeding the trade in human lives to a mere two paragraphs. He is satisfied with the combination of explanations and denials from Zurich that "human lives cannot be valued by money". He leaves it at that.

Duodu fails to investigate the role of the "retrievers" in a transaction where the source of the redeemed slaves is not the slave-owners themselves, but a "go-between". Neither does he ask why the "slaves" are not sold directly to their families, but to the wealthier bidder -- the CSI.

The CSI pays a ransom to people who claim to have kidnapped children and slaves from their original captors. It has never asked whether the retrievers have not in fact kidnapped the civilians themselves, in the hope of a handsome reward. Duodu's article trivialises the causes of Sudan's conflict, attributing everything to racial and religious differences, neither of which have been significant factors in rural politics in the south. Islam and Christianity have never entered the realm of local politics, simply because they are not issues of concern to the predominantly rural populations.

Furthermore, the "Arab versus blacks" framework is questionable, since anyone who has visited Sudan and knows Sudanese history will know that the Baggara tribal militias, to whom slave-raiding is attributed, are physically identical to the Black southerners.

The roots of the conflict are more complex. Competition for resources, coupled with tribal rivalries between the factions, whether animist or Christian, has frustrated the designs of both the internal and external stakeholders to carve an independent state in southern Sudan. It is, therefore, inappropriate to reduce the war to a conflict "of both a racial nature and a religious one".

Competition for Sudan's rich economic resources, particularly oil and agricultural land, has fuelled the fighting, which, coupled with famine and disease, has claimed over 1,8-million lives in the south since 1983. At a conference last year between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, a major point of agreement was regarding the sharing of border grazing lands and fishing grounds.

Duodu's article chose to represent what have, by and large, been conflicts over pasturage and watering rights as a jihad, or Muslim "holy war". He appears to have ignored inter-tribal raiding and abductions between the black southern tribes themselves in an effort to build his thesis.

The war has largely been attributed to the splintered nature of the southern factions, almost all of which are fighting among themselves. For instance, in al-Wihda state, where the oil fields are situated, there is fierce fighting between two rebel groups -- the south Sudan defence forces of Riek Machar, and the United Democratic Movement of Major General Paulino Mateb.

Furthermore, in listing the "causes" of the conflict, the article fails to mention the most important issue behind the war -- secession. The colonial legacy of divide and rule, the favouring of northerners in terms of employment and education, and the consequent isolation of southern Sudan, led to its underdevelopment in terms of infrastructure and administration. The activities of Christian missionaries amongst the animist tribes of the south further intensified the "us/them" divide that has prompted calls for secession. All of which has fuelled a conflict which is about far more than race and religion.