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On "Slavery" In The Sudan

The entire debate over what is happening in Sudan is filled with one of the deepest mixtures of half-truths, misinformation and religious bias to be found anywhere. This is particularly true in the United States where the discussion usually boils down to whether or not slavery exists in the Sudan. The simple answer to that question is yes. "Slavery" as defined by White conservatives and Christian fundamentalists in the West and increasingly by a growing number of Black civil rights activists does exist in the Sudan and it has for some time. The question is why are these interested parties only recently interested in "slavery" in the Sudan, and maybe more importantly, why are they ignoring the practices when they have and continue to take place among the non-Muslim opposition group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army led by John Garang?

There is no denying it. If one accepts the working definition of "slavery" as defined by Human Rights Watch/Africa then the Sudan people's Liberation Movement/Army is without question tied to the practice of slavery and has been since the early 1980s, well before the latest coalition of White conservatives, Christian fundamentalists and Black civil rights leaders who oppose "slavery" in the Sudan was formed and showed a united front against the issue.

But "slavery" then and "slavery" now was not the exclusive domain of any particular religious group or region.

The West itself provides the evidence that destroys the myth that "slavery" in the Sudan is a practice whereby Muslims in the north enslave Blacks in the south. According to the US State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" published in 1990, " the SPLA/M often forced southern men to work as laborers or porters or forcibly conscripted them into SPLA ranks. In disputed territories this practice was implemented through raids". In the State Department's 1991 report the SPLA/M is connected with having "forcibly conscripted at least 10,000 male minors". And in 1994 Human Rights Watch/Africa documented the SPLA's documented "forced unpaid farm labor on SPLA-organized farms".

To this date, according to the US State Department and human rights advocates, the SPLA has forcibly taken thousands of women and children from areas in Southern Sudan and held them as hostage, forced them to perform labor and/or join their military force.

The depiction of "slavery" in the Sudan as a purely Muslim undertaking is erroneous and part of a much larger agenda.

The fact of the matter is that many of individuals who believe that they are doing the Lord's work in opposing "slavery" in the Sudan, especially those who operate from the US, are woefully misinformed and being used as tools by individuals, organizations and governments which have a religious and geopolitical agenda for Africa and which is not in Africa's best interests. One of the means by which this agenda is being carried out is the effort to make Blacks in the Western Hemisphere, and otherwise sincere and progressive Whites in this country believe that Africans are more different than they really are. This is taking place in the Sudan with a high level of success. Any one who knows the Sudan or who is from there can explain that in many cases there is no recognizable physical differences in terms of skin color between the northern Muslim and Arab influenced tribes like the Baggara, and the southern Christian influence tribes like the Dinkas. In fact, many such tribes operate along the north south border and have been intermarrying and interacting for years. However, those who are driving the pressure against the Sudanese government never reveal, reflect or admit this reality.

The effort to portray what is happening in the Sudan in a convenient Muslim north and Christian south; light-skinned north and Black-skinned south dichotomy, is being led by Christian Solidarity International, an organization which operates out of England led for years by Baroness Cox. The organization has raised enormous amounts of money to heighten awareness on the issue of "slavery" in the Sudan and has skillfully and consistently depicted the conflict in the Sudan as one of Muslims attacking Christians. It is the talking points of Christian Solidarity International (CSI) that many White Conservatives, Christian fundamentalists and Black civil rights activists are reading from. It is also Christian Solidarity International that is financing the trips to Sudan for such groups and others who seek to purchase slaves in Sudan.

And it is also Christian Solidarity International that supports the SPLA who are known "slave" traders themselves. For years CSI has called for international support of the SPLA after it has been documented by the US State Department and human rights organizations that the group was abducting young boys and women in the South and forcing them to labor, among other things.

Why does Christian Solidarity International attack "slavery" practices in the Sudan when they are said to be performed by Muslim and Arab influenced groups and looks the other way when they are documented among a supposedly Christian-influenced group? Where are the White Conservatives, Christian fundamentalists and Black civil rights leaders when it comes to condemning "slavery' among the SPLA? If you are against "slavery" in the Sudan doesn't that include the slavery practiced by Black southerners on other Black southerners? Why does the new broad-based coalition which compromises the "Stop Slavery in the Sudan" movement, only have eyes for the human rights abuses of Muslims and Arabs?

And why, if the conflict is an "us" against "them"; "Arab" vs. "Black"; "Muslim" vs. "Christian" affair, have over 2 million Black southerners fled into the North, into Khartoum, for refuge from the civil war? Surely 2 million "Black Christian Southerners" would not willingly run into the arms of the evil " Arab Muslim Northerners". And lastly why does the presence of 12,000 to 15,000 Sudanese in forced labor camps trump the loss of 2,000,000 Sudanese altogether in the civil war? Which is the larger problem? The war or "slavery"? Which is the cause and which is the effect? In our estimation, "slavery" can't end unless the Civil War ends. Why isn't this position being taken by those who want a spotlight placed on the Sudan now?

With the exception of Rev. Al Sharpton, we have heard not so much as a peep from anyone in the "Stop Slavery in the Sudan" movement on the score of Blacks in the Southern Sudan and part of the SPLA "enslaving" their Brothers and Sisters in the South. After his recent trip to the Sudan, which was financed by Christian Solidarity International, Rev. Sharpton revealed that he was informed of instances of forced labor occurring among rebel groups in Southern Sudan. Why can't his fellow Black civil rights leaders and the White Conservatives and Christian fundamentalists and missionaries match his fairness and balance on the issue?

The reason why we have placed the word slavery in quotations throughout this editorial is because we recognize what is happening in the Sudan first and foremost to be a civil war and we recognize that any "slavery" practices stem first and foremost from warfare and an economic depression, exacerbated, in part, by the conditionality imposed by the IMF and health problems, exacerbated, in part, by the US bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, which by some estimates, took care of 60% of the health needs of Sudan.

In fact, we recognize that much of what is being loosely depicted as "slavery" would be more accurately described as "mutual abductions" taking place on all sides. And to be more accurate and to look at the situation in the Sudan from history, we know that many of the tribes in the north and south who attracted government and opposition groups as benefactors in the 80s and 90s, have for years been abducting members of each others tribes and forcing their captives to work for them for free. This is nothing new. When these tribes became armed militias, so to speak, for the North and South they continued their activities but with sponsors. Again, the core activities of kidnapping, raping, "enslaving" and ransoming are nothing new and preexisted the Islamic regime in the Sudan by decades.

What is new is the large magnifying glass being applied exclusively to the mutual abductions that are taking place on the northern side. Thanks to Christian Solidarity International and its public relations campaign, what has been taking place across the country is now being assigned an Arab/Muslim, light-skinned character while the practices are being ignored when they occur among other groups. Indeed, CSI has even seen fit to partner with the southern opposition group, SPLA, which has a documented history in the very acts that CSI says it wants to stop. And like sheep being herded, American Black civil rights leaders, cultural conservatives, fundamentalist Christian groups and missionaries are all made to believe that the SPLA are "freedom-fighters" fighting for the cause of Jesus Christ and democracy.

And then that same argument is repackaged and aimed at Black Americans in a way that is designed to appeal to their wounds about the slavery that they experienced. And White conservatives who have fought these same Black Americans, tooth-and-nail for every form of civil rights advancement and who are foremost in opposition to the reparations movement today, are now attempting to bully and shame these same Blacks into supporting the end of "slavery" in the Sudan.

To say the least, we find their position disingenuous and hypocritical. The same group that treats ex-slaves in America with such callousness is now the best friend of "slaves" in the Sudan? With friends like that, we wonder, who needs enemies?

In one of their more routine exercises this coalition has the audacity to question Nation Of Islam Leader Minister Louis Farrakhan's commitment to the Sudanese people or the issue of human rights violations in the country. Unlike most of the members of the Sudan "slavery' coalition, Minister Farrakhan has been actively working for peace in the country for at least 8 years. In fact, in 1994, it is believed by many who were witnesses, that Minister Farrakhan was only days away from brokering a peace agreement between those in the southern and northern parts of Sudan. The Minister's work for peace in that country has been largely unknown because the Muslim leader wanted it that way. Unlike his Black and White contemporaries who issue a press release on the Sudan every other day and who have their trips financed by Christian Solidarity International, and are accompanied by cameras and microphones, Minister Farrakhan has been quietly moving in and out of the Sudan and Africa for years, attempting to unite the Muslims, Christians and animists of the country of 35 million, and the continent of 700 million people. In fact, in one such trip in 1996, Minister Farrakhan, as is his custom, met with all sides of the civil war in the Sudan and in a rare public comment, revealed that in all of his discussions which included talks with the SPLA, Minister Farrakhan never heard the issue of slavery raised. Not once, in negotiations, discussions and meetings with Minister Farrakhan, as he listened to their grievances, was the issue of slavery, sponsored by the Sudanese government, raised by the Sudanese opposition. Remember that this was in 1996 at the height of the beginning of the argument in the West over "slavery" in the Sudan.

Could it be that the Sudanese opposition did not raise the issue with Minister Farrakhan, in public or private, because the practice depicted by the West as "slavery" is common in the Sudan war and practiced by all sides?

There is so much more to this issue than meets the eye.

It is obvious that many of the White Conservatives who are actively pushing the Sudan "slavery" issue care as much about political gain in this country, in their war against Black leaders, in particular, as they do about the suffering people of Sudan. If they can discredit Minister Farrakhan and the Black left - civil rights groups, Pan Africanists and grassroots activists - and even divide them, and slow the movement toward reparations, then saving a few Blacks in Sudan is just icing on the cake.

Is it not peculiar how White conservatives are making Sudanese "slavery" a litmus test for reparations advocates? What is their real motive?

One question, that no one in the mainstream media is asking, is why is it so easy to purchase a slave in Sudan in the first place? CSI and other groups who are arranging these slave purchases are largely bringing people into the Sudan from SPLA-controlled areas. Where, we ask, are these slaves, then, being purchased - in the north or the south? If the slaves are being "redeemed" in the South, in rebel-controlled areas, then what does that reveal? Furthermore, as the White conservatives in America are so fond of reminding reparations supporters in this country of the culpability of fellow Blacks in the American slave trade, Blacks in the South must be selling other Blacks in the South or, Blacks in the South must be selling other Blacks to slaveholders in the North. According to the superficial dichotomy constructed by CSI and their anti-slavery coalition, that would mean that "Black Southern Christians" are selling other "Black Southern Christians". If we follow the line of reasoning used by White conservatives in this country to oppose reparations, then we can no longer see the evils of slavery as being perpetrated by only the evil " Arab Muslim North".

These same White conservatives who have been surprisingly successful at winning a few friends from among the Black civil rights movement aren't telling the whole story.

Are they really for the end of slavery in the Sudan, or are they for something else, like, perhaps, putting and end to the spread of Islam throughout Africa, or dividing the Sudan in half - like England once wanted.

If the coalition for ending "slavery" really seeks the former and not the latter, then they must begin answering some hard questions about the SPLA and the manner in which they have depicted the Sudanese civil war.

Anything short of a full disclosure on that front reveals the colonialism, imperialism and the Crusades mentality that many are beginning to suspect is at the root of the movement to end "slavery" in the Sudan.

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, May 7, 2001

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