Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: The Sudan Abductee Database - More Questionable Propaganda
In late May 2003, the Rift Valley Institute, a non-governmental
organisation based in Kenya and Britain, launched what it termed "the
Sudan Abductee Database". This was said to be a "database of abduction
and slavery cases". The Institute claimed that it had details of "11,105
victims of abduction". It was further claimed that these had been
abducted from "rebel-held areas by Government-backed tribal militias
from Northern Sudan".(1)
Sudan has been wracked by civil war for decades. Since 1983 the war in
the south has been fought against the Government of Sudan by the Sudan
People's Liberation Army (SPLA). It is a conflict that has been
distorted by the deliberate use of propaganda. One propaganda theme has
been that of "slavery". The Rift Valley Institute itself admits that the
subject of "abduction and slavery" has been "beset by controversy".
Sadly, from the tone and methodology of this "database" and its
presentation, it is clear that the "Sudan Abductee Database" is itself
little more than a re-packaging of controversial and previously
The project was "designed and managed" by Jok Madut Jok, and John Ryle.
Both are established figures in the anti-Sudan industry that has emerged
in the course of the Sudanese conflict. Jok has a vested interest in
attempting to validate claims of "slavery" in Sudan. He is the author of
'War and Slavery in Sudan' which refers to "Arab slave traders" in Sudan
and describes "slavery" as deliberate government policy. Such claims
have 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." (2)
The claims by Jok and Ryle of slave raids as government policy have also
previously been denied by Sudan specialists such as the then co-director
of African Rights, Alex de Waal, who has stated that: "there is no
evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or
slave trade." (3)
The methodology of the project was also very questionable from the
beginning. In its press release the Rift Valley Institute outlined what
it termed the "design and execution of the research". It stated that the
area subject to the "research" was "under the control of the rebel Sudan
People's Liberation Movement/Army, the SPLM/SPLA". It was also stated
that the "researchers" were "locally recruited and trained". This had
immediate implications for the accuracy and objectivity of the
On 12 January 2000, for example, the Sudan People's Liberation Army
(SPLA) issued an ultimatum to non-governmental organisations within
SPLA-controlled areas of southern Sudan. These groups had to sign the
SPLA's 'Memorandum of Understanding' strictly controlling their
activities and dictating their relationship with the SPLA. The SPLA
Memorandum included, amongst other contentious items, SPLA control of
whom NGOs could employ as local Sudanese staff.
The Rift Valley Institute's belief that it would be able to obtain
objective and untainted data from areas controlled by an organisation
said by The New York Times to have "behaved like an occupying army,
killing, raping and pillaging" (4), and described by 'The Economist' as
"little more than an armed gang of Dinkas...killing, looting and raping"
(5) amply illustrates a naiveté which calls the "Sudan Abductee
Database" and any of its conclusions into question.
Meaningful, reliable data within war-zones dominated by an authoritarian
organisation with researchers approved by that same organisation is
simply impossible. To use some simple analogies, would they expect to be
able to have conducted meaningful research within areas controlled at
the time by the Khmer Rouge with personnel supplied by the Khmer Rouge,
or within UNITA-controlled areas of Angola with personnel approved by
UNITA, or within Iraq with researchers controlled by Saddam Hussein?
Would they have expected to have come out with objective results?
It is not just the SPLA's intimidation that would have distorted the
data. The SPLA's previous involvement in the systematic and fraudulent
use of "slavery" and "slave redemption" themes for propaganda and
financial motives was graphically illustrated by articles in four
newspapers of record, 'The Irish Times', London's 'Independent on
Sunday', 'The Washington Post' and 'International Herald Tribune', in
February 2002. (6) Non-governmental organisations such as the Swiss-
based Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and Baroness Cox's
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) were, at the very least,
systematically misled by the SPLA into claiming that they had identified
and "redeemed" thousands of Sudanese "slaves". 'The Washington Post'
reported that in numerous documented instances "the slaves weren't
slaves at all, but people gathered locally and instructed to pretend
they were returning from bondage". (7) The 'Independent on Sunday'
reported that it was able to "reveal that 'redemption' has often been a
carefully orchestrated fraud". (8) The SPLA was forced to admit that up
to 95 percent of "slave redemptions" were fraudulent, the "slaves"
having been coached in how to act and what to say. All this was assisted
by locally recruited, SPLA-approved translators.
The 'Irish Times' stated that in many cases "the process is nothing more
than a careful deceit, stage-managed by corrupt officials...In reality,
many of the 'slaves' are fakes...The children are coached in stories of
abduction and abuse...Interpreters may be instructed to twist their
answers". Then, as now, 'The Irish Times' concluded: "Put simply, the
numbers didn't add up."
The timing of this particular "database" is at best simply inept and at
worst deliberately provocative. This project appears at precisely the
time that a negotiated settlement of the Sudanese conflict appears to be
very close. It would seem that rather than working towards building
confidence and reconciliation within this peace process, the Rift Valley
Institute would rather revisit old, questionable and discredited
The Rift Valley Institute's choice of partner organisations in the
United States is also unfortunate. The American launch of the "Sudan
Abductee Database" was at Freedom House in Washington-DC. Freedom House
has been at the forefront of the conservative and ultra-conservative
anti-Sudan lobby within the United States. Freedom House and its various
centres have made several outlandish claims about Sudan.
On religion, as but one example, Freedom House has claimed that there is
"genocidal persecution" of Christians in Sudan. (9) The Center for
Religious Freedom, a division of Freedom House, has also claimed of
Sudan that "No place on earth is religious persecution more brutal".(10)
In November 2001, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation
of Human Rights in the Sudan noted that while there were some
difficulties, "there is no religious persecution as such". (11) Any
independent observer would note that there is a world of difference
between describing Sudan as the world's worst religious, most brutal,
genocidal, persecutor and the Special Rapporteur's conclusion. (12)
Freedom House, however, is the organisation the Rift Valley Institute
chose to work with within the United States.
The "Sudan Abductee Database" is a disappointing, crassly-timed waste of
resources within southern Sudan. Those groups that have funded it could
have spent their money in far more constructive ways, ways that would
have reinforced and assisted with the Sudanese peace process rather than
deliberately or unconsciously undermining it. There will be those in
Sudan and elsewhere who will see it as nothing more than an attempt to
resuscitate the allegations of "slavery" and "slave redemption" so
definitively exposed last year.
This article is written by the The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council who can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com
1. See "New Research on Slavery in Sudan", Press Release by the
Rift Valley Institute, 28 May 2003.
2. 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/sub
3. Alex de Waal, "Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War",
Covert Action Quarterly, Washington-DC, Spring 1997.
4. "Misguided Relief to Sudan", Editorial, 'The New York Times', 6
5. 'The Economist', March 1998.
6. "The Great Slave Scam", 'The Irish Times', 23 February 2002;
"Scam in Sudan - An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves and
Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners", 'The
Independent on Sunday', 24 February 2002; "Ripping Off Slave
'Redeemers': Rebels Exploit Westerners' Efforts to Buy Emancipation for
Sudanese", 'The Washington Post', 26 February 2002; "Sudan Rip-Offs Over
Phony Slaves", 'International Herald Tribune', 27 February 2002. The
article also appeared in 'Scotland on Sunday', "Fake Slaves Con Aid
Agencies in Sudanese Liberation Scam".
7. "Ripping Off Slave 'Redeemers': Rebels Exploit Westerners'
Efforts to Buy Emancipation for Sudanese", 'The Washington Post', 26
8. "Scam in Sudan - An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves
and Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners", 'The
Independent on Sunday', 24 February 2002
9. See, "Key Christian Leaders to Convene for Action Against
Genocidal Persecution: Sudan & North Korea", Press Release by Center for
Religious Freedom, Washington-DC, 29 April 2001, and "Christian Leaders
Ask U.S. to Sanction Sudan, North Korea", 'The Washington Times', 2 May
10. "Center for Religious Freedom Fact Sheet: Sudan", Center for
Religious Freedom, Freedom House, Washington-DC,
11. The Speech of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human
Rights in the Sudan delivered to the Third Committee of the General
Assembly, 8 November 2001, New York.
12. See, for example, 'Religion in Sudan', European-Sudanese Public
Affairs Council, London, June 2002; and 'Perceptions and Reality:
Christianity Within Sudan', European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council,
London, June 2002 both available at www.espac.org
Tuesday, June 3, 2003