Freedom Now News
July 21, 2003

Sudanese scholar speaks out on slave reparations, peace and appeasement

During his recent visit to Africa, President George W. Bush condemned slavery as "one of the greatest crimes of history." But though the Trans-Atlantic slave trade no longer exists, Arab slave trade still flourishes in Sudan.

Early this month, Oxford scholar and Sudan expert, Bona Malwal, together with other Black African Sudanese intellectuals, launched an initiative to place slavery on the agenda of the current U.S. sponsored Sudan peace negotiations.

In today's interview with Freedom Now News, Malwal discusses this initiative, while sharing his views on slave reparations, the work of the Bush administration in Sudan, and how humanitarian groups like UNICEF and Save the Children Fund actually help to further the slave trade.

Freedom Now News: What are the origins of the revival of Sudanese slavery?

Bona Malwal: Slavery was never fully eradicated in Sudan. The British colonial authorities outlawed it in the early twentieth century. They closed off South Sudan to the Arabs of Northern Sudan to stamp out any illegal trafficking in slaves from the South. All the same, there were still occasional cases reported, and those Arab individuals involved in these cases were routinely prosecuted. This continued to the mid-1960s when apparently the attitude of the government in Khartoum towards the enslavement of the people in South Sudan was developed as a weapon of war.

In 1983 the then military regime of General Jaafar Mohamed Nimeiri, triggered the current phase of the civil war when he abrogated the autonomy of South Sudan and imposed Islamic law. Southerners were forced to take up arms against the central government. General Nimeiri promptly authorised the formation of Arab tribal militia, ostensibly to defend themselves against the rebels from the South. The government of Sudan provided training, weaponry and supplies for this new fighting force outside the national army. But General Nimeiri was overthrown in early 1985 while the Arab militia force was still in its formation. A year later, the rebels of The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) from the South became an aggressive fighting force that was threatening the authority of the central government all over the South. Then the newly elected democratic government of Prime Minister Sadiq El Mahdi took power in June 1986, following parliamentary elections. Prime Minister El Mahdi brought into his government as Minister of State for Defence, the man who organised the Arab militia force for Nimeiri - Major General Fadalla Burma Nasir, a fellow Baggara Arab from Southern Kordofan. Prime Minister El Mahdi retained the portfolio of defence for himself. There was no doubt in anyone's mind at this point about what general Fadalla Burma Nasir's assignment in the government of Prime Minister Sadiq El Mahdi was supposed to be. Very quickly, the arming of Arab tribal militia and incorporating them into the war policy of an elected democratic government was established. The new government was hell bent on defeating the rebellion in South Sudan, using illegal and undemocratic methods. This policy was becoming clearer and clearer every day. Unleashing the Arab militia on the civilian population of South Sudan became a state policy. Not only that but looting any moveable property from the South including taking slaves now became public, as an unannounced government war policy. It is in the wake of such a public policy that the new surge of slavery as a weapon of war and policy erupted.

The government of Sudan was motivated by the need to subdue the South and to win the war against the rebels in the South. All means had to be used to achieve that. Nothing could be regarded as untouchable if it could lead to a victory over the rebels in the South. The strong desire and urge to win the war against the rebels in the South was therefore the main motivation in the government's revival of slavery in Sudan.

It is perhaps important to bear in mind that the government in 1983, and indeed the current one, which overthrew it by a military coup, had no cultural inhibition towards slavery. Being Muslims and Arabs, it seemed culturally acceptable and religiously legitimate to these governments to enslave those who are at war against them. This is why the present government of Sudan proclaimed at the very start of its military campaign when it first ceased power in a military coup in June 1989 that it was engaged in an Islamic holy war in South Sudan. In an Islamic holy war, slavery is an apparently legitimate war policy if not wholly legal.

Freedom Now News: How have you been involved in combating slavery?

Bona Malwal: I was one of the first individuals to document the revival of slavery in Sudan. As the first South Sudanese to publish an independent newspaper in Sudan, this is not surprising. In fact, my personal experiences with cases of slavery in Sudan date back to the mid 1960s when I established The Vigilant newspaper in Khartoum. At that time, reported cases of slavery were few and spread out over time. By 1987 blatant cases of slavery became a daily part of the news in my later newspaper, The Sudan Times. Reports about slavery on the pages of The Sudan Times resulted in my being arrested and charged with three counts: sedition, injurious falsehood and spreading hatred against the state.

Two academics from The University of Khartoum, who authored the now famous booklet, Slavery in Sudan: The Daien Massacre, Dr Ushari Mahmoud and Dr Suleiman Baldo, both of whom are from Kordofan, (which was now the new bastion of slavery in Sudan), set out to prove The Sudan Times wrong on the slavery articles. They did not believe that slavery existed in Sudan in this day and age. They thought that being South Sudanese myself, the stories in my newspaper were politically inspired and racially motivated against the Arabs as a people. But being honest academics, they stumbled on an even greater evidence of the enslavement of South Sudanese by Arab militia when they arrived in Western Sudan. They even witnessed the massacre of thousands of South Sudanese by Arabs at the railway station at Daien, in Southern Darfur, while the government police and other security forces watched on, doing absolutely nothing to save the people being herded into railway wagons and then burned alive.

As Northern Sudanese, these two University of Khartoum academics are now regarded as traitors in the North for publishing their booklet on slavery.

As a result of The Sudan Times' articles and the publication of Mahmoud and Baldo, governments and non-governmental organisations throughout the world knew about the revival of slavery. But there was little action to help. Together with others from Northern and Southern Sudan, I encouraged Christian Solidarity International (CSI) to help the victims of slavery. Among the others were Bishop Macram Gassis of the Catholic Diocese of El Obeid and leaders of the Sudan Human Rights Organization. As the publisher and editor of the Sudan Democratic Gazette in London, I continued to publish articles about slavery and the failure of the international community to address this crime against humanity.

Unfortunately, it is still almost impossible to publish news in Sudan about slavery. In fact just a few days ago, the Khartoum Monitor newspaper was fined and closed down, and its editor convicted of crimes against the state for reporting the reality of slavery.

Freedom Now News: Has the international community helped the Sudanese victims of slavery?

Bona Malwal: The international community has been in a complete state of denial when it comes to the question of slavery in Sudan. No one wants to confront the government of Sudan when it comes to the question of slavery. Many in the international community want to make believe slavery does not exist in Sudan, even when the facts are clear. Perhaps the best examples of this are UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK - supposedly two of the world's best known carers for the children of the world. They have persistently colluded with the government of Sudan on the question of slavery rather than confront it on behalf of the helpless children of South Sudan.

If UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK had confronted the truth of slavery in Sudan, there is good reason to believe that the world community might have taken notice of the existence of slavery much earlier and found ways to tackle it. Instead, UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK have consistently whitewashed the problem of slavery in Sudan, calling it abduction, instead of its proper name - slavery. Worst of all, both UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK have allowed the government of Sudan to escape even the mild condemnation at the annual United Nations Human Rights meetings in Geneva by joining the fictitious government of Sudan's so called "Committee for the Eradication of The Abduction of Women and Children" (CEWAC). As a result of the collaboration of these two international carers of the world's children with a government responsible for enslaving it's children, Sudan was removed last April from the UN's list of violators of human rights.

UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK have thus played a successful role in the international rehabilitation of a government that is guilty of crimes against humanity. This has been done while hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese children and women still remain unaccounted for and thousands others are still languishing in slavery in Northern Sudan.

What is more, the two organisations, UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK, have collaborated with the government of Sudan to campaign around the world to persecute small human rights organisations like CSI, who have called slavery its proper name and have campaigned around the world to free the enslaved children of South Sudan through redeeming them. UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK have called CSI's slave redemption program an encouragement of slavery because CSI has assisted families of the enslaved children with modest sums of money to pay for the freedom of their loved ones. If this can be called encouraging slavery, what does one call UNICEF's and Save the Children Fund's denial of this crime against humanity, when it is being committed in their face?

As a result of the collaboration between the government of Sudan, UNICEF and Save the Children Fund UK against CSI and with the help of the votes of the government of Sudan's friends in the UN Human Rights Commission, CSI's consultative status for the commission was withdrawn over three years ago. No wonder the government of Sudan was fully rehabilitated at the human rights commission this year. With CSI out of the commission, no one else is left at the Human Rights Commission to harangue the government of Sudan on the issue of slavery.

Freedom Now News: What progress have you seen here in the United States in the campaign against Sudanese Slavery?

Bona Malwal: We must credit the broad left-right, black-white Sudan Campaign coalition with prompting President Bush's encouraging peace initiative. This coalition has seen how the Christian and other non-Muslim South Sudanese are suffering in the hands of the Arab and Islamic dominated government of Sudan and sought to do something about it. Conservative friends of President Bush within the coalition have seen to it that the President of the United States is informed about the plight of the slaves and other victims of Khartoum's war against South Sudan.

The turning point in the campaign to get Sudanese slavery and other war crimes on the agenda of the U.S. Administration came as a result of the coalition's decision to turn to non-violent direct action, modelled on the actions of the late Dr. Martin Luther King. These actions involved the arrest of prominent anti-slavery campaigners outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2001 and was spear-headed by retired Congressman Rev. Walter Fauntroy (D-DC) and civil rights activist Joe Madison. The crucial role played by Rev. Fauntroy and Joe Madison in mobilizing the African American community and in directing the active demonstrations must be acknowledged.

These Black liberal Democrats were arrested together with a white former aid to President Ronald Reagan, Michael Horowitz. The prominent lawyers Johnny Cochrane and Ken Starr took up their defence amidst a blaze of media publicity. Then came the arrest of the senior civil rights leader, Dick Gregory, and the President of the American Anti-Slavery Group, Dr. Charles Jacobs. The momentum was maintained by arrest of a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Donald Payne, (D-NJ), the civil rights activist, Rev. Barbara Reynolds and Dr. John Eibner of CSI.

These actions represented the defining moment of the Sudan Campaign. The White House could see political storm clouds on the horizon and decided to act constructively - at long last.

Freedom Now News: Where do you believe the United States is taking the slavery issue now that it is on the Administration's agenda?

Bona Malwal: President Bush took courage as a result and not only spoke plainly and publicly about slavery and the tragic situation in Sudan, but acted on it. The appointment of former Senator John Danforth is part of President Bush's clear action on Sudan. If anything, one might say in the way of friendly criticism that former Senator Danforth has not acted sufficiently strong in accordance to the strong words of President Bush and of the Sudan Campaign that inspired his appointment. The former Senator has sought instead to modify the course that the Bush administration should follow.

And although we should give Sen. Danforth credit for identifying, soon after his appointment, slavery as one of the issues that must be addressed in order to bring peace to Sudan, an important question we have to ask is: where in the ongoing peace process do we see slavery being addressed now?

The answer is: Absolutely nowhere.

Now is this the type of road map to peace in Sudan that Senator Danforth wanted?

Neither the Government of Sudan nor The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) has shown much interest in the resolution of the slavery issue. That is why we are now almost at the end of a successful peace negotiation without a mention of the matter of slavery. If that is allowed to be the case and there is a peace agreement that does not contain a mechanism of how to retrieve the South Sudanese slaves from the North, then how can slavery be tackled after that?

It is noteworthy at this juncture to mention that the people of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Aweil and Twic in particular, which have been the two areas most devastated by slavery more than anyone else in Sudan, are now calling the attention of everyone to this glaring oversight-if not a deliberate failure to deal with the slavery issue in the peace process*. A community of us from that Northern Bahr El Ghazal area are now saying publicly that the question of the still held slaves should be raised at the current peace talks in Kenya, even this late in the day. The way to get the slaves home from the North and the whole situation of reparation and compensation to the victims of this horrendous crime against humanity, must be included in the peace agreement. We should not be expected as a community affected by slavery to happily embrace a peace agreement that legitimises the permanent enslavement of so many of our kith and kin.

Despite these concerns and obstacles, I have no doubt that the American campaign against slavery will remain strong, and we can count on it to make sure that practical measures for the liberation of our people from slavery become a part of the U.S. peace initiative.

* See "Inclusion of Reparation for Northern Bahr El Ghazal Victims of Slavery into The Final Peace Agreement:"