Slavery in the Sudan since 1989

By Lobban, Richard | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Slavery in the Sudan since 1989

Lobban, Richard, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


ONE IMAGINES THAT THE BRUTAL HISTORY of slavery is long over and should only be the study of historians. The sad and well-documented truth is that this sordid business in fellow human beings has not only continued but it has expanded in the years since the arrival of the National Islamic Front to power in Khartoum. The history of slavery in the Nile valley is extremely ancient indeed. Certainly in the times of the Egyptian pharaohs, slaves were taken from among all enemies that included Asians, Libyans, and Nubians. Even when Nubians were in power as in the case of Kerma, of Dynasty XXV, or in Meroitic times slavery continued. Horrendous levels of slavery were reached during the Turkish occupation of the Sudan (1821-1885) as they had a great thirst for them in their armies, harems, and in domestic service and foreign export. The case for the Mahdiya perpetuated the domestic use and export of slaves from the Sudan and even the famed Mahdist soldier Othman Digna was a slave trader. This is not to mention the m ost notable Zubeir Pasha who profited greatly in the business. Under colonialism slavery did decline substantially because the British wanted cheap "free" labor to pick the cotton they needed for their booming textile mills.

Thinking that slavery has a five thousand-year history in the region perhaps one is less surprised that it should not have ended. But in the 20th century and in the 21st century we have just begun is a time of United Nations declarations on human rights and mutual respect of cultural diversity. This is also a time of Article 3 of the Geneva conventions that govern the treatment of prisoners of war that typically defines the conditions under which slaves are captured. With some cynicism in the modern world one is not amazed to discover isolated criminal cases of slavery, forced prostitution, and domestic brutality, but slavery as a regular practice is still hard to comprehend. Thinking of how many millions of people of African descent have suffered from slavery it is harder to comprehend that the current practice is in the hands of other Africans.

Today, slavery has resumed in the Sudan as a matter of informal, but institutionalized policy that is implemented through the Popular Defense Force (PDF) militias (murahileen) that are supported by Khartoum to serve the practice of "ethnic cleansing" and "mass displacements" (Human Rights Watch). Slavery has become part and parcel of the government's long failed effort to suppress the movement toward secular rule and a return to democracy and away from the fascist system that hides beneath a claim of Islamic justification. In order to have some common understanding about slave status we can accept the definition by Kevin Bales appearing in Miller (1999, A21). He terms slavery as "a relationship in which one person is completely controlled by another person through violence or the threat of violence for the purpose of economic exploitation."


Since the pioneering work on human rights in the Sudan by Sulayman Baldo, U.A. Mahmoud, Mohamed Omer Beshir, Abdullahi An-Na'im and Mahgoub al-Tigani even more have been inspired to heed the call for further action. The work of the Anti-Slavery Group in Boston led by Charles Jacobs (1999) and Tim Sandler (1995) has added to the exposure of Sudanese slavery and the complexities of U.S. and Canadian foreign policy vis-a-vis the current Sudanese regime. Documenting illegal slavery is naturally difficult. This was also the case during the 'Underground Railway' and the abolition movement in the United States. In 1987, even before the NIF government, the former Sadiq al-Mahdi regime had been allowing slavery as a weapon of war. Such was the case in the El-Diem (also spelled ad-Daein) massacre on 27 March 1987 as reported by Mahmoud and Baldo (1987). Aside from the thousand Dinka killed in the main incident there were also reports of slavery of Dinka women and children in the Kordofan-Bahr al Ghazal borderlands.

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