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International Christian group encourages slavery in Sudan, says UNICEF

M.A. Shaikh

Persistent charges over several years by Christian Solidarity International (CSI) that slavery is rife in Southern Sudan finally backfire as Khartoum, in an unprecedented move, invites the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to investigate the allegations, and the agency accuses the Swiss-based but British-led Christian group itself of encouraging slavery in the area. In the past, the Sudanese government furiously denied the allegations but rejected any calls for an enquiry by external investigators on grounds of sovereignty.

A UNICEF statement in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 5 said the Sudanese had invited the agency for the first time to investigate the charges--adding that the authorities have ‘left the door wide open’ for a full investigation. And accepting Khartoum’s request for a detailed report on the issue, the agency expressed its hope that other organizations, both Sudanese and international, would join the enquiry.

The invitation followed new allegations, made, and hotly denied, on January 31. The Christian group claimed that it had bought the freedom of more than 5,000 slaves in the south for US$52,000 since 1995, when it first introduced the dubious practice of paying off ‘Arab owners’ to free their ‘black teen-age slaves.’ Believing that Khartoum would, as usual, reject any calls for an enquiry, CSI urged the UN to ‘intervene and end this unacceptable practice.’

The Sudanese regime at first denied the charge, asserting that the practice existed only in the areas of the south controlled by the southern rebels, but promptly invited UNICEF to step in. Wrong footing CSI and its western backers, the move allowed the UN agency to give its opinion on the issue publicly for the first time. Noting that Khartoum’s agreement to an enquiry was a new departure from its old position of denying the existence of slavery in Sudan, the agency said the practice did ‘in fact exist there, though known by other names, as it did in other places’--giving West Africa and Asia, ‘where trade in children thrived,’ as examples.

But more significantly, UNICEF launched a blistering attack on CSI’s practice of buying people, asserting that it encouraged slavery as well as the trade in arms in a region torn by war. ‘The purchase of people promotes slavery and increases its volume, as it boosts the arms trade in the civil war,’ it said. ‘Access to funds, especially dollars, by traders feeds the purchase of arms.’ The agency added that this ‘method of operation’ was ‘unacceptable in principle and could not be endorsed by us.’

Khartoum clearly took the new charges by CSI very seriously, believing them to be a prelude to yet another US-led attempt at bringing down the Islamically oriented government of president Omar Hasan al-Bashir. An official of the ruling National Conference, Muhammad Adam, warned on February 3 that the allegations were ‘aimed at paving the way, and preparing public opinion, for a fresh assault.’

Describing the charges as ‘false and fabricated’ by unnamed intelligence organizations, Adam placed full responsibility for this squarely on the shoulders of the CSI and its leader, Baroness Cox, a member of the British House of Lords. He poured scorn on the group’s latest claim that it had secured the freedom of children by paying approximately $10 for each child, saying that ‘this sum cannot even buy a sheep, let alone a human being.’

But scorn is one thing and reality another. Adam’s remarks must not be interpreted as being a negation of UNICEF’s assertion that buying people (for even a handful of dollars) is wrong in principle, boosts slavery and fuels arms trade. Southern Sudan has been the scene of civil war since 1956 with only a 10-year interruption from 1972, and the conflict is not only between government forces and rebels but between the militias of rival rebel factions. The result is chaos and constant need for funds and arms.

The introduction of a dollar flow into such circumstances in the form CSI has been operating is criminal wrecklessness, if not worse. Colonel John Garang’s rebel group, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), has been press-ganging children into its ranks with the result that its militia is largely made up of teenagers. If the SPLA can seize children to use them as soldiers, there is nothing to stop it abducting them to obtain CSI-supplied dollars in order to buy arms.

When the Swiss-based Christian group first started the practice of buying off children, it was desperate for evidence to back up its claim that Arab and Muslim slavers were abducting Christian and non-Arab women and children as slaves. The idea was to discredit the Islamically oriented Bashir government and to provide moral justification for the US-funded war against it, with Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia the main regional adversaries.

But it is CSI which is now totally discredited. It is naive to believe that the group has had good intentions in paying for the children’s ‘freedom’ and that it has had no knowledge of the real situation. But for over four years, the group and its head, Baroness Cox, have been holding high-profile press conferences to show off the children they ‘freed’. Cox even travelled to southern Sudan, without Khartoum’s permission, accompanied by a battery of western journalists and television camera crews.

The very western media that boosted CSI’s anti-Sudan propaganda campaign is suddenly silent now that the group has been exposed. UNICEF’s blistering attack on it has not received any coverage, with the exception of a brief news agency item. And, surprise, surprise, the Arab media in countries aligned to the west has been equally shy.

The war now raging between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of Sudan’s hostile neighbours, though advantageous to Khartoum for the time being, must not be allowed to draw attention away from this scandal, and CSI and its southern collaborators must be made to pay a price.

The war between Asmara and Addis Ababa over a useless rocky area on their disputed border is a blow to Sudanese opposition groups based in these countries who must now look for another location or negotiate with Khartoum despite US pressure not to.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 1

Rajab 22, 14201999-03-01

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