George Soros Visiting Chair John Ryle Gives a Lecture on Slavery in the Sudans

July 16, 2018

John Ryle, George Soros Visiting Chair at CEU’s School of Public Policy (SPP) in the Spring term of 2017/18, gave a public lecture on “The ‘Benefits’ of Slavery: Abduction, counterinsurgency and the political marketplace in the Sudans” on May 14, 2018. Daniel Large, Assistant Professor at SPP and a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute chaired the event.

North-eastern Africa has a long history of internal slavery, dating from the time of ancient Egypt. In the modern era, as the Arab-Islamic cultural complex expanded in the lands that became Sudan, the slaving frontier moved south. By the time of the British conquest in 1898 slave-taking expeditions were venturing deep into what is now South Sudan. Under British rule the slave trade was suppressed; but slavery endured well into the twentieth century. And the abolition of slavery as a legal institution did not bring an end to servitude, but rather gave rise to new modes of exploitation.

In the present day, Professor Ryle noted, there has been a revival of slave-like practices across Eastern Africa. They include people traffickingstate-sponsored forced labour, forced recruitment into armed groups, and the abduction and enslavement of civilians. Four decades of civil war in the Sudans have seen all these forms of human rights abuse. In his talk he addressed one example: the revival of abduction and enslavement during the 1983-2005 civil war, when tribal militias were used by the Khartoum government as a proxy counter-insurgency force in areas of southern Sudan that were controlled by the rebel Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement / Army (SPLM/A).

Abductions, Ryle argued, were part of the strategy devised by Fadlala Burma Nasir, State Minister of Defence in the 1986-89 government of Sadiq al-Mahdi to combat the SPLM/A insurgency in the south; the strategy was deployed subsequently by the National Islamic Front, the successor regime that came to power in 1989. The extent of abduction and enslavement was revealed in 1987, in the early years of the war, by two lecturers at the University of Khartoum, Ushari Mahmud and Suliman Baldo. In a report on a massacre of southern Sudanese in Al Da’ein, near the border with the south, they described how villagers in rebel-controlled northern Bahr al-Ghazal were subject to raiding by horseback militia groups armed by the government. These militias, drawn from the Rizeigat or Misseria Humr—tribal groups in the north—mounted periodic raids on Dinka villages, stealing livestock, burning dwellings, destroying grain stores and abducting men, women and children. Abductees were held captive in Darfur and Kordofan, compelled to work as herders or agricultural labourers or domestic servants, or forced into concubinage.

The abductions continued for the next decade. The revival of slavery in Sudan became an international issue in the 1990s, particularly in the United States, where a coalition between activist organisations on the evangelical Christian right and the African-American Caucus in Congress put the issue on the agenda of the US-backed peace negotiations that led to the end of the war. For black Americans slavery in Sudan was an issue that evoked the historical experience of slavery in the US. The evangelicals saw it as weapon in the war against militant Islam.

The involvement of American evangelical organisations in the slavery issue was controversial, said Ryle. Several of these organisations promoted slave redemption schemes, raising funds to buy back abductees through intermediaries. The schemes were criticised by human rights organisations on the basis that they would promote a market in slavery. But such criticisms missed the point, Ryle argued: the buy-back schemes were mostly fake: the beneficiaries were local SPLA commanders and the sponsoring organisations themselves. The abductions were real; but the redemption schemes were, by and large, a racket. What they created was not a market in slaves, but a market in falsehood. Doubts about the redemption schemes were widely, if privately, expressed within the SPLM. They robbed the Southern rebels of a significant moral vantage in their struggle against Khartoum, and distracted International attention from the reality of slavery.

In 2001 pressure from western countries led to the establishment by the Sudan government of the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children. CEAWC was awarded substantial grants by Unicef and the EU. The Sudan Government was thus funded by the international community to combat an abusive practice that they themselves had deployed. Meanwhile, in Southern Sudan, some SPLA commanders and evangelical anti-slavery organisations profited from a questionable redemption business. All parties benefited except, in most cases, the abductees.

This episode of abduction and enslavement in Sudan came to an end in 2002 as a result of US pressure in the run-up to the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Some of the abducted southerners had already escaped and returned home; some were repatriated after the CPA. An unknown number, Ryle concluded, remain unaccounted for; and slave-like practices still endure in the Sudans today. Aspects of this history have been documented by scholars such as Jok Madut Jok. But Sudan and South Sudan, engulfed by new wars, have not yet had the opportunity to come to terms with this legacy of exploitation and suffering

John Ryle is Legrand Ramsey Professor of Anthropology at Bard College, NY., and George Soros Chair of Public Policy at the CEU School of Public Policy for the Spring semester 2018. He is cofounder of the Rift Valley Institute, and was Executive Director of the Institute until 2017. He was a member of the 2002 international Eminent Persons Group reporting on Slavery, abduction and forced servitude in Sudan, and co-director with Jok Madut Jok of the Rift Valley Institute Abduction and Slavery Project.