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 discredited propaganda.
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 “research.”
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 propaganda themes.
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.
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/submit5.htm
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 December, 1999.
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 February 2002.
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 2002.
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
The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)