m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

J U L Y  1 9 9 9

Sudan slavery

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

Encouraging the Slave Trade

THE per capita income in Sudan, according to Sudanese embassy estimates, is about $500 a year. In the war-torn south it is much less. A small amount of money injected from the outside can create a powerful dynamic. Selling slaves back to their families for $50 to $100 each -- with the financial assistance of Westerners -- is far more profitable than selling them for about $15 in the northern slave markets. "We've made slavery more profitable than narcotics," Jacobson says. Recently I asked Manase Lomole Waya, who runs Humanitarian Assistance for South Sudan, a group based in Nairobi, what he thought about slave-redemption efforts. "We welcome them for exposing the agony of our people to the world," he said. "That part is good. But giving the money to the slave traders only encourages the trade. It is wrong and must stop. Where does the money go? It goes to the raiders to buy more guns, raid more villages, put more shillings in their pockets. It is a vicious circle."

Slave redeemers enrich every element of the trade: raiders, owners, and traders. Once, the main objective of roving militias and Baggara raiders was simply war booty: goats, cattle, and other valuables, with a few slaves taken to make a little extra money on the side. The price of a slave rose to $300, however, and slaves became the focus of the raids. By the mid-nineties supply had outpaced demand, and prices began to fall -- to about $100 in 1995 and then to $15 in 1997. Plunging prices threatened to put the traders out of business: paying and arming raiders, and feeding and watering their horses in a dry region, is very expensive.

What seems to have kept the slave business afloat is the high prices paid by the slave redeemers. Though redemption prices also fell, they stayed far above the $15 paid in slave markets. CSI, according to its publications, paid the equivalent of about $100 for each freed slave from 1995 to 1997 and since then has paid about $50. In effect the redeemers are keeping prices high and creating a powerful incentive for raids.

Some slave-redemption proponents argue that they must pay a risk premium -- a sum sufficient to encourage dealers to bring slaves back to the south. CSI suggests that the premium is necessary to cover the costs of food, water, and armed guards to transport the slaves. "Traders incur substantial costs & serious risks for their own security," a CSI report from October of 1997 concludes. Fair enough -- but no matter how the price for redeemed slaves is justified, the simple fact is that redemption makes the trade much more lucrative.

Another indication that slave redemption has spurred raids is that the size of a typical raiding party has grown from roughly 400 attackers in 1995 to more than 2,500 this year, according to figures compiled by the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the rebels' civilian arm. Why, in an era of falling prices, did the raiders more than sextuple their overhead? To garner more of the slave redeemers' bounty. It seems certain that without redemption, the raiding parties would have diminished.

A number of Dinka leaders, along with Macram Gassis, one of Sudan's eleven Catholic bishops, strongly support slave redemption, and some seek to make CSI the sole redeemer. However, the Dinkas I spoke with, all of whom live in villages that have been victimized by the raiders, strongly oppose redemption altogether on the grounds that it promotes raids. In February the Akoch Payam settlement was attacked by more than 2,500 horsemen and foot soldiers. Thirty-six people were killed and another seventy were taken away as slaves (along with food and thousands of animals). "Redemption is not the solution," Longar Awic Ayuel, Akoch's executive chief, told me a few days after the raid. "It means that you are encouraging the raiders."

The official spokesman for the Akoch district government, Adelino Rip Goc, emphatically agreed with Ayuel. "It is common sense not to pay the men who kill your father and steal your brother, or they will return," he said. "I don't know why the redeemers do such a thing."

  Click on the map above to see a
larger version.

As I spoke with Goc, a crowd of villagers encircled us. Does anyone here support slave redemption? I asked. No one did. One man said that I should talk to Machar Malok Machar. In a previous raid on Akoch, Machar was captured and marched into the desert. Before sunrise on the second day he crawled away and hid. He waited for hours until the Muslim slave raiders departed. Then he walked home, with his hands still tied behind his back, to find his wife and family missing, his hut burned, his cattle and goats gone. After I heard his story, I asked him about slave redemption. "It is bad," he said. "They do these terrible things to put shillings in their pockets. They are crazy for the money. Why would you give it to them?"

A number of human-rights organizations concerned with Sudan are also skeptical of slave redemption and its unintended consequences. UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, has called the practice "intolerable," because "the buy-back program implicitly accepts that human beings may be bought and sold," as Paul Lewis, a reporter for The New York Times, explains. "This could also encourage slave-taking for profit." Reed Brody, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says that although redemption is understandably welcomed by many abductees and their families, it poses a "real danger of fueling a market in human beings. "To date neither organization has issued an official report condemning slave redemption.

Redemption reduces any incentive for owners to set slaves free. Prior to 1995 about 10 percent of slaves, mostly old women and small children, were allowed to escape or even told to go home, because they cost too much to feed; some of the younger female slaves were let go because they made the owners' wives jealous. Though this meant a dangerous and lonely trek across the desert for the manumitted slaves, it helped to keep the size of the slave population in check. Today many northerners consider their slaves an investment. Acutely aware of the redemption money available, they sell their human chattels to middlemen, who take the slaves south.

Redemption also rewards slave traders. Many entrepreneurs who sold a variety of contraband goods prior to 1995 now deal solely in slaves. It is more profitable. As in many businesses, the man in the middle stands to make the most money. Raiders may earn $5 to $15 per slave; traders can earn several times as much. The trader, that vital link, is the worst person to enrich. Without him the typical raider has no market for his captives -- he can hardly resell them to their families, and he has no personal access to buyers in the north. In contrast, the trader moves easily between the two worlds. Thanks to the redeemers, who treat them as business partners, traders are richer than ever and, indeed, enjoy a measure of legitimacy as the linchpin of the redemption chain. This is not the result that the redeemers intended.

Incentives for Hoaxes

THE money available to redeem slaves has attracted the attention of people other than "legitimate" traders. No one can say how widespread slave-redemption hoaxes may be, though even John Eibner concedes the possibility of fraud: "I have at times refused to cooperate with people who have asked CSI to provide money for slave redemption when I have not been convinced that sound ethical standards are being strictly adhered to," he says. Eibner believes that he has adequate safeguards in place, including a determined effort to match the names of retrieved slaves with those on local lists of abductees.

I witnessed an attempted slave redemption that was unquestionably problematic during a recent visit to Nyamlell, a large settlement about fifty miles south of the Bahr al Arab River, in southern Sudan. Nyamlell has been the location of many slave redemptions covered by the U.S. media. The night before my visit officials from the local branch of the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association in Lokichokio, Kenya, asked for a meeting with James Jacobson, who had been hoping to redeem the slaves in Nyamlell. After half an hour of small talk the officials got down to business. "How much money are you bringing for slave redemption?"

"Four thousand dollars," Jacobson said.

"Ah, that is very helpful. There are forty slave children to be redeemed."

"Forty children? That would be a hundred dollars each. Don't other groups pay fifty dollars each?"

"No. Everyone pays a hundred."

"What about Christian Solidarity International?"

"Ah, they are different. They buy in much larger quantities."

Though the overwhelming majority of rebel officials are honest, it would be unsurprising if a few used their access to well-intentioned redeemers and desperately poor village leaders to make money. One scam is said to work as follows. Corrupt officials set themselves up as bankers and insist that redeemers exchange their dollars for Sudanese pounds, a nearly worthless currency. (People in the south almost always use Ugandan and Kenyan shillings or U.S. dollars.) The officials arrange by radio to have some villagers play slaves and some play slave-sellers, and when the redeemers arrive, the Sudanese pounds are used to free the slaves. When the redeemers are gone, the pounds are turned back over to the corrupt officials, who hand out a few dollars in return. Most of the dollars stay with the officials, who now also have the Sudanese pounds with which to play banker again.

Jacobson exchanged no money, but two mid-level SRRA officials insisted on accompanying him and me to Nyamlell. When we landed on the dirt runway, a local commissioner named Alev Akechak Jok met our plane. He refused to make eye contact with the SRRA officials, and was adamant about meeting privately with Jacobson and me. A guard with an AK-47 barred the SRRA officials from joining us in the compound. The commissioner offered tea and an admission: "There are no slaves here for you to buy." He was happy to elaborate on the problem of slave raids -- a real menace in his part of the world -- but he would not say why there was no one in Nyamlell to be redeemed, only repeating that there wasno one. Hadn't the SRRA radioed his village the previous day and learned that there were forty children to be freed? He shook his head no.

As we returned to the airstrip, the SRRA officials rejoined us. One said that he had just found a trader and ten children to be redeemed. Jok suddenly became angry and pulled me aside. The officials could not hear us over the whirling propeller. "You must leave now!" he demanded. Are the children slaves? I asked. "No," he said, "they are the children of the village. We do not want you to do this thing. We are Christian people. We do not want the world to turn its face from us." Jokhas since been removed from his post, probably in retaliation for his honesty.

As Jok's example suggests, honest villagers often refuse to play along. A few days before the incident in Nyamlell, Steven Wondu, of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, and Caroline Cox waited for two days in the district of Turalei for some traders who were supposed to arrive with slaves to redeem. None came. The village leaders repeatedly told Cox and the journalists she had brought along that there had been no slave raids in Turalei for more than a year, and that there was no one to redeem. Cox, with the dejected reporters, flew out on the morning of the third day. "Why are you disappointed?" Wondu asked.

Creating a Target

LOKICHOKIO, just inside the Kenyan border with Sudan, is a settlement that has grown up around relief efforts. It is the site of a UN-controlled airstrip and the local headquarters of the UN's World Food Program. From Loki, as it is called, giant Hercules cargo planes carry tons of food and medicine to distant airstrips where the hungry wait in the shade of mud huts.

The World Food Program, which here takes the form of Operation Lifeline Sudan, has made it very easy for the Sudanese government to coordinate slave raids and food drops. Before every airlift of food UN officials notify Khartoum -- whose forces have largely created the famine, in pursuance of a policy of starving the southerners into submission -- exactly where and when they plan to deposit the food. No relief planes are allowed to leave the ground without Khartoum's explicit permission. Not surprisingly, in Bahr al Ghazal, Khartoum-backed raiders often arrive in time to seize the shipment and enslave enough locals to carry it. "That's the cycle," one cynical pilot says. I encountered the aftermath of just such an episode in the village of Akoch.

To appreciate how a policy with such counterproductive consequences can be maintained, one must understand the atmosphere of utter bureaucratic indifference in Lokichokio. After the attack on Akoch, several family members brought out a gravely wounded woman named Anchor Ring, a grandmother of perhaps sixty, and put her under the wing of our plane. A horseman had slashed her head with a machete, leaving a wound deep enough to expose the yellow membrane surrounding her brain. Could we take her to the hospital in Loki? her family asked. The plane was half empty. The pilot radioed Loki's UN compound. The response came in the form of a question: "Does she have a valid passport and visa for travel into Kenya?" We were in rebel-held land, hundreds of miles from electric power, running water, or government offices. "No papers?" the voice said. "Tell her the hospital is full."

Denial and Deflection

IN the course of many conversations I have had with them, the supporters of slave redemption have been unwilling to address the issue of perverse incentives directly. They have countered obliquely with three arguments: slave redemption draws public attention to the tragedy in Sudan; it chips away at the slave trade one person at a time; and it ends the personal suffering of slaves and their families.

Publicity is perhaps the most frequently cited rationale for slave redemption. Certainly the on-camera manumission of a modern-day slave presents a powerful image for broadcast television. But surely the shocking reports of slave raids and the painful stories of former slaves are dramatic enough in themselves to hold the public's attention. Redemption alone doesn't provide any special public-relations benefit -- and it may contain the seeds of a public-relations disaster. Of course, it is a powerful fundraising tool. I do not believe that any of the redemption groups have other than noble motives; but the "success" of slave redemption may blind some activists to its unintended consequences.

Does redemption chip away at slavery? Undeniably, individual slaves have been given their freedom. But as the raiding parties have grown in size, the number of slaves taken has also grown. Sitting beneath color charts on food production and hand-drawn spreadsheets quantifying the deaths, injuries, and stolen livestock in southern Sudan, Erib Gaetano Felix, an SRRA statistician, observes matter-of-factly that slave raids have "gotten much worse every year since 1995."

Anti-slavery activists, including Michael Horowitz, of the Hudson Institute, and Charles Jacobs, of the American Anti-Slavery Group, explain the increase in slave-taking since 1995 in terms of the growing intensity of the Sudanese war. But although war is the context for the slave trade, it cannot be the main cause. The Khartoum government, which promotes the trade, has been retreating. Since 1995 the rebels, often driving captured government trucks and tanks, have seized an increasing share of Bahr al Ghazal, where most raids take place. So why is slave-taking on the rise? The raiders are essentially privateers; if the raids did not pay for themselves, the raiders would stay home. That is why they take slaves and other booty, while the main government force focuses on the destruction of strategic assets. The raiders pose a continuing threat because their bands, though sizable, are still small enough to find openings in the rebels' lines. And high prices make the risk worthwhile.

What about the humanitarian case for redemption? Activists screen emotional videos of former slaves and ask viewers to imagine that a spouse or a child had been enslaved. Wouldn't they pay for redemption? "When you personalize it like that, the answer is obvious," an abolitionist pastor told The Oregonian. But public policy requires a focus on the larger interest. With good reason, the U.S. government does not negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to kidnappers. Presented with this argument, activists simply sidestep it. Michael Horowitz says, "[Redemption] may not be the answer to the problem, but it is the answer to many mothers' prayers."

A Policy That Works

DECIDING that it is better not to buy individuals their freedom needn't mean turning our backs on the people of Sudan. But the economic rewards for slave trading must be eliminated.

The United Nations and the U.S. government should require that all organizations, governmental and nongovernmental, forswear slave redemption as a condition of working in Sudan. Operation Lifeline Sudan must be reformed or suspended so that it does not indirectly aid the Khartoum government. The UN should cease notifying Khartoum about the timing and cargo of its flights.

James Jacobson's organization, confronting redemption's perverse incentives, has decided to stop redeeming slaves. Jacobson has mailed letters to more than 6,000 donors, offering to return their money or to redirect it to other humanitarian efforts. Those other efforts could include some unorthodox approaches to fighting slavery in Sudan. One idea is the provision of used trucks and jeeps. Slave raiders arrive on horseback; owing to the flat, treeless landscape, they can be seen for miles. "With trucks you can head off the raiders and stop them from taking slaves, or you can chase after them and rescue people," Jacobson explains.

He also wants to put slave rescuers on salary. The rescuers could be recruited from the nomadic Rizeiqat tribe, whose members move freely in the north and even now often help to find enslaved people in exchange for the right to water their cattle on Dinka land. The Rizeiqat could be sent north with lists of people known to have been enslaved. Most hamlets in Bahr al Ghazal keep detailed lists of the missing, more than a few of which I have seen. These lists give the full name of each abducted person, his or her age, and the approximate date of capture. The lists could be collected and consolidated into a database. A rescuer who found a person on the list could help him or her to break out of captivity and return home. This would cut out the middlemen who make the slave trade possible. It would also curb hoaxes.

Policymakers, meanwhile, should focus their attention on what anti-slavery activists call the "train of death." This train, which runs between Khartoum and the city of Wau, a southern stronghold of the government, is the primary means of transport used by the slave raiders. Without it they would not be able to transport large numbers of slaves north or provide enough water for their horses. Virtually all raids occur within a two-day ride of the rail line. Severing that rail link would at a stroke curtail slavery in Sudan. But the rebels lack the tools -- and outside governments lack the will.

Crafting a successful abolitionist foreign policy has never been easy, as the long British experience suggests. Beginning in the 1820s, the British sought to end slavery throughout their empire. With their powerful army and navy they shut down most of the slave markets in the African colonies within a decade. Yet pockets of slavery kept emerging for another hundred years. Throughout the nineteenth century the British government dispatched soldiers to kill or disarm slave raiders, and sent warships to crush the warlords who sheltered slave traders. Not until the first decades of this century did their campaign succeed. Even so, they had to remain vigilant lest slavery break out again. "If the colonial government were standing for election, I would vote for them," a Nairobi schoolmaster told me recently. "They gave us more than sacks of grain and kind words." One does not need to accept this wistful vote for colonialism to take the point that fighting slavery is not a task for sentimentalists.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Richard Miniter writes on subjects including entrepreneurship, national politics, foreign affairs, and the environment. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reader's Digest.

Illustrations by Gregory Christie.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Slave Redemption - 99.07 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 1; page 63-70.