19 August 2002
The new and significant moves towards a peaceful resolution of the Sudanese civil war (1), as outlined in the July 2002 Machakos peace protocol, must go hand in hand with a concerted attempt to cut away the dead hand of propaganda that has artificially prolonged the conflict. One organisation that has also been at the heart of the propaganda war surrounding Sudan has been the self-styled "American Anti-Slavery Group" (AASG). Headed by Charles Jacobs, AASG is based in Boston. Jacobs has confirmed that the American Anti-Slavery Group works closely with Christian Solidarity International.(2) The organisation has been identified with claims of Arab "slave" raiders "enslaving" black women and children in Sudan, and has also been closely involved in subsequently discredited mass "slave redemptions". These sorts of "slave redemptions" had earlier been dismissed by reputable human rights activists such as Alex de Waal. As director of African Rights, de Waal pointed referred to "(O)vereager or misinformed human rights advocates in Europe and the US" who "have played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage." He further criticised the use of "the term 'slave raids', implying that taking captives is the aim of government policy." De Waal stated: "there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade." (3)
In February 2002, as the result of some excellent investigative journalism, The Irish Times, London's The Independent on Sunday, The Washington Post and International Herald Tribune, chose to publish, or republish, articles exposing the deep fraud and corruption at the heart of claims of "slave redemption" in Sudan.(4) These articles are the culmination of long-standing concerns about the activities of several organisations involved in what had become a Western-financed "redemption" industry in parts of Sudan. Claims by organisations such as AASG to have "redeemed" tens of thousands of Sudanese "slaves" have been sharply called into question. 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".(5) The Independent on Sunday reported that it was able to "reveal that 'redemption' has often been a carefully orchestrated fraud".(6) Rev Cal Bombay, whose Crossroads Christian Communications organisation in Canada had been involved in "slave redemptions" revealed that SPLA leaders such as Dr Samson Kwaje, in candid comments about "slave redemption", "doubted that even 5%" of the "slaves" had ever been abducted, and that "they were coached in how to act, and stories to tell."(7)
The Irish Times reported "According to aid workers, missionaries, and even the rebel movement that facilitates it, slave redemption in Sudan is often an elaborate scam." The Irish Times article also 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. Rebel officials round up local villagers to pose for the cameras. They recruit fake slavers – a light skinned soldier, or a passing trader, to 'sell' them. The children are coached in stories of abduction and abuse for when the redeemer, or a journalist, asks questions. Interpreters may be instructed to twist their answers. The money, however, is very real. CSI can spend more than $300,000 during a week of redemptions at various bush locations. After their plane takes off, the profits are divvied up – a small cut to the 'slaves ' and the 'trader ' but the lion's share to local administrators and SPLA figures."
In an open letter in 2000 senior SPLA commander Aleu Ayieny Aleu stated that "slave redemption" had become a "racket of mafia dimensions". He also revealed, as an example, that one of his lighter-skinned relatives, SPLA captain Akec Tong Aleu, had been "forced several times to pretend as an Arab and simulate the sale of free children to CSI on camera".(8) Aleu declared: "It was a hoax. This thing has been going on for no less than six years".(9) This account, The Washington Post stated, "coincides with descriptions of the scam offered by Sudanese officials and Western aid workers, who said the sheer volume of money flowing into the south made corruption inevitable."(10) The newspaper also reported that "prevalent fraud is acknowledged by senior rebel officials".
In examining earlier, equally questionable, claims made by the AASG, David Hecht, a BBC correspondent based in Senegal, directly challenged the credibility of Charles Jacobs, bluntly referring to "the misinformation of Jacobs and his anti-slavery group".(11) Hecht focused on claims made before congressional sub-committees in 1996 by Jacobs and the American Anti-Slavery Group which spoke of Arab slave raiders capturing black women and children in Mauritania. Jacobs testified that slaves are treated as "concubines". He also claimed that many slaves undergo exotic torture, including "camel treatment," the "insect treatment" and the "burning coals treatment". The congressmen were also presented with a receipt by Jacobs and his colleagues to be for the sale of a slave and her baby daughter.
The then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Twaddle, stated with regard to the allegations made by Jacobs that they "have not credibly been brought to our attention." He stated, for example, that the American government had investigated the receipt for the "slave purchase" and concluded that the signatures were forged. (12) Jacobs claimed that there were hundreds of thousands of black slaves in Mauritania. The State Department's country report on human rights in Mauritania for 1996, however, stated: "Slavery in the form of officially sanctioned forced or involuntary servitude, is extremely rare, and a system of slavery in which government and society join to force individuals to serve masters no longer exists".(13)
In his study of Jacobs' claims, Hecht interviewed Hindou Mint Ainina, editor-in-chief of Le Calame, one of Mauritania's leading independent newspapers, about the claims made by Jacobs. Hecht records that Ms Ainina scoffed at the stories of "slave raids" described to Congress and has never heard of the "bizarre" camel, insect or hot sand tortures cited by Jacobs. Hecht reported that "many in Mauritania believe these tales were concocted by members of FLAM (Forces pour la liberation des Africains Mauritaniens), a liberation group for non-Maur Africans as anti-government propaganda." A senior U.S. Foreign Service official observed: "They [the rebels] have many legitimate grievances but slavery is not one of them." Hecht quoted Ainina as asking of American congressmen "Do they think we have big plantations here and white mansions on top of the hill? They are sadly mistaken." (14)
Jacobs has been accused of "Muslim baiting" and has referred to the Prophet Muhammed as a swindler.(15) Prior to his involvement with AASG, Jacobs had been involved in ultra-conservative, pro-Israeli activism. He headed, for example, the 'Mosaic Group', described by The Jewish Advocate newspaper as "an activist group which countered anti-Israel propaganda in community organizations."(16) When asked about Mosaic, one of Jacobs' colleagues stated: "Well, it's not the name that he [Jacobs] goes under anymore. I think that sort of fell by the wayside when he renamed it the American Anti-Slavery Group."(17) In any instance, the AASG is clearly partisan with regard to the Sudanese conflict, supporting and working with the SPLA rebel movement. One of the AASG co-founders was David de Chand, a southern Sudanese rebel official. It has been noted that there is an ideological context for Jacobs' support for the SPLA. Israel had historically supported and given military aid to southern Sudanese rebels as part of policies designed to destabilise Islamic countries.(18)
In 2000, Jacobs became the Director of The Sudan Campaign, a coalition of anti-Sudanese groups. The similarities between AASG's claims about Mauritania and Sudan are clear. Just as in Mauritania, allegations about Arab slave raiders and claims of "slavery" in Sudan make for good anti-Muslim propaganda. Jacobs once again alleged the existence of "concubines".(19) Allegations of "slavery" have been closely associated with, and have directly benefited, rebel movements in both countries. Jacobs was also able to focus considerably more attention on Sudan by presenting the issue as one of northern Arab "slavers" and African Christian southerners. And in Sudan the whole issue has been a very lucrative one for "slave redeemers", with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash allegedly changing hands. The AASG has also shamelessly exploited the naivety of school teachers and schoolchildren (20) as well as Harvard University undergraduates in its campaigns.(21) In addition to claims of slavery, Jacobs has also described Sudan as a "terrorist, genocidal" state (22) engaged in a "holy war".(23)
It has clearly been easy for the AASG to get its claims into print, particularly within local newspapers and television stations whose journalistic standards have been less than demanding. John Stauber, the founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, and director of "PR Watch", observed:
This is precisely what has happened with regard to the "slave redemption" activities organised by the American Anti-Slavery Group. There is considerable evidence that Charles Jacobs and his American Anti-Slavery Group's carefully-designed "PR puff pieces" have found fertile ground in Boston. (25) Jacobs has managed to secure national media coverage for his claims.(26) The Boston ad agency of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos launched a campaign on behalf of AASG. Adverts were aimed at "grabbing readers with a provocative, even offensive, approach" and sought to place these ads in national papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. A senior vice- president at the ad agency, Todd Riddle, said of the ad campaign "[i]t puts a spin on the old slave auctions." (27)
The work of die-hards such as Charles Jacobs, and groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Group, direct beneficiaries of continuing conflict in Sudan, must be criticised for the self-serving activities that they so clearly are. They are running against the tide of peace and progress in Sudan.