Slavery in South Sudan

27 March 2020

South Sudan and Sudan, like many African nations, have a history of slavery and traditions which have promoted and normalised slavery in many communities today. Inter-tribe rivalries and conflicts have often resulted in the abduction of people, women and children in particular. This, however, was never systematic and was certainly in no way state-sponsored, subsidised or resourced. Slavery was discouraged under colonial rule and whilst it continued, did not pervade the South Sudanese and Sudanese societies as it has since the 1980s.

Even though slavery in Sudan was initially abolished in 1924, a rise in slavery in South Sudan and Sudan coincided with the ascent to power of the National Islamic Front (NIF) and the encouragement of the use of slavery as a weapon of war after a successful military coup in 1989. Between 1989 and 2011, the NIF continually applied a strategy of enslaving black, ethnically African Sudanese and Southern Sudanese peoples, regardless of their religious beliefs because of an ingrained notion of second-class status to the Arab population. This policy of justified ethnic-based slavery started and was prevalent throughout the primacy of now incarcerated President Omar al-Bashir. During this time, predominantly Black African areas on the Sudanese border with South Sudan such as the Nuba Mountains, Abyei and the Bahr el Ghazal region were subjected to raids in which typically, men were killed and women and children abducted. Those abducted were often subjected to forced Islamification for non-Muslims and forced Arabisation of Muslim Sudanese. Those sold into the slave trade were treated as second-class citizens, given new names, forced to travel hundreds of miles from home, separated from their families, beaten, abused and forced to work constantly for no pay. Many of these women and children were subjected to sexual abuse and torture throughout their time as slaves. Those who were enslaved could only regain their freedom through large payments to slaveholders or attempted escapes which if unsuccessful could have potentially fatal ramifications.

When the country split in 2011, it is estimated that over 35,000 South Sudanese people remained as slaves in Sudan and whilst al-Bashir is no longer President, it has become almost impossible to know how many remain enslaved today. The government of Sudan has yet to be held accountable for its part in the creation and development of a systematic and state-sponsored slave trade. This slave trade operated for 29 years and whilst al-Bashir, 76, is currently serving a two-year sentence in a reform centre, he and his government have not been tried or convicted for their part in it, in spite of the International Criminal Court issuing warrants for al-Bashir’s arrest in 2009. The complete lack of accountability from the Sudanese government for its part in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands, many from South Sudan, gives justification to the process and leaves the door open to further tragedy. If no one is held responsible, the victims of slavery are denied justice.

Currently in South Sudan, 2 million children are out of school, a record high, and the country has the lowest female literacy rate in the world. Whilst slavery is not the only reason for this, it has played a significant role in the generational education gap and the rising rates of illiteracy. However, whilst the horrors of slavery and abduction still linger throughout South Sudanese society, particularly in the North, there is hope of a better life for many of the communities affected. Whilst many remain unaccounted for and generations have missed out on a childhood, education and the chance to progress, those living in South Sudan could one day have access to these opportunities.

Whilst the politics of South Sudan remain fractured, and areas such as Abyei continue to be affected by international and local tensions, education, aid and local community projects can make a huge difference. This, however, will not be easy and will require tailored and innovative ideas to develop these communities. The education of women and girls in particular would help to bridge the generational education gap, caused in part by abductions, and provide foundations for a blossoming society to grow from.

Furthermore, there is more to be done in terms of freeing many people who remain slaves. Whilst the idea of paying slaveholders to release slaves remains controversial, it does drastically improve the lives of those who otherwise would remain as slaves. This is a practice which must be balanced to not encourage further enslavement whilst also accounting for the individual happiness and success buying freedom can bring. Whilst it is not perhaps a perfect solution, it does ease the suffering of those most in need of help.


By Max Elgot, HART Fundraising Intern

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