Slavery exists in contemporary Sudan: there are perhaps ten thousand people held as unfree labourers and regarded, by their owners and by themselves, as slaves. Under any definition this is an outrageous violation of human rights and an indictment of the government under which it exists. But the relationship between slavery and government policy is ambiguous. The evidence suggests that the resurgence in slavery has arisen from social and economic decay in rural western Sudan, combined with government military policies designed with other ends in mind. Nonetheless, the single issue of slavery has taken on a logic and momentum of its own. At times, it has threatened to obscure all other issues in the country, including abusive policies for which the government is directly responsible.

In the West, particularly in the United States, the issue of slavery is deeply resonant. Yet slavery is a complicated subject in which the facts can easily be obscured by emotive considerations. Slavery is deeply entrenched in Sudanese historical consciousness, North and South. Nineteenth-century Sudan was a slaving state in which Arab merchants plundered the southern and western hinterlands for human booty. In looking at contemporary slavery in Sudan, however, there is a scarcity of hard facts: the government has yet to allow an independent investigation into allegations of slavery, and all examinations have been conducted by roundabout means, piecing together fragments of information from different sources. Hence the debate on slavery tells us more about the agendas of the political and humanitarian organizations involved than about the fate of the unfortunate slaves themselves.

This essay will focus on three main issues: how the Sudanese government has used the militias which are implicated in enslaving Southerners; how international organizations, primarily militant Christians, have focused on slavery; and finally how slavery has been used by Southern politicians in their turn. In the course of these accounts, some light may be shed on the nature of contemporary Sudanese slavery itself.

It was with militia raids in the early stages of the current civil war that slavery in Sudan once again became resurgent. In 1983, after a decade of peace, Southern Sudan returned to war following a mutiny by Southern army units forming the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (spla) led by Dr John Garang. The spark for the mutiny was a series of disputes over the structure of the Southern regional government, and control over the oil and water resources of the South, but in the background was the deepening political marginalization of Southerners and other non-Arab Sudanese as the Khartoum government fell more under the influence of radical Islamists such as Dr Hassan al Turabi.

Over the course of the war, the country has become more and more polarized along racial and religious lines. Successive governments in Khartoum have become more Islamist and authoritarian, culminating in the current National Islamic Front (nif) regime, which banned all political parties, trade unions and newspapers, and imprisoned those political opponents who could not find a way to leave the country. Although the spla formally espouses a united secular state, many of its core supporters in the South are motivated by anti-Northern separatism. The spla has been first and foremost an army which had developed little in the way of a practical social politics of liberation. Its fractious internal politics have been a lifeline to the government. As the war progressed, ordinary Sudanese citizens have grown ever poorer.

The war is more than North versus South. There are also deep-rooted insurrections in non-Arab, marginalized areas of the North such as the Nuba Mountains. Since the 1989 coup, the major political parties of the North have made common cause with the spla against the nif, under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (nda). After 1994–95, when the Sudanese Government offended Eritrea and Ethiopia—by backing Islamist guerrillas in Eritrea and sponsoring a terrorist attack on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he was visiting the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa—the Sudanese opposition has found support from these neighbouring governments. This has transformed the prospects of the nda: the joint forces of the spla and northern opposition have brought the war to Northern Sudan, posing an unprecedented military threat to the government. Many observers see the left-leaning, northern-dominated Sudan Alliance Forces led by Brigadier Abdel Aziz Khalid as potentially the strongest northern force in the nda.

Meanwhile, in south-western Sudan, straddling the north-south border-lands, lies an area that is both a microcosm of the war and a region of particular interest, because this is where most enslavement is concentrated. This area has seen a contest between pro-government militias drawn from the cattle-herding Baggara Arabs of Kordofan and Darfur and their Southern neighbours, the Dinka people of Bahr el Ghazal, who are largely supportive of the spla. The Baggara militia are generally known as Murahaliin—a corruption of the Arabic Marahil, nomads. Unwavering support for the Murahaliin by the government has amounted to conniving in slavery.