The Great Slave Scam

By Declan Walsh

For many years now a vicious war is in progress in Sudan, a country situated in north Africa.  The Islamic government in the capital Khartoum, in the north, is determined to subdue the mainly Christian south.  Snatching slaves has become part of the war.  Christians throughout the world have been outraged and have tried to buy the slaves back … but this has opened the door to unscrupulous people to make a lot of money.  Read on …

The slave redemption makes for powerful human drama. A line of women and children emerging from the African bush. A slave trader in front, wrapped in the white robes of an Arab. And before them, waiting with a bag of money at his feet, is a white, Christian man. The procession halts under the shade of a tree. There is discussion, then money changes hands. Suddenly the trader gives a nod, the slaves walk free and there are cries of joy as families are re-united. Freedom, at last.

Or so they thought

Who could fail to be stirred by this emotional sight?  Thousands of black African southern Sudanese have been enslaved by vicious militiamen from the mainly Arab and Muslim north.  For the past seven years, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) has been buying back, or “redeeming” the slaves, for US$50 a head.  The highly publicized redemptions have touched millions of hearts – and wallets – across the world but particularly in the United States.  Celebrities and politicians have chained themselves to railings in protest.  Pop stars have given free concerts.  Little girls have given their lunch money.  But there is another side to the redemption story.

Elaborate scam

According to aid workers, missionaries and even the rebel movement that facilitates it, slave redemption in Sudan is often an elaborate scam.  Some genuine slaves have been redeemed – nobody can say how many – but in other cases, the process is nothing more than a careful deceit, stage-managed by corrupt officials.

It seems like a noble cause. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a group of anti-government rebels, has been at war with the Khartoum government, an extremist Islamic regime, since 1983. The rebels control most of the south; government forces hold the north. In its prosecution of the war, the government – a notorious human-rights abuser – has revived slavery. Arab militiamen are encouraged to destabilize frontline rebel-held villages by looting, murdering and snatching women and children away to a life of slavery in the north.

The real story

To combat this terrible human trade, Christian Solidarity International arranges for Arab traders to buy the slaves and secretly walk them through the bush to safe villages in the rebel-held south.  The CSI plane lands, the money is paid and the slaves walk free.  Or so it appears.

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. Christian Solidarity International can spend more than $300,000 during a week of redemptions at various bush locations. After their plane takes off, the profits are divided up – a small cut to the ‘slaves’ and the ‘trader’ but the lion’s share to local administrators and SPLA figures. One commander is said to have earned enough from the profits of slavery to buy 40 wives. Other officials living in faraway Nairobi or Europe have allegedly built houses or financed businesses. A well-intentioned endeavor has been subverted in Africa’s greatest, and most lucrative, theatre performance.

Oblivious redeemers

English Baroness Caroline Cox, who sits in the House of Lords, was among the original redeemers, but the trade has been dominated by the Swiss-based CSI, which has bought the ‘freedom’ of more than 64,000 slaves since 1995.  It denies being duped.  “The money involved is well publicized,” says John Eibner, the American who has been the driving force behind redemption.  “But we have our own mechanisms in place to ensure there is no fraud.”  CSI is in the process of introducing fingerprinting and video-identification systems for redeemed slaves.

However, members of the anti-government rebels, which plays a key role in every redemption trip, say otherwise. “The racket is there, right from the top,” admits official SPLA spokesman, Samson Kwaje. “The money comes from those American kids. But who gets the cheque?”


It’s a question that few can answer with certainty.  But what is sure is that the warning signs have been there for years.  Within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, whispers of suspicion have swelled into a chorus of criticism in recent years.  Acrimonious rows have broken out and accusations of profiteering leveled at the individuals.  Outside the rebel ranks, aid workers have been puzzled.  It seems almost incredible that tens of thousands of abducted civilians could cross a dangerous frontline undetected by government forces.  Moreover, aid workers north of the line saw no evidence of large movements south, and their colleagues in the south saw no sudden demand for extra food or medicines by redeemed slaves.  Put simply, the numbers didn’t add up.  And yet no questions were asked.  The dollars rolled in and the redemptions continued.  The last one was in December.

That slavery exists in Sudan is not in doubt. Since time immemorial the southern Dinka pastoralists have fought with their Arab neighbors to the north. In battles over grazing land, warriors from both sides would raid cattle, women and children from each other. Later, some slaves could be returned, in exchange for an agreed upon number of cattle. Organized slave trading died out during the British colonial period but with the advent of war in 1983, it was deliberately revived by the Khartoumgovernment in response to the SPLA insurgency. It armed the Murahaleen, a ruthless horseback Arab militia, and charged them with protecting a military train that cuts through rebel territory to the garrison town of Wau.

Shocking reality

Shocked by the re-emergence of this brutal practice, Christian Solidarity International threw its weight behind the redemption of southern slaves in the mid-1990s.  Under Eibner, it arranged for northern “traders” to smuggle lines of slaves into the rebels’ territory.  There, CSI would negotiate a price – usually $50, more recently $33 – for the unfortunate slaves.  Scores of journalists were brought along to witness the exchange.  In the United States, with its black population and heritage of slavery, it touched a raw nerve.  The campaign gripped the public imagination and hasn’t let go since.  From stockbrokers to school kids, millions of dollars have been raised for redemption.  Slavery became a fundraising phenomenon, and Sudan is the most high-profile African cause in the U.S.since apartheid.

From a distance

But outside observers of redemption do not, and cannot, see everything.  The entire operation is controlled by the anti-government rebels, which provides communications, transport and interpreters, and it is conducted in great secrecy.  Christian Solidarity International says this is necessary for security reasons – it fears the government will bomb it – but this makes it extremely difficult for outsiders to drop in unannounced on a redemption.

One exception is Fr. Mario Riva. An Italian missionary, Fr. Riva lived in Bahr el Ghazal, the frontline province where most of the fighting and slave redemption takes place, for more than 40 years. He retired two years ago. In the late 1990s, Fr. Riva stumbled across a CSI redemption between the towns of Marial Bai and Nyamlell.  The Comboni Father was like any other Western observer, but with one crucial difference – he knew the Dinka people, and their language, as his own.


John Eibner was standing under a tree with a group of slaves, some of whom Fr. Riva recognized as his own parishioners.  “The people told me they had been collected to get money.  It was a kind of business,” he recalls.  A rebel official was translating between Eibner and the slaves.  “The white man would ask one thing and they would translate something different to the people,” he says.  For example, says Fr. Riva, Eibner would ask if a slave had been held in captivity.  The official would translate the question as “Have you suffered in the war?”  The villager emphatically reply in the positive.  Then the translator would tell Eibner that the man had been abducted by Arabs, treated inhumanly and was grateful to CSI for saving his life.

However, Fr. Riva said nothing at the time, fearing retribution from the rebel soldiers. “I was very upset. I could not stay at the redemption,” he says. One nurse with a European aid agency witnessed a first-time redemption by a small American Christian group – not Christian Solidarity International – in late 1999. “They brought the kids to be redeemed to a clearing under the trees. I knew two of them by name,” she says. “They were wearing our feeding center bracelets. And the logistician recognized the Arab guy as someone from the district who worked with the SRRA (the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the rebels’ relief coordination wing).” The Americans, who were filming the redemption, did not notice. The nurse wanted to speak out but her colleague told her to keep quiet. “He said, ‘There are guys here with guns. Let them give the money if they want,’” she recalls.

Christian Solidarity International has been publicly challenged on the effects of redemption. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF started a row when it suggested that redemption encourages further slave raiding. Despite the multiplicity of warning signs, CSI has accelerated the redemption process in the past two years. Planes chartered by CSI have regularly touched down inBahr el Ghazal, bringing medicine, food and hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than 50,000 slaves have been redeemed in this period.

The savage war between North and South Sudan continues. The attempts to liberate slaves have been genuine even though unscrupulous people have taken advantage of it, create ‘fake’ slaves and make money. That is the way with so many good causes in life, so we have to be vigilant and try to continue those good causes as we struggle to eliminate the abuse and the scandals.