Slavery in Africa

May 05, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- If you think slavery is a thing of the past, guess again.

A vigorous market in human beings continues in Mauritania and Sudan, according to a variety of investigators for the United Nations, the State Department, private human-rights organizations and, increasingly, concerned African-Americans who think Africa's dirty little secret has gone on long enough.

A number of black newspapers and broadcast talk shows have spotlighted the issue, most prominently the New York City Sun, a black-owned Brooklyn-based newspaper that recently ran a five-part series on the problem.

That's an eye-opening and welcome departure from past practice, when it long was considered politically incorrect to expose black victimization of other blacks, for fear any ''disunity'' would play into the hands of white racists.

Although Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., and the Congressional Black Caucus have been on Zaire President Mobuto Sese Seko's case for a decade, black media and political leaders usually have avoided holding black African leaders accountable to the same high human-rights standards they expected of whites.

But, that was the old world order. In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of South African apartheid, an increasing number of African-Americans are speaking a more candid and forceful critique of black African leadership.

Last month, Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, the Washington-based lobbying group that re-energized the anti-apartheid movement in 1984 and prodded President Clinton to invade Haiti last year, announced his new crusade: ''Pressing the Clinton administration to take stronger measures against Nigerian General Sani Abacha.''

Mr. Robinson pulled together more than 50 other prominent blacks, including 24 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to chastise President Abacha for ''repression as despicable as South African apartheid'' over the past 19 months in Africa's largest country.

On May 20, in New York, the first anti-slavery conference in the United States in 130 years is scheduled to feature the black Catholic bishop of the south Sudan, Macram Max Gassis. He is expected to talk about how black people in his country are bought and sold for as little as $15 in slave markets.

Bishop Gassis testified before Congress in March that Arabs, armed by the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum, kidnap and enslave black children and women as part of a holy war against Christian and animist Sudanese.

Although Sudan's Ambassador to the United States Ahmed Suliman calls the charges ''preposterous,'' the civil war that has been raging for 12 years between north and south Sudan has given some Sudanese Arabs an opportunity to revive the practice of collecting, selling and branding slaves for the first time in more than 100 years, according to human-rights groups.

Legal slavery did not end in the former French colony of Mauritania until 1980, but the State Department estimates 90,000 blacks still live as the property of Berbers, aboriginal Caucasoid peoples of North Africa, who form a large part of the populations of Libya, Algeria and Morocco.

As many as 300,000 freed slaves in Mauritania continue to serve their former masters because of psychological or economic dependence, according to Charles Jacobs, research director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, which is helping organize the May 20 anti-slavery conference at Columbia University, sponsored by the New York-based Coalition Against Slavery in Africa.

Sudan's military dictator, Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, is black and an apparent beneficiary of slave services as well, although he acknowledges only that he has four ''students'' living in his house. One, a young boy, escaped this year, according to a London Observer report, which also said a number of slave boys from the south have been herded into service as living blood banks for northern soldiers.

Interestingly, the April 12 edition of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan's newspaper, the Final Call, takes the side of Sudan's black dictator and attacks the Anti-Slavery Group's researcher. Abdul Akbar Muhammad, Mr. Farrakhan's international representative, calls Mr. Jacobs a ''Jewish consultant,'' as if his ethnicity is a sin, and characterizes Mr. Jacobs' press releases as ''using the old FBI trick of planting stories.'' Talk about guilt by association.

Mr. Muhammad attacks racism by the rulers of Mauritania but gives a breathtakingly casual pass to Libya, which also has been accused of harboring slaves and slavers. Nowhere does Mr. Muhammad mention that Libyan dictator Muammar el Kadafi has lent millions of dollars over the past 11 years to help the Nation of Islam build its economic empire.

I can appreciate the Nation of Islam's need to promote black pride, especially when it means profits for the Nation of Islam. But, if black pride means anything, it means caring about black people, even when their oppressors don't happen to be white.

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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