Black leaders speak up on slavery Black Caucus' head pushes law aimed at Sudan

NAACP to act

July 02, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The newly elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus says that the past silence of American black leaders on slavery in Africa is about to end.

Rep. Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat, is to make the first major push for legislation to force the government of Sudan to end chattel slavery in that country.

"This is the first time they have ever had any real strong legislation of this nature," Payne said. "We just hope this will serve as a catalyst to have them see that slavery is now becoming an issue. We don't want to create problems, but we feel we have got to have strong legislation in order to get some action."

Payne's move follows publication in The Sun of a three-part series documenting the continued existence of slavery in the Sudan. Two Sun reporters traveled illegally to Sudan and bought and freed two slaves for $1,000 to prove that slavery is still practiced there.

Payne said that black leaders have not previously campaigned actively against modern slavery in Africa because their attention has been diverted by a number of other pressing problems in the United States and abroad.

"It's just that there have been so many other issues," Payne said last week in his first extensive interview on the subject.

But that is about to change. Payne has introduced legislation to strengthen economic and military sanctions to force the Sudanese government -- which has been accused of supporting the slave trade -- to take action against slavery. He is also calling for the stationing in Sudan of U.S. human rights monitors, who would report to Congress quarterly.

The Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum has steadfastly denied any role in slavery and has refused to allow human rights monitors to investigate reports of slavery.

Predicting "overwhelming" support for his legislation, Payne said: "I am glad now that attention is moving onto it." But, he cautioned, the Republicans, who control the congressional agenda, have cut U.S. aid to Africa and shown little interest in the continent.

"This is going to depend on the way I can convince the Republican leadership" to make slavery a priority, he said. "It is tough legislation, and it's going to be tough to push it through."

Payne also submitted The Sun's series, "Witness to Slavery," for the official record of the subcommittee on Africa last week.

Slavery will also be on the agenda of the NAACP's annual convention in Charlotte, N.C., next month. The Baltimore-based civil rights organization is expected to call for stronger action against Khartoum and to push the Organization of African Unity to draw up its own plan to end slavery on the continent. The NAACP is already on record as opposing slavery but has yet to launch an active campaign against it.

This sudden burst of interest contrasts with the black leadership's passivity over repeated reports from the United Nations, the State Department and human rights organizations of slavery in Sudan and Mauritania. There has been no rallying call from a unified African-American leadership against slavery as there was against apartheid in South Africa.

And Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, has questioned whether slavery even exists in Sudan.

"Why is it that not one black leader has said to his own constituency that this is something we need to mobilize on?" asks Charles Jacobs, research director of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group.

"You have to ask, why is this being treated so differently from apartheid? Slavery is worse than apartheid. Apartheid was horrible. Slavery is worse," he says.

Jacobs' group has been campaigning for three years against modern slavery in Sudan and elsewhere with limited impact.

He notes that women's groups have been largely silent although many female slaves are subject to "daily rape" as concubines and that church groups have not been stirred into action, even though the southern Sudanese victims of slavery are mainly Christians or animists, who believe in many spirits.

They are facing a jihad, or holy war, from Khartoum, which is seeking to impose Islamic rule on the country. In the course of the civil war, thousands of southern Sudanese have been taken into slavery by Khartoum's soldiers and militiamen.

"It is sad and tragic that it has taken a long time for the black leaders to organize on this," said Jacobs, adding that black leaders appear reluctant to divide the community by confronting Farrakhan, an ally of the regime in Khartoum.

Farrakhan has not been a factor, said Payne, who replaced former Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume as caucus chairman earlier this year when Mfume became executive director of the NAACP.

"I have heard this suggestion that the silence was because of Farrakhan," he said. "I think the silence was because it was an issue that didn't come to the forefront."

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