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Genocide in the African World: An overview with Sudan as an example (written in 1991)

Molefe Kete Asante 

In Southern Africa, according to C. T. Keto, the old men tell the story of a group of hunters who had been sent on a mission to obtain wild game from a certain spot a long ways from their village. On the way, after traveling several miles they see a limping antelope. One of the men say, "Let's kill that antelope for food and continue our journey afterwards." They then ran after the limping antelope. The faster they ran the faster the animal ran. Soon they had lost their way and had gotten into territory unknown to them. They discovered that a limping antelope could still run faster than men. Lost, weary, and hungry, the men turned back towards their village empty handed.  

We will find many limping antelopes on the subject of enslavement of Africans in Africa when we start to discuss this subject but we must force ourselves at to keep ourselves focused on the objective. Our aim should be nothing less than the international spotlight on slavery in Africa and the outright condemnation of human inhumanity. There can be no excuse, slavery and genocide are morally indefensible, brutally monstrous, and ethically repugnant. And though we can point to the Arab origin of the present slavery in the Sudan and Mauritania, we must not allow ourselves to get bogged down in name-calling or ethnic chauvinism. We can condemn the economic situation, the war situation, the geographical situation, the political situation, the ethnic situation but the reality is that people, human beings, are being brutalized and often killed.

We have come to many crossroads in human history, this is one that Africans everywhere must face. While a part of the world is liberating itself from the clutches of ideological dictatorship other parts of the world are intensifying the attack on human freedom. These contradictions stand at the door of the new world order with calling cards of legal, political, and moral dimensions.

We see the freedom spirit in the Baltics, the Balkans, and the Black Sea; we must see the same freedom break out in Sudan, Mauritania, and South Africa, also called Azania. Indeed we are not unmindful of the situation in this hemisphere with the Dominican Republic's enslavement of Haitians. The dynamic changes in the world today are the natural revolutions of oppressed people. Once given a spark, a leader, an ideology of liberation, a courageous act, oppressed people will recognize their condition and rise to throw off the chains of oppression. Not even the military cabal in Haiti will be able to resist for long the rising currents of freedom in that for now pitiful land.

Human changes are not only suggested in association with freedom, they are essential to all of our liberty. Freedom is indivisible. If we want it for ourselves then we must treasure it for others. In this way we protect freedom for all. Wherever in the earth enslavement exists it must be eradicated, that must be our cry as we look towards an earth free of intolerance, prejudice, racism, and ethnic animosities.  

We are increasingly confronted with two problems: (1) assuring self determination and (2) protecting minority rights. Both of these problems are solvable within the framework of classical African cultures. There is no reason for a person or a group of people, that is, ethnic group or national group to assume that the society is exclusively theirs.

We are all custodians of the earth. My rights to self determination, even within a multi-ethnic state system, should be guaranteed when I feel that my people cannot, for legal or cultural reasons, receive fair treatment from the nation state. Much of this will depend upon the historic relationships shared by the people. In some cases, confederations may be possible; in others, clearly autonomous regions might be necessary within the framework of a national government.

Enslavement of Other Africans by Africans  

In its vulgar form, nationalism claims a biological basis for its persecution, oppression, exploitation, and enslavement of others. This is the case with two African nations, Sudan and Mauritania. In those countries there is established a dichotomy between Arab and African, between Islam and African Religions. This division is sharpened by appeals to biology, to physical looks, though many times I have been unable to distinguish the so-called Arab from the African. It is a South African type problem where the so-called Colored, robbed of his or her African culture and unable to speak an African language, is called better than the person who has retained his or her language and culture, even though they may look exactly alike. This is a problem of racism. Sudanese and Mauritanian societies have made the enslavement of Africans a racial issue, complicated by the cultural question in its basest form, naive nationalism.

Fanon warned that biological arguments would become cultural arguments and that the objective would remain racist repression and oppression of the less powerful. We see that happening in the cases of enslavement in Africa. Those who define themselves as superior and better translate their attitudes into cultural superiority arguments.

Ultimately there is a calamities conflict which brews and simmers waiting the inevitable explosion for freedom. Disdain, disrespect, the dismissing of traditions are signals of the Arab control over the Africans in Sudan. In many ways the dichotomy, Arab and African, reflects the subtlety or bluntness of the problem depending on your perspective. In one way, we can think of both Arab and African as human, living in the same relative space, and having the same general needs. In another way, we see them as enslaver and enslaved, controller and controlled.

To be Arab is to stake out a certain political and cultural history although you may live on African soil. The culture that identifies Arabs as Arabs originates in Arabia; African culture originates in Africa. To have Arabs in Africa who exercise their Arabness against the people whose land they occupy is to raise a new level of African international debate. Indeed Iran has recently given Sudan 300 million dollars to purchase Chinese weapons to prosecute its war against the southern Sudanese. But Iran has extracted its pound of flesh from the African country. Sudan has been asked to make every Moslem woman wear the chador to veil her face. In fact, the Islamic Sudanese have been required to give up their own traditional dress for the Iranian style. Failure to follow the regulations means that women are whipped. In order to carry out its regulations, Sudan has ordered 6 million whips, one for every three women in the country.

It is thus that we see the complexity of the present situation in Sudan and Mauritania. To declare Africanness in more than a geographical or domicile sense would be to declare solidarity with the traditions of the African people. What is necessary is the declaration of unity between the people of Sudan and Mauritania. But it has become extremely difficult for them to make such a declaration because of the  legacy and maintenance of slavery in those countries.

This is no bogus declaration; it is a profound, even cataclysmic shift in perspective. And because of that perhaps too much to expect. Nevertheless, we must try to extend ourselves, to cross the dismal chasm of mistrust and distrust to see the same humanity.

Without this type of corrective action on the part of those who hold the hammer lock of enslavement on Africans, we are in for a long, bitter battle. The pitting of African against Arabs on the continent would be catastrophic and epochal much like the historical struggles Africans have had with Europeans and that Europeans have had with Arabs since the call to arms of the "Cross against the Cresent."  

In October, 1991, the AFRIC organization of Canada held an international conference on slavery in Africa. It was a recognition of the signs of the times, the rising tide of Afrocentric consciousness sweeping African people who have been denied so long the sense of history that sees us as subjects. No longer will Africans submit to collective liquidation, torture, persecution, oppression, and racism silently, away from CNN, and without the concern of the world.

The oppressors live in a phantasmagoric world, full of illusions, quirks of superiority, nuances of glories. The oppressed awake from slumber to see themselves as victims of a plague. They vow to do something about this plague and we, their friends, because we are still frightened ourselves as what is possible, because we remember the holocaust of European enslavement of Africans and German murder of Jews and Roma, we side with them to conquer the plague. This is our call as men and women of conscience.

Our collaboration should be communicated immediately so as to alert the forces of oppression that the death knell for human enslavement has been sounded and we will ring the bell of freedom loud and clear.

There is something more here: the enslavement of others distorts the identity of the enslaver and exacerbates, not corrects, his social maladies. Those who are aggressive become even more so; those who are cold and sterile become even more so. Energies are used to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate in deference to the ease with which harmony could be achieved. But this predisposition to authority over others as a well of life is quite contrary to human interests and must be met at the gates in Sudan and Mauritania.

I am shocked and ashamed for Africa when I hear that Belgians and French soldiers must bring order to Kinshasa. I am appalled at the treatment of Africans in Sudan but more distressed because till now African collective voices have not been heard.

Let me emphasize, the enslavement of Africans is no hidden fact recently brought to light; it is a continuing struggle of a continent to shake the lingering impact of earlier invasions—where children have returned to punish their parents. The doctrine of enslavement is therefore only an extension of domination, exploitation, and aggression implacably asserted and maintained. We renounce the African enslavement in Africa by Arabs as we have renounced European oppression of  Africans. Beyond this, however, must be the criticism of the logic of acceptance and silence.

This propensity for enslaving people that we see in Mauritania and Sudan is a mystification based on ignorance:  

They say:

"The blacks are slaves by nature"  

"The blacks are inferior materially"  

"The blacks are not capable of revolting"  

Each of these false assumptions takes its place in the propensity for mystification. While the Arab, who is deemed inferior by the European, may in his mind deem the African inferior, he (the Arab) soon discovers that the African's desire for freedom is no less than his own.

People rarely undergo domination without response, even if it is merely, at first, the response of hatred for the enslaver.  

The Sudanese Example

Let me give you a picture of the Sudanese situation as I see it, with all of its attendant problems. I shall began with a general overview of the condition in the country since its independence.

Sudan became independent from Britain in 1956 and started a steady downward spiral toward anarchy almost from the beginning. Inherent within the political configuration of the nation were the seeds of its own destruction: Islamic religious fundamentalis1m and ethnic animosity. Both of these seeds of destruction have been fertilized by one of the most severe crisis in identity in the whole of Africa. Sudan is a nation in permanent crisis because it is a nation of people totally dislocated from a sense of historical realism.

There are several elements to the crisis of identity which has plunged Sudan into the abyss of an infinite struggle. One of the key elements is the thoroughness of the Arab domination of the Islamized ethnic groups in the North and another element is the government's intention to translate the religious domination to political, social, and cultural domination of the South. These two central factors in the dislocation of the Sudanese regime will be explored in an Afrocentric context with the aim of proposing a way out of the abyss. To gain some sense of Sudan prior to the coming of Islam it is necessary to indicate that the indigenous people of the North are not historically Arabs, that Arabism is an affected identity in most cases based upon religion and customs and not upon history and origin, and that the present political elites of Sudan are Africans whose identities are totally colonized.

The roots of the problem go back to the 19th century. The southern Sudanese fought against the invaders, both Arab and Turkish, as well as the Englishmen. The South tried to break away during the period of Britain and Egypt's rule. The law passed in 1922 that declared the South "closed" was one of the most repressive acts done against the South. No economic or social development was tolerated, and no external involvement with the area was encouraged. The South remained essentially the neglected sister region of the country. Poverty, disease, and illiteracy were the lot of the overwhelming majority in the South. The racism of the Northerners, inherited from their overlords, produced the laws that produced the economic disparity between the North and South. Some will argue that the economic problems were camouflaged by the religious and ethnic problems, but in reality it was the bitter ethnic and religious animosity against the southerners that produced the 1922 law. When Sudan gained independence in l956 the situation even worsened for the South. The first civil war began in 1955 and lasted until 1972. The insurgent movement headed by the Annya-Nya (Snake Poison) appeared, and in 1983 the second Civil war broke out and it is still going on.  

There are two aspects to the enslavement of Africans in Sudan: 1) the attempt to remove all vestiges of African culture from the lives of the people by stripping the historical records of any indigenous influences and, 2) the status of being Arab. We see this in the portrayal of a Sudan apart from its historical roots in the ancient pre-Arabic civilizations of Napata, Meroe, and Nubia. We also see it in the escape from its Christian past, which was of course also an imposition on the indigenous people. But nevertheless, the Sudanese Christian community was, along with the Ethiopian and Egyptian Christian communities, one of the oldest in Africa. With its demise in the 15th and 16th century, Christian Sudan gave way to the completion of the Arabism project in the North. The process of the Islamization of the southern provinces was to gain momentum in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly under the Turco-Egyptian period. Mahdist brutality and fanaticism were to produce set-backs in the proselytizing of the South. This is not to say that the Africans did not accept Islam more than they accepted Christianity. The religion of Islam made each Moslem merchant or traveler an embryonic missionary and the appeal of the religion with its similarities to the African religions was far more powerful than the Christian appeal.

The fact that the British particularly under Wingate introduced English and the Christian Sunday in the provinces in the South is not to go unnoticed. I certainly do not want to be in the position of saying that the British and Europeans, including missionaries from several European countries, did not contribute to the breakdown of order and peace in the Sudan. Very early on, however, we see that the second aspect of the enslavement of the Southerner was being put into effect by the Northerners, often with the support of the various European governments of the territories.

By treating the status of being Arab as a superior status, the Sudan government, under a succession of Arabists and Europeans, created the problems it is now inheriting. Under Wingate's governor-generalship of the Sudan the policy of extending to the South certain territorial rights and certain cultural freedoms did not cause too much controversy in the Arabic press. To be honest, one could not talk of a free press at that  time anyway.  The Egyptian press might have taken up this issue, except Egypt was trying to work out its internal disputes. When it discussed the Sudan, the Egyptian press often attacked the idea of British supremacy in the region, denouncing missionary activities among the Moslems.  

Thus, the process of being Arabicized often took on three characteristics. The African who gave himself up to being Arabicized  1) feared enslavement, 2) identified with a conquering and organized religion, and 3) willingly gave up the African identity. So powerful were these characteristics in the Sudanese African that the person who became Muslim also became Arab in ways that did not happen in other African societies where persons were Muslims but not Arabs, as in, for example, Nigeria, Mali, and Niger. Something peculiar happened to the African in the lower Nile Valley that made him seek to become like the conqueror.  

The implication for Africans who claimed non-Arabism was simple: they were infidels who could be taken into captivity, stripped of their belongings, and reduced the enslavement. To avoid this fate, many of the Africans of the North willingly gave up their African heritage, ceasing to see themselves as Africans,  although for all phenotypic and genotypic purposes they were African. But to claim an African heritage would mean conflict and violence at the hands of religious fanatics who would seize territory, homes, and children. Involved in this pattern of conflict would be the counter pattern of resistance to domination. Thus, a new dichotomy would emerge and the struggle of Arab fundamentalism versus African secularism would ensue. Since no African culture has ever made slavery a primary means of its production, Africans would not take Arabs into slavery even if they were captured. Arabs, on the other hand, much like the Europeans in the past, saw nothing immoral in reducing African captives to involuntary servitude. Wherever on the continent of Africa there is enslavement one finds a philosophy that is not indigenous to Africa. This is so in Mauritania, Sudan, and South Africa.

For enslavement to work the enslaver must define himself or herself as different from the enslaved person. What is involved in this process is the dehumanization of the enslaved. But the enslaver, who might be of the same racial characteristics as the enslaved, will have chosen to identify with an external philosophy that allows him or her to claim a superior status by virtue of this identification. Thus, the enslaved, granted no such status because of his non-acceptance of the external philosophy, is fair game for enslavement.

The administration of justice in the Sudan has been unfair and inconsistent since the early days of Anglo-Egyptian condominium and probably prior to that time whenever a southerner came into contact or under the control of the Muslim law. Quite frankly, the Africans have been victimized by Arab and European alike in the Sudan. Ravaged by successive waves of invaders the southern ethnic groups have always been in a defensive mode, intending to defend their land, their customs, and their way of life.

The Shilluk, Dinka, Nuba, Azande, Beir, Anuak, and Nuer and other ethnic groups of the South had to prepare themselves for the penetration of the Anglo-Egyptian forces cooperating with Arab groups from the North in l896-97 during the Dongola campaign. As an Azande person described the British conquest, "You put the Egyptians in the front when you conquered the dervishes and you put the ex-dervishes in front rank when you conquered us and now one or two British rule many hundreds all over the Sudan."  

The history of the Southern ethnic groups is one of external force, brutality, and enslavement. When Yambio, the powerful king of the Azande, resisted the penetration of his country, he was murdered and the chiefs of Azande lost control of their territory. Throughout the South the attempt to destroy the ethnic cohesion, to upset the peace between ethnic groups, and to harass the legitimate authority took its toll on the area. Punitive expeditions were undertaken by the Anglo-Arab Condominium against the Anuak, the Nuba and the Beir ethnic groups for opposing the imposition of taxes without representation.

Justifying their total annihilation of villages and crops, the collective force of Anglo-Arab armies smashed any semblance of local authority and autonomy. It was to be from these regions that the slave trade would continue to gather human beings for the evil system.

Domestic Enslavement

Domestic enslavement has been tolerated in the Sudan since the coming of the Arabs. Thus, with the exception of Mauritania,  it has a longer history here than perhaps anywhere else in the contemporary world. Tolerated under the Mahdi and tolerated under the Condominium of the British and Egyptians, the Sudanese government has looked askance at the domestic institution of slavery throughout its turbulent history, never seeming to have the will to demand for its citizens the full and equal rights of free people.

So ingrained was the system of enslavement in Sudan that in the early part of the 20th century, Wingate, the governor-general felt that if it was disturbed, it would cause a rebellion among the Arabs. Registration of servants was finally introduced by the British to prevent illegal slave running around l919, but the government refused all help from the valiant Anti-Slavery Society to help resettle enslaved females.

Arab protests against the abolition of slavery were loud and strong; this was especially so in those areas where the agricultural production would have been hurt by the end of slavery. Thus, while slavery had ended in the United States in 1865 and in Brazil in South America in 1884, it was still going strong in Sudan in 1919 and would continue going strong till 1991.

The effect of the long bitter struggle to enslave Africans meant that Africans were eventually undermined economically, undermined physically, undermined culturally, and undermined spiritually by what was to become their own government, that is, the central authority of the Sudan.

The Ideological Issue

The ideological situation in the Sudan is complicated by numerous factors, the most obvious being the lack of Afrocentricity on the part of the Northerners who manifest a strong discrimination against the Southerners as non-Muslims but also because they are Africans and not Arabs. Now this is a curious situation because the so-called Arabs are often darker than the so-called blacks of the South. That is why I say that the lack of Afrocentricity is a problem, for Afrocentricity  is fundamental to understanding how to solve the problem of race, religion, and domestic enslavement in Sudan. This could be applied with some modification to the situation in Mauritania as well, because there you do have the Berber element that you do not have in the Sudan.

We must plunge with determination into the sea of lies and hypocrisy that surrounds Sudanese enslavement. We are victims as much as the ones who are enslaved. The ecstasies of liberation are for all of us to share.

What possesses a people to assert a right of domination over another? How does it come about that one group believes its destiny is to rule even though its moral bases may be crippled by its own history of irresponsibility? What is the motive force behind this drive?

In asking these questions we indict a history of dissimulation. There is a necessary illogic to this discussion at the end of the 20th century. The lies told to enforce the enslavement of Africa have taken their toll on African themselves. Improvisation of cultural identity, shame of history, and the internalization of the enemy's propaganda conspire to strengthen the enslaver while simultaneously creating conditions of weakness in the enslaved.

To find a place for effective rebellion the enslaved must be given the space for reflection. Sometimes that space must be thrust upon him or her by external forces. Enclosed in such a space the African cannot flee from this confrontation with self, with history, with the enslaver. This is the most positive development of the enslaved's life. Only at this moment does the quest become fully possible and plausible.

What, you may ask, is the quest? There is only one quest: to achieve liberty by any means necessary. There is no other logic to the enslaver's life.

Each assault on the recognized proponents of racism is a dagger in the throat of the lie-tellers, an arrow in the heart of the passionless. The enslaved gains identity previously concealed by the distortions of slavery and the crushing blows of cultural dislocation and alienation. In some ways this dislocation and this alienation are footnotes in the overarching enslavement.

In other words, the concealed identity is victim to the residuals of racism. When a group is enslaved, denied access to even rudimentary external information, prevented from crossing the line to independent thinking by numerous attacks on freedom, and shut-out of decision-making involving its life and culture, it is a victim of the most sinister brutality. Thus, the quest cannot come before consciousness and consciousness cannot come without education and education is directly related to access, and to block access is to block the building of the quest-spirit. But in the end some action, some activity, some thought however insignificant to others is good enough to create the necessary space for the quest-spirit.

Perhaps even a book or a story from a former slave could creep into someone's consciousness and cause a rupture as the seizures of lands and property have done in Sudan and Mauritania.

The quest explodes with the feeling of Afrocentricity, centeredness. The African sees himself or herself as an actor in the movement of society not merely a pawn to be moved at will. To be centered is a process which involves numerous steps. Few of us can say that we are one hundred per cent centered, though we are always on the road to recovery and rediscovery. As the people of Sudan and Mauritania rise to throw off oppression we shall take our places alongside them.

Dr. Molefe Kete Asante is Professor and former Chair, Department of African-American Studies, Temple University

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