WASHINGTON -- Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan raised international eyebrows recently when, during a visit to Libya, President-for-life Col. Muammar el Kadafi pledged to work with him to influence American politics and foreign policy. Mr. Kadafi, who lent Mr. Farrakhan $5 million in 1984 for various Nation of Islam business projects, also vowed this time to spend $1 billion on Muslim causes in the United States.
That's what the two leaders talked about, according to a report by the Libyan news agency Jana. What they apparently did not talk about was something Mr. Farrakhan also has been curiously silent about: slavery.
It's alive and well in north Africa, according to reports from the State Department, the United Nations and a variety of private human-rights organizations. Vigorous traffic in human beings continues particularly in Mauritania, which supposedly outlawed the practice in 1980, and Sudan, which has been torn by civil war for the past 13 years between the mostly Arab north and the mostly black south.
And Libya appears to play a role. A declassified State Department report released by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., said that bus loads of captured women and children have been forced into involuntary servitude and trucked to unknown destinations in Libya as recently as 1993.
The document, based on embassy reports, cites a string of rapes, mass killings, village burnings and mass capture of south Sudanese black ethnic groups, such as the Dinka and the Nuba, by heavily armed soldiers from the north.
Government forces "routinely steal women and children," the State Department report said. "Some women and girls are kept as wives, the others are shipped north where they perform forced labor on Kordofan farms or are exported, notably to Libya," the report said. "The town of Hamarat el Sheikh, northwest of Sodiri in north Kordofan, is reported to be a transit point for Dinka and Nuba children who are then trucked to Libya."
Against that backdrop, the Jana report of Mr. Farrakhan's visit makes even more intriguing reading.
According to Jana, Mr. Kadafi justifies Libyan intervention in the affairs of the United States by stating that "America, which was created by immigrants from the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, did not belong to anyone but to its original people, the Red Indians, who are of Libyan origin, and nobody has the right to claim that he is a master there, and others merely his slaves."
"Red Indians who are of Libyan origin?" That's certainly an attention grabber, along with the point about masters and slaves. In that spirit, Mr. Farrakhan should have questioned Mr. Kadafi about the reports of slavery in his country.
Instead, he typically turns a blind eye to reports of slavery in Africa, even when they are virtually thrust into his face. In the Final Call, the Nation of Islam's official newspaper, and last year on "Tony Brown's Journal," the black-oriented public television program, Mr. Farrakhan's international representative Abdul Akbar Muhammad has defended Sudan's military dictator, Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir.
The CIA and the Jews
Mr. Muhammad has hinted that the charges of slavery in Sudan stem from a conspiracy by the CIA and by Jews upset by Mr. Farrakhan's past statements about Jews. He has singled out Charles Jacobs, the Jewish research director of the American Anti-Slavery Group. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, the racially mixed group has been a leader in the modern abolitionist movement.
Not mentioned much by Mr. Muhammad are the movement's many black members. Macram Max Gassis, for example, is the black Catholic south Sudanese bishop who testified in Congress last March that Arabs armed by the Khartoum regime kidnap and enslave black children and women as part of a holy war against Christian and animist Sudanese.
Nor does Mr. Muhammad speak much about Sam Cotton, the black reporter for the black-owned and Brooklyn-based City Sun who wrote a story headlined "Arab Masters, Black Slaves," and has since turned the slavery issue into a personal crusade.
At least Mr. Cotton showed more curiosity about this issue than Mr. Farrakhan appears to be willing to show. Mr. Farrakhan seems more interested in seeking the financial aid of North African leaders than holding them accountable, even when the lives of black Africans are at stake. Who will speak for them?
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.