Calling the human rights abuses in Sudan “intolerable,” Howard University’s Board of Trustees voted recently to cut off all ties with companies doing business in the war-torn African nation.
This decision makes Howard the first HBCU to join the growing divest-from-Sudan movement started by Harvard University in 2004 and sweeping across American college campuses.
“Clearly it’s the right thing to do,” said Howard University president H. Patrick Swygert. “The situation in the Sudan is intolerable and has been so for a long time.”
The decision at Howard, which was made public last week, came down during a board of trustees meeting in late January following an examination of the crisis and its devastating effects on the lives of Black African Muslims in Darfur.
As the student-inspired Divest Sudan movement has spread across college campuses, there have been a calls for HBCUs to divest. Joe Madison, a celebrated activist and radio and TV commentator, led a push at Howard University last year and thinks other HBCUs must join the cause.
“HBCUs have a close relationship with countries in Africa, and with the continent. They have a historical connection. They have educated post-colonial leaders. But most important of all: they’re African Americans. So they have a kinship to Africa and a moral obligation to take the lead on this,” Madison says.
Madison has been working on African issues, and Sudan in particular, for years, leading marches, protests and conversations on his D.C.-based public affairs radio show.
Divestment campaigns demand that universities comb through their endowments and portfolio and sell off any investments in companies, banks or governments doing business with the offending nation. The monies can be big, with millions of dollars at stake; although in the case of Sudan, even such large figures usually represent less than 1 percent of a university’s overall portfolio.
Most agree that in order to be effective, the tactic must be adopted by a broad swath of groups, including international companies and banks. Students, however, say that the negative publicity associated with their campaign also effectively pressures politicians and companies.
The Divest Sudan campaign began in late 2004 at Harvard University, when the student newspaper reported that Harvard University was invested in companies whose dealings with the Sudanese government helped prop up the violent regime.
Over the ensuing months, students at Stanford, Dartmouth, Yale and others researched corporations and articles and even contacted the Central Intelligence Agency to compile lists of companies with dealings with Sudan. They took these reports to the board of trustees at their respective schools.
Thus far, dozens of other colleges have joined in, including the entire University of California system. However, HBCUs have been slow to respond. Madison says he knows why.
“There’s a lack of knowledge about it. There has not been the intensity on the HBCU campuses or the organization structure, but I don’t think many student groups at primarily White institutions have reached out,” he says.
Although a large country, rich with natural resources, Sudan has dealt with crippling corruption and mismanagement that has squandered most of its natural wealth. This has lead to fighting between tribes over food, land, water, and most recently, millions in international aid.
The largest nation in Africa, Sudan sits on the East coast, just south of Egypt and west of Ethiopia. Fighting has long reigned between the government in Khartoun and rebels in Southern Sudan. In 2003, a peace agreement was being brokered between the two groups, when an uprising broke out in the Western Sudan region of Darfur. The government is accused of arming the Janjaweed — the Arab militia — to crack down on this uprising by scorching villages and committing mass murder and rape. While some say the government is rightfully quashing an uprising, others say the Sudanese government’s vicious crackdown qualifies as genocide.
In the last three years, an estimated 2 million people have been displaced, and reportedly between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died. In 2004, the U.S. Congress declared the trouble a “genocide,” although some international organizations dispute that characterization. Genocide is a legal term recognized by international law that implies an effort exists to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
The Howard University board has written a resolution that it will share with other HBCUs to use as a model. The resolution says the university will “bar investments in all companies doing business in the Sudan” and “advise investment managers and investment consultants of this policy decision and ask them to refrain from any investment in companies in this sector in Sudan;” and “require investment managers and consultants to inform the university by June 30, 2007 of any company in its management portfolio doing business in Sudan.”
“As an institution that has always opposed such flagrant disrespect for human rights, Howard University has to use whatever options available to pressure the government and hopefully bring to an end, sooner rather than later, the suffering and wanton killing of so many people,” Howard president Swygert said in a statement.
In recent years, similar divestment campaigns, including an attempt to pressure Harvard to return endowment money from the Bin Laden family and a nationwide divestment campaign against Israel, both failed. Many say the last successful divestment campaign was 20 years ago against the apartheid South African government.
U.S. companies are not legally allowed to work in Sudan, after President Bill Clinton forced American companies out of Sudan in 1997 to protest their human rights abuses. However, foreign companies rushed into Sudan to fill the void, and they are much less receptive to U.S .students campaigns and global calls for human rights violations. The primary companies targeted are Chinese oil and natural gas company PetroChina, Swiss engineering company ABB and Russian oil company Tatneft.
Madison says Howard has shown leadership on the issue, and he hopes that “more HBCUs will follow suit. That is my hope.”
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