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Violent clashes have resulted in at least one hundred deaths in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, following news that the head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and newly appointed vice president of the country John Garang had died in a helicopter crash. Who was John Garang? Would a fledgling peace process that ended one of Africa’s longest wars survive his death? And what does his death mean for the crisis in Darfur. Abdelbagi Jibril provides some answers.

Dr. John Garang de Mabior was born on 23rd June 1945 into a poor family in Wagkulei village, near Bor in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan. He belongs to the Dinka tribe, which is the largest ethnic group in the Sudan that accounts for about 12 per cent of the country’s entire population. He died on Saturday 30th July 2005 barely three weeks after he was sworn into office as the President of Southern Sudan and as the first-ever Southern Sudanese First Vice-President of the Republic of Sudan.

Garang was a nationalist statesman, visionary son of Africa and a man of special qualities and talents. His legacy will be a radical change in Sudan’s political structure and power relations, whether the people of his home region decide to remain part of a unified country or choose to go their own way and create a new African flag and nation when they exercise their right to self-determination in 2011. Garang’s name will be imprinted on Sudan’s and Africa’s collective memory as one of the country’s greatest politicians and social justice campaigners, only comparable to - if not superseding - Imam Mohammed Ahmed Al Mahadi, who unified Sudan and liberated its people from Turko-Egyptian colonial rule and established the Mahadist State in the 1880s as one of the first modern states on the continent ruled by Africans themselves.

Garang lived a life of revolt and rebellion against injustice and marginalization. During his early adulthood in the 1960s he joined the first Southern guerrilla movement known as the Anyanya One, which was led by General Joseph Lago. After the Addis Ababa Accord that granted Southern Sudan wide regional autonomy on internal matters and ended the first civil war in the South in 1972, Garang joined the Sudanese military as a junior officer. He soon climbed the military ladder to the rank of Colonel. He was a successful army officer and established an academic record which was crowned with a PHD degree in agricultural economics from Iowa State University (USA).

In May 1983 Garang defected from the Sudanese army, established the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Movement (SPLA/M) and started the second civil war in Southern Sudan, which became one of the longest lasting and deadliest wars of the later 20th century. Garang’s decision to establish the SPLA/M was a reaction to the attempts of the then military ruler of Sudan Marshal Gaffar Nimeri to abrogate the Addis Ababa Accord. It is estimated that at least 2.5 million civilians perished in this war either because of fighting or as a result of war-induced famine and disease. As such the death toll in this war was one of the highest of any other war since WW II. It is also estimated that more than four million were forced to flee their homes in Southern Sudan and settle in other parts of the country or cross international borders as refugees. The SPLA/M can accurately be described as a continuation of the Anyanya Movement that instigated the first civil war in Southern Sudan from 1955 to 1972. However, the SPLA/M has added a new dimension to the North-South conflict in the country by espousing a nationalist vision that called for a new and democratic Sudan where all its citizens were accorded equal treatment without discrimination. The SPLA/M was opposed to religious and cultural domination of the country by elites of the north and called for a new Sudan free from the ills and social injustices inherited from its history and replete with the legacy of slavery and exploitation.

Garang was a pan-Africanist, charismatic, independent-minded and a well-informed leader. He successfully led a guerrilla movement for more than 20 years since May 1983 and survived numerous moments of serious trouble including threats to his life, challenges to his leadership and secessionist elements within the SPLA/M. Some of his strong points were his pragmatism, independent mind, unshakeable conviction about the unity of the country and relentless resistance to attempts to transform Sudan into a Muslim and Arab-centric state. His resilience conferred on him the respect of his enemies and political opponents in Sudan and the confidence of regional and international observers.

Garang’s untimely death will have serious repercussions for the political future of the country. He was able to resolve serious difficulties within his movement and reconcile diverse, often antagonistic, viewpoints and personalities. This placed him in a unique position of strength and enabled him to reach a well-calculated agreement with the government of Sudan. He played a role in earning regional and international support for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed by the SPLA/M and the government of Sudan in Nairobi on 9th January 2005.

The CPA is a complicated agreement that includes many technical details and it has been said that the Satan always hides in the details. It is clear that full compliance with the provisions of the CPA may not be possible under certain circumstances depending on the political dynamics in the country. Other things like the lack of political will or resistance from elements within the two parties could also complicate things. Here inventive imagination is required to find a way out of such possible hurdles.

It seems that practical difficulties in implementing the CPA started immediately after the arrival of Garang in Khartoum on 9th July 2005. It was reported that heavily armed SPLA/M troops bound for Khartoum from eastern Sudan were stopped by the national army about 1000 km from the city and were not allowed to continue. These troops were supposed to create a joint protection force, with an equal number to be provided by the government. To the great surprise of many observers, this important incident has not developed into a major crisis between the two parties.

The announcement of the death of Garang was followed by sporadic violent clashes that especially targeted people from northern Sudan in the major cities of the country such as Khartoum, Juba, Wau, Bor and Port Sudan. In Khartoum alone it was reported that more than 100 individuals were killed on Monday and thousands of private vehicles were destroyed and shops vandalized. It was also reported that several people from Southern Sudan were killed in Khartoum on Tuesday 2nd August in what seems to be retaliation for the killing of Northerners on Monday. While this feverish reaction was a manifestation of the peoples’ love for Garang - reminiscent of the millions of peace-loving Sudanese people who gathered to greet him upon his arrival in Khartoum on 9th July 2005 - it was also a manifestation of their distrust for the government of Sudan and suspicion that Garang was deliberately assassinated. In the death of Garang, millions of Sudanese have seen the vanishing of their great hope for peace and radical change for a better life in the country.

The demise of Garang has put the implementation of the CPA in peril. There are two options at present: Either the new SPLA/M leadership go ahead and implement the agreement in good faith or they choose to abandon it, which will mean the outbreak of a new war. Judging from media pronouncements made by top SPLA/M leaders as well as the heavy pressure from regional and international powers on the two parties to honour their commitments, the possibility of implementation in good faith is more likely at present. The SPLA/M will gain tremendously from implementation of the agreement. First and foremost is the unprecedented guarantee that the people of Southern Sudan are entitled to exercise the right to self-determination and decide their own fate.

The new SPLA/M leadership is also aware that they were able to achieve through negotiations in two years what they failed to achieve in twenty years of fierce fighting. However, the agreement will inevitably be frozen or collapse altogether if it is proved that Garang’s helicopter crashed because of military attack or sabotage directly or indirectly designed by the government of Sudan, or caused by the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army or Garang’s military rivals in the region. The later could instigate an all-round conflict in the South involving government-supported local militia groups which are currently mushrooming in the region, such as the South Sudan Defence Force led by General Faulino Matieb and others. Perhaps the most dangerous scenario after the death of Garang could be a serious split within the SPLA/M ranks that would bring an end to the CPA and embroil the whole region in total collapse and devastation.

The untimely death of Garang is problematic both to the government of Sudan and the SPLA/M. It is especially problematic for people in other trouble spots of Sudan, especially the rebel forces in Darfur and Eastern Sudan who considered him as their mentor and natural ally. He expressed his personal commitment to use his status as First Vice-President of Sudan and help efforts to resolve the crisis in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. The new SPLA/M leadership is aware of the strategic dangers that the conflicts in Darfur and Eastern Sudan pose to successful implementation of the CPA and also for maintaining and preserving peace and security in the South and Sudan in general, yet it is unclear whether they are prepared to assume Garang’s expected role in resolving the crisis in Darfur and Eastern Sudan. The challenge before the government of Sudan and the SPLA/M is that they need to implement the CPA in letter and spirit in the absence of Garang. They need to move fast in order to fill the vacuum created by his death and assure the people of the South and Sudan as a whole about their seriousness to pursue the search for peace and unity with the same vigour and enthusiasm that characterised the late hero.

* Abdelbagi A. M. Jibril is the Executive Director, Darfur Relief and Documentation Centre. He is a Sudanese national currently working as an NGO Expert based in Geneva (Switzerland). He finished his studies at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences (1986). He has extensive field knowledge of development and human rights issues in Africa and a track record within the international system as a Permanent NGO Representative to the UN Office in Geneva.

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