Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sudan: John Garang's Death Leaves Unfilled Gap

Peace deal looks shakier following the death of a rebel leader who came into government after a 22-year war against Khartoum.
By Fred Bridgland

The death of John Garang de Mabior in a helicopter crash has plunged the peace process in Sudan into deep crisis, just three weeks after his appointment as the country’s vice presidency had raised hopes of an end to 50 years of bloodshed.


Garang was born on June 23, 1945 into a poor family in the village of Buk village, near Bor in the far south of Sudan. Garang was later to recall Buk as a small community of Dinkas, a tribe with traditional animist beliefs who played music on rams’ horns and had a prodigious appetite for roast meat.


His own parents – like many in southern Sudan - had been converted by Christian missionaries.


None of the villagers could read, and Garang, who was orphaned at the age of ten, might have ended up a cattle herder in Buk like his forefathers, had a relative not sent him to school - first in Wau, 200 miles away, and then in Rumbek, today the capital of the south's new government.


In 1963, aged 18, Garang left high school to join the first southern rebellion against the Arabic-speaking government in Khartoum. But guerrilla leaders urged him to finish school first, so he went to study in Tanzania and then to university at Iowa in the United States, obtaining a BA in economics. He rejected the offer of a post-graduate fellowship at Berkeley in California to join the rebels in 1970.


The village lad was now urbane and eloquent, fluent in Arabic and with an superb command of English.


Garang was integrated into the government army when a peace deal was reached between north and south in 1972, and rose to the rank of colonel. He attended the US Army infantry officers’ course in Georgia, and earned a PhD in agricultural economics at Iowa.


But in 1983, the then president of Sudan, Gaafar Muhammed Nimeiri, imposed Islamic sharia law on the whole country – including the non-Moslem south – in breach of the 1972 truce.


Coincidentally, Garang and the Sudanese army's 105th Battalion which he was commanded were stationed in his home province of Bor at the time. Ordered to suppress a mutiny by southern soldiers, Garang refused and and his battalion became the nucleus of a new anti-government force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA.


The ensuing 22-year war against Khartoum took more than two million lives and forced more than four million people into exile as refugees.


The United States was then allied with Khartoum, so Cold War politics led Garang to align himself with the pro-Soviet regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in neighbouring Ethiopia.


Mengistu’s overthrow in 1991 threw the SPLA into confusion, and the resulting internecine fighting pitted groups along tribal lines – the Dinkas loyal to Garang, and the Nuer followers of the charismatic Riek Machar.


During these traumatic times, Garang showed himself to be a ruthless commander. Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch said the SPLA under Garang was characterised by “a lot of abuses that have never been punished, including summary executions, disappearances, prolonged arbitrary detentions, corrupt transactions and the taking of food from civilians.”


No dissent was tolerated, on pain of death or imprisonment.


Sudan's external political alignments went through a volte face in the early Nineties, as Khartoum provided a home to Osama bin Laden and huge oil reserves were discovered in the south. Suddenly, the US was backing Garang and the SPLA, and he in turn cultivated successive American presidents and the Christian evangelical right.


Pressure from Britain, the US and Norway finally resulted in a peace deal under which Garang became vice-president of a united Sudan in which oil revenues were to be divided equally between north and south. He also became president of a devolved administration for southern Sudan, which is to hold a referendum in 2011 on whether to become fully independent.


His death on 31 July, just three weeks after he took up the vice-presidency led to clashes in Khartoum, but also raises longer-term questions about whether the peace will survive, especially as it has had no time to become institutionalised.


The removal of Garang also casts a shadow over prospects for peace in Darfur. His authoritative, energetic presence in government would have been a powerful counteraction to continued aggression by government-aligned forces in the western Sudan.


“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Cirono Hiteng, a SPLA official in Nairobi. “His political boots were larger than anyone else could fill.”


Garang leaves a wife Rebecca, who is a leading SPLA figure, and six children.


Fred Bridgland is an IWPR editor in Johannesburg.