A Warrior and Peacemaker
A Warrior and Peacemaker
Special Episode: Sudan at War
Special Episode: Sudan at War
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

A Warrior and Peacemaker

The reverberations from the death of John Garang will be felt throughout the Horn of Africa for decades to come. A Soviet-backed Marxist rebel leader 20 years ago, Mr. Garang became a pragmatic peacemaker who charmed Western statesmen as easily as he navigated village meetings under southern Sudanese acacia trees.

Sudan, divided between a Muslim north and a non-Muslim south, has been at war with itself for nearly 50 years. After an 11 year hiatus the war resumed in June 1983. Throughout two decades heading a sometimes brutal insurgency under the banner of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), Mr. Garang had a vision for his country that sought to transform a state that structurally discriminated on the basis of race and religion to one rooted in equal rights and opportunities. He fought against three successive northern governments, including the current Islamist regime. Due in large part to the brutal tactics of this regime, which included scorched earth campaigns, man-made famines, and the slavery and abductions of southerners, the war took the lives of more than two million people.

Mr. Garang's passing puts at risk peace efforts in the entire region. He was not only the architect and steward of the peace deal that ended the war between Khartoum and SPLM but viewed as indispensable in future efforts to bring about a similar agreement for political power sharing and regional autonomy between the government he had just joined and the fragmented rebels in Darfur. He was key to a strategy of ending the 19-year insurgency of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, which continues to use southern Sudan as a rear base for launching attacks in northern Uganda. And through his relationships he played an important role in preventing a renewed war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The July 31 helicopter crash that killed Mr. Garang was a cruel twist of fate. Under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), that he personally negotiated with Khartoum, the SPLM are to join a new government of national unity, culminating in a self-determination referendum for southern Sudan after six years. Only last month, Mr. Garang had been sworn in as the new vice-president. He also served as the president of the (yet to be formed) government of Southern Sudan and the commander-in-chief of the SPLA.

The implementation of the CPA would have been difficult at best of times given the regime's lack of political will to see it through, the weaknesses within the SPLM, the continued threat posed by government-aligned militias in the south, disagreements about the division of oil revenues, and a lack of broad political support for the deal. But Mr. Garang personified this agreement and his vision and charisma have given millions of people hope that peace could succeed. Does his death now mean the failure of the CPA and a return to war in Sudan? Not necessarily -- even though the news about his death brought chaos and outrage from the southern Sudanese.

Much of the looting, burning and killing in the capital Khartoum and elsewhere that followed pitted southerners against northerners. Those clashes were fuelled by the fear that the government was responsible for Mr. Garang's death. All indication thus far, though, including from the SPLM, suggest that the helicopter crash was due to bad weather, not foul play. This should be immediately clarified by the leadership of both sides before the fighting escalates.

The second immediate challenge was the succession of leadership within the SPLM. Long dominated by Mr. Garang, there were fears that a power struggle could ensue. This too was overcome. The SPLM leadership met immediately and appointed Salva Kiir Mayardiit, Mr. Garang's top deputy and the interim vice-president of southern Sudan, to replace their dead leader.

If calm and stability begins to return to Sudan, then the CPA will still have a strong chance for success. The SPLM can use this opportunity to democratize and strengthen what had largely been Mr. Garang's movement. It will take years for the Sudanese to get over the loss, but nothing would better serve his legacy than a return to peace for a country plagued by a history of civil war.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
Former Program Director, Horn of Africa

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