Obituary: Kerubino Kuanyin Bol

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KERUBINO KUANYIN BOL was a flamboyant, trigger-happy southern Sudanese soldier best remembered for supposedly firing the first rebellious shot when the imposition of Islamic Sharia law in September 1983 triggered a second round of civil warfare in the undeveloped, largely animist and Christian southern regions of the Republic of Sudan.

Kerubino was born into a simple Dinka family of mixed farmers in Twic county in Bahr al Ghazal province in 1948 - along with many Africans of those times, his exact date of birth is not recalled - during the uncertain closing years of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium.

Especially in the south, that political arrangement was largely symbolic and real influence was wielded by expatriate colonial commissioners and missionaries. They disliked and often despised the northern political movements and leaders and, instead of actively promoting internal self-government, as often as not maintained an introverted paternal authoritarianism which did nothing to help prepare the population for independence.

Kerubino attended a Roman Catholic mission primary school and passed on to the intermediate level. Those were anxious days for bright young men such as him who worried what the future might bring. That Sudan was to be the first of the new independent nations of Africa meant less to him than the imminent reimposition of "Arab" and Islamic influence - even dominance - in his region which he had been conditioned to dread.

Despite talk of federation, in 1955, the year preceding national independence, a battalion of southern soldiery mutinied and the era of civil conflict was born. Along with many of his age, Kerubino at once abandoned formal education to enlist with the rebel southerners - the Anya Nya - and fight for the independence of southern Sudan.

In Khartoum, the capital in the north, governments both civil and military came and went, but civil war dragged on until the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972 granted regional autonomy to the south. Kerubino opted to stay on in the reconstituted armed forces. Sadly, in 1983, revisions of the Sudanese state framework and patterns of government, coupled with the rising influence of the Islamic factor in national politics, caused the fragile peace to break down.

Ensuing troubles were by no means confined to the south, but on 4 June 1983 an army officer, Col Dr John Garang de Mabior, a Dinka like Kerubino, led the garrison at Bor in another mutiny and, on 16 October at Itang, formed the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/SPLA).

Kerubino, as a lieutenant-colonel, complete with a shooting stick with a silver handle, was soon prominent as an SPLA field commander. By this time he had transferred several of his wives and many of his children to a compound in Nairobi, in Kenya, where he would on occasion meet the foreign press.

In 1986, after the overthrow of President Gaafer Mohamed Nimieri, another attempt to bring peace took place, this time at one of the former emperor Haile Selassie's old residences at Koka Dam, Ethiopia. Along with Awad El Karim Mohamed, Secretary-General of the National Alliance of the Sudan, Kerubino countersigned the declaration as "deputy commander-in-chief SPLA and deputy chairman SPLM provisional executive committee".

A lasting settlement proved elusive and, in 1987, Kerubino led SPLA forces north and succeeded in capturing a string of towns in Blue Nile Province. Deceived by the ease by which he had defeated government forces, he aspired, it is believed, to seize the SPLM leadership by ousting Garang, but his conspiracy was betrayed: he was arrested and spent six uncomfortable years in a necessarily itinerant guerrilla prison.

By 1992, when he managed to escape, serious divisions had developed within the SPLA and Kerubino decided to throw in his lot with a group of so-called "renegades" who co-operated with a "Peace from Within" initiative sponsored by the Sudanese government. Eventually a "peace agreement" was signed and a co-ordinating council for the south was set up only for Kerubino to disagree with the composition of the proposed regional government.

The regime sought to establish him as a leader in his - and Garang's - home province, but the Dinka largely rejected him and even Dinka youth, recruited from displaced persons encamped around Khartoum, abandoned his militia and left for their own villages. Meantime the turmoil and mayhem this caused greatly exacerbated famine in the region and subsequent deaths were estimated to have exceeded 60,000. Kerubino's responsibility was heavy.

In January 1998, forces under Kerubino's command briefly seized Wau, the main town in Bahr al Ghazal, on the strength of which, ever impulsive and governed by whims, he promptly applied to rejoin the SPLA. His decision was welcomed by Garang, but he was attached to headquarters rather than being given a top field appointment.

Angered, in no time at all he once again offered his services and sword to the ruling National Congress in Khartoum, where the regime's intelligence chiefs pride themselves on their undoubted ability to harness divisive ethnic tensions in support of their political masters.

In 1998, Kerubino came to be accused by some of plotting to assassinate Garang on one of the latter's visits to Nairobi for IGAD (Intergovernmental Agency for Development) peace talks. Earlier this year, back in Sudan, he attached himself to the South Sudan United Army, a pro-government militia led by one Paulino Matip. However the latter fell out with Peter Gadiet, yet another renegade commander, and in ensuing internecine struggles, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol was shot.

The exact circumstances of his death are murky and unlikely to affect any eventual outcome of the ongoing civil strife in Sudan. Kerubino's impetuous opportunism had long since discredited him even as a Dinka warrior. His own vanity apart, few ever ranked him as a national leader in Sudan. Yet he was undoubtedly a sad and wasted product of the unresolved cultural, historic and religious divisions that continue to deny a decent life to the troubled citizens of one of this world's most hospitable nations.

He took several wives and had more than 20 children.

Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, soldier: born Twic, Sudan 1948; died Mankin, Sudan 10 September 1999.