John Garang

Charismatic Sudanese Vice-President

Tuesday 02 August 2005 00:00 BST

On 8 July, over a million people thronged the streets of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to greet the former rebel leader who was to be the first ever southerner sworn in as the country's First Vice-President. Only three weeks later, John Garang is dead, killed as the Ugandan presidential helicopter that was flying him back from visiting his friend President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala crashed in southern Sudan.

Garang's triumphal return to Khartoum after 22 years of war incarnated Sudanese hopes of peace. This followed a peace agreement between Sudan's Islamist government and Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) signed six months earlier, on 9 January. Beyond that, it symbolised southern Sudanese hopes of independence: the agreement promises a referendum in six years' time in which southerners will vote on whether or not to stay in a united Sudan.

Garang was rare among southerners in calling for national unity and had therefore also raised the hopes of many northern Sudanese, not only of keeping Sudan's one million square miles united, but also of eventually freeing them from the hated fundamentalist government and restoring democracy and human rights. Garang had been stressing that one of his first tasks as First Vice-President would be to end the crisis in Darfur.

Since most of the killing in the country's vast western region consists of ethnic cleansing by the government and its proxy militias, the Janjaweed, it is uncertain how great a role the country's strongman, Second Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, would have allowed Garang, in Darfur or any other matter. The National Congress (formerly the National Islamic Front) is a tight-knit Islamist party which rules through a ruthless and dedicated security apparatus.

"Doctor John" was not always seen as a beacon of democratic or peaceful hopes. He had set up the SPLA in 1983, when he was sent to the south to help to quell discontent among southern troops, who were angry that the then President, Jaafar Nimeiri, was dividing the south into three regions, a move rightly perceived as "dividing to rule". Garang never came back, joining and then taking over the rebellion. He held his position as leader with a capacity for decisiveness that his rivals often lacked. Many southerners died, disappeared or were detained in harsh conditions. Some SPLA commanders visited great suffering on civilians, especially those not from Garang's Dinka people. This has not been forgotten and even the legendary southern gift for reconciliation has not healed all wounds.

By agreeing to a peace deal with "the Arabs", as southerners call northerners, Garang had turned these leadership skills to more positive ends. He was extraordinarily charismatic, highly intelligent and unusually arrogant. In his 60 years, he had moved a long way from the remote Upper Nile village where he was born. In an area where most people still don't get the opportunity of primary education, he ended up with first and master's degrees and a doctorate, all in economics, from the United States, and military training in Sudan and at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia. When he went Awol in Sudan in 1983, Garang was a full colonel in the Sudanese Armed Forces and had taught in Khartoum's Military College.

Most southerners and many northerners had loaded their hopes on to Garang's broad shoulders. He may have felt that, if he could control the SPLA through the thick and thin of war for 22 years, then he could manage to juggle southern and northern concerns after a peace deal. This was the big contradiction that faced him: if he was setting up badly needed civilian administration and economic structures in the south, he could not be focusing on the attempts of the National Congress to undermine him or its continuing ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Few in Sudan doubt that the government will now redouble its attempts to undermine the peace process. There had already been much discussion of how Garang was to avoid being assassinated by the government of which he was ostensibly a leader, and Eritrea and the US had helped to train SPLA bodyguards and special forces to prevent this. Many southerners doubt that Garang's death was an accident and riots broke out after his death was announced.

Gill Lusk

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