Rebecca Garang: A heroine unsung

Femi Mimiko, Ph.D.,
Professor of International Relations and Comparative Political Economy,
Deputy Vice-Chancellor,
Adekunle Ajasin University,
Ondo State, Nigeria.

It is one year since the Sudanese peace agreement was signed, and already six quick months since the news of the sudden death of the former First Vice President of the Sudan, Dr. John Garang, hit the airwaves. And we consider it apposite to once again revisit some of the issues thrown up by his death in such a dramatic, albeit agonizing way, with a view to enabling all of us, the ruling elites of Africa especially, draw the appropriate lessons in leadership.

It would remain a part of the enigmatic puzzles of nature why Dr. John Garang, the former leader of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and first Vice President of Sudan had to die only after two weeks in that exalted and well-deserved office into which he was appointed in July. It is intriguing that Dr. Garang who initiated, led and coordinated the guerilla warfare against a Khartoun government insistent on Islamising the entire country, the non-Islamic and culturally differentiated South inclusive, for more than two decades survived all that. He also survived the surge of fifth column elements within his group who at a time became confident enough to put up a virulent armed campaign against the tendency represented by Garang in the larger Southern Sudanese resistance movement. He survived all these and stayed alive long enough to once again display the courage that was vintage Garang by negotiating a hard and delicate peace with elements he had fought for more than two decades. But just two weeks after he had his hands on the plough, the work on a new Sudan to begin, he was killed in a helicopter crash! It would never be clear, we presume, why nature chose to have it this way. But the depth and profundity of the grief felt around the world, even by Khartoun, at his death, was a testimony that the life of this dedicated son of Africa was highly valued.

Whether Dr. Garang’s death was actually natural or a thing that was planned, by whoever, may also not be known for a long time to come. But if the sophistication of the intelligence community around the world and that of the technology of processing information are anything to go by, it is a question of time before the exact cause of his death and/or the circumstances thereof are made known. It for now suffices to recall the very emphatic proposition by the office of the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni that the helicopter in which Dr. Garang died was in absolutely good technical shape.

As heretofore noted, all these are puzzles. Even so, the close semblance of the helicopter crash and the attendant death of Dr. Garang and the death of the Hutu President of Rwanda, Melchore Habyarimana, in April 1994, cannot be lost on any perceptive mind. The struggle for power between the Hutu and the Tutsi in that country had been intense since independence in 1961. A 1990 attempt by the Tutsi to take over power by force of arms was stopped in its tracks. But no sooner had a power-sharing agreement between the Hutu and Tutsi was entered into in August 1993 than the plane in which Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart were traveling was shot down. That was in April 1994. The realization that Habyarimana’s death was an act of sabotage was the critical trigger-factor for the merciless Hutu genocidal campaign against the minority Tutsi. Thus it happened that within a spate of 100 days, about 800,000 people had been put to death with guns, machetes, clubs, and what have you. It was to the eternal shame of the UN and those nations who could put a stop to the carnage that they chose to look the other way while it lasted. The same goes for those African leaders who, like Emperor Nero of old, chose to fiddle while Rome (Rwanda) burned.

The situation in Sudan at the demise of Garang was very similar to Rwanda in April 1994. Indeed, as expected, pockets of riots broke out in Khartoun and Juba, and other strategic towns across the country immediately the death was announced. Quite a number of lives, regrettably, were lost. But then, all these would have been a child’s play had the Garang death saga not been appropriately managed. All that was needed to add some propellant to the emergent fire was a suggestion from a credible source that Dr. Garang had been a victim of assassination by the Sudanese government. Indeed, a lot was made in form of attempts by sundry international news agencies to get the idea out that his death was as a result of sabotage. It is noteworthy in this regard that its obvious concern and embarrassment at the helicopter crash notwithstanding, Kampala was still able to hold its tongue in check. The point it kept repeating was that the chopper it had loaned to the Sudanese leader was in top shape, and that the circumstances of the crash were going to be investigated.

One person or source from which a weighty allegation could have come was Mr. Garang’s wife of many years, Rebecca. A careless or emotive comment from her would have carried the necessary weight nonetheless and dramatically changed the situation in the Sudan and indeed the entire region. It is not only the peace process that would have collapsed irretrievably, but also the war would have resumed with much ferocity, now driven by an urge for mindless killing, the type that occurred in Rwanda almost exactly 10 years earlier.

It is difficult to know whether Mrs. Garang actually appreciated the weighty responsibility providence placed on her shoulders at that moment of history, or whether her response was a function of her experience as a woman, who always side by side with her husband, was herself already seasoned by the southern Sudanese struggle to allow maturity triumph over emotion. Hear her: “I don’t agree (with the foul play theory). God creates people for a purpose. Garang had it and had finished his mission … it was time for my husband. It has come and I will take it like that”.

What was clear in all these was that Mrs. Rebecca Garang acquitted herself most creditably and without doubt deserve the accolade befitting a heroine for all time.

It is intriguing that everyone of the commentaries on the unfortunate Garang death saga failed to notice, not to talk of acknowledging this distinctive leadership shown by Mrs. Garang. And it is precisely to drawn attention to this wonderful woman whose maturity saved the already over-burdened African continent from another orgy of mindless violence that this piece, deliberately delayed, has been written. How much we would wish that this great example in selflessness and responsible leadership be followed by African leaders – at all levels of the African society. We say thank you so very much to Mrs. Garang whose effort at stemming the tide of violence in the Sudan is certainly deserving of the Noble Peace Prize.