John Garang de Mabior (1945-2005) -- Visionary and peacemaker
By Gamal Nkrumah
It is an old story with guerrilla warfare -- a strong
man invariably emerges to rein in the contending
factions that make up an armed resistance movement.
John Garang was such a man, and he knew the task at
hand could turn messy. One of the most characteristic
features of Garang's leadership style was the short
shrift he gave to his detractors' criticisms and
complaints. He had a clear vision for Sudan and his
rivals, lesser mortals, were consistently left
champing at the bit.
"We haven't had tarmac roads since our creation. We
are literally starting from scratch," Garang told me
during the last interview I conducted with him. "My
presence in Khartoum is a real signal that the war is
truly over, and I have underlined this by coming with
my family, including little Atong," Garang explained.
He listened gravely and spoke in measured tones, but
still fired with habitual martial ardour.
His passing was bolt from the blue. The news of the
first Sudanese vice-president's death caused
disturbance throughout southern Sudan. For nearly 25
years he had realised his role as its most outspoken
Southerners in the thousands took to the streets of
Khartoum rampaging and pillaging, venting their
disbelief and distress on everything in their path.
They clashed with police, the death toll around 50,
with scores injured. Sudanese President Omar Hassan
Al-Beshir was upbeat: "We are confident the peace
agreement will proceed as planned," he said soon after
it was confirmed that Garang plunged to his death in a
Ugandan presidential helicopter on the
Ugandan-Sudanese border, an area agog with fighters of
the Lord Resistance's Army, the Ugandan opposition
group who have long been the sworn enemies of Garang
and his Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
The SPLA was set up in 1983, and Garang's first foray
into fighting Sudanese government forces was a
qualified success. The first time I ever saw John
Garang was in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1989. He was with
his wife, Rebecca, and a host of aides. He was on a
tour of southern African countries, primarily to
garner support for the SPLA. Looking back, he was
received virtually as a visiting head of state, much
to the chagrin of Sudanese diplomats and government
officials. Garang was given the red carpet treatment
in all the capitals he called on.
As I sat back and jotted down his descriptions of
guerrilla warfare in the equatorial wastelands of
southern Sudan, I had the strange feeling that I'd met
the man before. Everything about him was so familiar,
so very revolutionary leader. He was vaguely
reminiscent of Kwame Nkrumah. His politics, like
Nkrumah's, cast its influence over an entire
continent. Both men were immensely charismatic. Both
had vision and big dreams. But the analogy ends there.
Garang was a man of war, and that is not to say that
he did not have a good cause. Still, he was most
comfortable in military fatigues.
During the 22-year war, he shifted his camp from week
to week, sometimes day to day: this location was
unsuitable, that one inauspicious. Garang had a broad
impassive face; he cultivated a ponderous dignity that
often cowed his opponents. He had the temperament of a trained diplomat. He was shrewd, infinitely patient,
courageous and ambitious. His characteristic
amicability often lulled opponents into a false sense
of ease. To some detractors, Garang was a southern
Sudanese, or ethnic Dinka tyrant. But Garang was truly
Garang and Reik Machar, his erstwhile Nuer rival, for
years locked horns in a furious struggle for
supremacy. In the end, Garang won his obstinate
antagonist over. Some of his southern Sudanese foes --
and there were many -- were sly enough to stir up
trouble by roiling an already chaotic situation.
However, Garang always took immediate steps to
strengthen his own position, within the SPLA, the
local Sudanese political scene and on the
Garang was a gifted politician, a shrewd negotiator.
He had an easy-going manner, which made him a natural
and popular leader. He presided over an utterly
devastated and underdeveloped war-torn region from a
ramshackle collection of huts in Rumbek, the
designated capital of southern Sudan in the heart of
Dinka country. His edicts were often delivered with
the awesome finality worthy of the Seat of Judgement.
Garang was American-educated. He studied at Ginnel
College, Iowa, where he obtained a PhD in agricultural
economics. In 1970, he declined a graduate fellowship
offer at the University of California, Berkeley, to
take up arms against the Sudanese authorities. After
the signing of the Addis Ababa peace agreement of
1972, Garang joined the Sudanese army, rising quickly
through the ranks. He received military training at
the US army infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia.
It is ironic, indeed, that some of the most eloquent
bereavements came from the powers that be in
Washington. Garang was, after all, a socialist and a
man of the people at heart.
I recall an incident during one of his many visits to
Cairo, when a southern Sudanese refugee woman in Egypt balked at her leader and asked why he sported such a massive paunch. "How can you fight in the African bush with such a belly," she bellowed. After much embarrassed consideration, Garang conceded that he does need to lose some weight. He took it all in his
"He was a visionary leader and peacemaker who helped
bring about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA),
which is a beacon of hope for all Sudanese," said
United States President George W Bush. US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice concurred, describing Garang as
"a man of great intellect and energy, and he applied
those qualities to achieving a just peace for the
people of Sudan."
Through his lifetime, Garang was the recipient of many
honours, and he didn't regard American accolades as a
For whatever reasons, perhaps because of Sudan's
newfound oil wealth, the Bush administration has
desperately sought peace in Sudan. Garang's aims --
political reform and change -- coincided with
Washington's. The Americans pushed for peace, and
Garang fell to the task with purposive will.
The CPA was signed 9 January 2005, with Washington's
blessing. By this time, beginning to enjoy the
trappings of power, he was less socialist-oriented and
he carefully cultivated international friendships. His
political horizon thus widened, Garang set about the
task of rebuilding southern Sudan with characteristic
vigour. He will be remembered for the passionate
determination he brought to everything he undertook.