Violence and fear in Sudan

The UN is pledging to lead an investigation into the helicopter crash that claimed the life of Sudan’s newly-installed vice president John Garang, longtime leader of the southern guerillas. (UPI, Aug. 3) Violence since his death has already left at least 84 dead. Garang’s position, both as vice president and leader of the SPLA guerillas, is to be assumed by his second-in-command Salva Kiir Mayardit, described by the New York Times as “a fierce fighter with traditional Dinka tribal scarring on his forehead” who has “fought shoulder to shoulder and occassionaly face to face wth Mr. Garang for two decades.” (IHT) This commentary by Julie Flint in Lebanon’s Daily Star (excerpts below) makes clear the multiple challenges Kiir Mayardit faces—first, to hold together his own SPLA organization, which unites several southern peoples. Not included in the recent peace agreement are the conflicts in Darfur in Sudan’s west and the much less-known Beja region in the east. We hope Garang’s contentious air crash will not be remembered in the same light as that of Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994.

Ever since Garang signed a peace agreement with the government last January, and returned to Khartoum in July, southerners had feared that he and other southern rebels-turned-national politicians would be assassinated. Peace was a trick, they said. Sudanese President Omar Bashir and the hard-line Islamists surrounding him were not to be trusted. That the first confirmation of Garang’s death came from Bashir’s office will only have confirmed their suspicions – even though Garang died not in Northern but in Southern Sudan, on a flight back from a weekend meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

At this early stage, all the indications are that Garang’s death was due to weather – not sabotage. The Ugandan presidential Mi-72 helicopter carrying him from Entebbe took off at night and should, some say, never have left the ground. Unable to land in Southern Sudan because of bad weather, the pilot reportedly radioed back to Entebbe to seek permission to return to Uganda. He crashed soon after in a mountainous region along the border between Uganda and Sudan that has dense equatorial forest and is prone to the kind of bad weather that can be catastrophic for light aircraft and helicopters. On this occasion, in all likelihood, it was.

In the short term, the truth about the crash will change nothing. Many southerners – quite possibly a majority – are convinced that “Dr. John” was killed by elements within the National Islamic Front (NIF), a regime that Garang himself once called “the Taliban of Africa.”


As a representative of the Beja Congress now fighting the government in eastern Sudan said yesterday: “It is a big sorrow – not just for southerners, but for all Sudanese people who are seeking a justified and comprehensive peace.” Implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that Garang and Bashir signed in Nairobi on January 9 will falter – for the foreseeable future.

Whether or not it fails will depend, in large part, on the ability of the notoriously fissiparous Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to “remain united,” as Salva Kiir Mayardit, Garang’s replacement at the head of the fledgling Government of Southern Sudan, pledged it would in his first statement after the SPLA leader’s death. Few will be betting on that, however, even forgetting the opportunity that Garang’s death provides the opponents of peace, power- and wealth-sharing to engineer fresh inter-communal, and especially inter-Southern, conflict.

The SPLA came a long way in the 22 years in which it was led by Garang, its first chairman and commander-in-chief. From its origins as a brutal, Soviet-supported, authoritarian insurgency based in the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam, it moved, slowly and still unsurely, toward becoming a movement more genuinely representative of the interests of those Sudanese who want a “new Sudan” in which an alliance of southerners and marginalized northern groups would dominate a secular, pluralist and democratic nation… Despite the rapid decision to make Salva Kiir vice president in Garang’s place, it is likely that factionalism still simmers close to the surface.

The early years of the SPLA were darkened by dissension and internal purges overseen, in the main, by a hard core of Garang’s own Bor Dinka clansmen – especially powerful in the security and intelligence apparatuses. Many people were executed, many more detained in appalling conditions. At the political level, a Bor Dinka elite dominated decision-making and final power was in the hands of Garang alone.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the SPLA, held no national convention for the first 11 years of its existence; its central organizing body, the Political-Military High Command, whose members Garang himself appointed, was not convened in full between 1986 and 1991. As recently as November last year, in a meeting of the leadership council, Salva Kiir led criticism of Garang for not distributing responsibility more widely. As a result, three clusters were developed to try to decentralize decision-making: Salva, a Dinka from Bahr al-Ghazal on the west bank of the Nile, was appointed head of the army; Riek Machar, a Nuer who split the SPLA along tribal lines when he left it in 1991 to challenge Garang’s leadership, was appointed to oversee “governance”; James Wani Igga, an Equatorian, was charged with turning the SPLM into a political party.

But divisions within the SPLM surfaced again in July when Garang unveiled a caretaker government for the South. He was accused of drawing up the government without reference to anyone else, and it is said that he was challenged on this when he returned to the South from Khartoum last month…

“If the SPLM splits, Sudan could unravel with the [ruling] National Congress party engineering all manner of inter-communal conflict,” says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. “If the SPLM holds together, the agreement’s implementation can move forward, though not as briskly as with [Garang present]. He was a master negotiator, balancing interests and egos with the best of them. Hard decisions are forthcoming, though, about positions in the central and Southern governments. Without Garang’s deft touch, this will be even more difficult.”

Garang’s death has also cast a shadow over the prospects for peace in Darfur. The CPA, drafted on a simplified North-South dichotomy, does not satisfy Darfur’s demands and the Darfurian rebels are insisting that its power-sharing provisions be renegotiated, at the very least. But Garang’s presence in the national power structure would have been a powerful force against government-sponsored aggression in Darfur. An uncompromising advocate of ethnic and religious equality throughout Sudan, he was the guarantor of peace in the South and, by extension, elsewhere. For all Garang’s flaws, his vision of a “new Sudan” was a noble one from which he never deviated for an instant, even though a majority of southerners, even within the SPLA and SPLM, reject the unity for which he fought. They want separation. Garang’s death puts the new Sudan in jeopardy.

See our last post on Sudan.