The 74th Birthday Anniversary of Dr. John Garang – The Towering Legacy of Dr. John Garang De Mabioor

Posted: June 23, 2019 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Dr. John Garang, History, Junub Sudan, SPLM, SPLM/SPLA

John Garang’s prophecy

“The history of the Sudanese people has been one of continuous struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, the invaded and the invaders, between the exploited and the exploiters. From our ancient past to the present day, the Sudanese people have always struggled for freedom, justice, and human dignity and for a better life. Our present revolutionary struggle, spearheaded by the SPLM/SPLA, is an integral part and a continuation of these past struggles of our people. The SPLA recourse to armed struggle in 1983 was a resumption of earlier wars before, during and after colonialism. All these wars and struggles were aimed and are aimed at regaining African dignity and nationhood that has been mutilated over the centuries. If we visit the corridors of history from the biblical Kush to the present, you will find that the Sudan and the Sudanese have always been there. It is necessary to affirm and for the Sudanese to remind themselves that we are a historical People, because there are persistent and concerted efforts to push us off the rails of history. The concept of the African nation must stick and become a living ideological weapon of struggle for the unity of the Africa people. The concept of the African nation with a historical mission and destiny, must be taught in all our schools beginning from childhood, and African students and youth must put pressure, including demonstrations, against African leaders who do not actively promote the cause.”

The late Dr. John Garang, in his paper, delivered on his behalf by Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin, to the 17th All Africa Students Conference (AASC), held in Windhoek, Namibia, 28-29th May 2005.

Dr. John Garang: The Man of the People

By PaanLuel Wel, Bor, South Sudan, 23 April 2015

Garang Mabioor Atem Aruai—popularly known as Dr. John Garang—was born on 23rd June 1945 into a peasant Dinka family in Buk Village of the Awulian community, Kongor District in Jonglei State, Upper Nile Region of the historical Sudan. Garang was the sixth of ten children—six boys and four girls—born to Mabioor Atem Aruai from the Awulian clan (Patem, pan-ayen) and Gak Malual Kuol from the Kongor clan (Padool, pareng), both of Twic Dinka from the Greater Bor Dinka Community.

Young Garang left his home district of Kongor at the age of ten after the death of his father to attend school in Bahr el Ghazal. He went to Tonj Primary School (1954), followed by Bussere Intermediate School (1958), and then Rumbek Secondary School (1962) when the Anyanya One war broke out. Just after joining Rumbek Secondary School, teenage Garang was expelled for participating in a Southern-wide student-led strike—one that was fomented by the legendary Southern freedom fighter, Marko Rume.

Garang’s early studies in Bahr el Ghazal formed and enshrined his life-long relationship with the Dinkas of that region, on whom he later relied and with whom he fought the long war of liberation. Stephen Madut Baak, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, and above all Garang’s longtime comrade, deputy and eventual successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, all hailed from the Bahr el Ghazal region.

Teenage Garang joined Anyanya One on 31 December 1962 at the age of 17. From there, he proceeded to live in Bombo Refugee Camp in Uganda between 1962 and 1963, and then in Kibera—in Nairobi, Kenya—where he worked in a restaurant to earn transport fares for his next journey to Tanzania.

It was in Tanzania that he resumed and completed his interrupted high school education, studying at Magamba Secondary School in the southeastern Tanzanian town of Lushoto. After his graduation, he returned to Kenya and taught math as an untrained teacher at an Asian-owned Gatunganga Secondary School in Karatina, Central Province, near Mount Kenya. It was while he was teaching in Kenya that he secured the Thomas Watson Fellowship to Grinnell College in Iowa, US, where he graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

He returned to the Sudan immediately after graduation and rejoined the Anyanya One movement in 1971. After a training stint in Israel, General Joseph Lagu commissioned him as a captain. Just eight months after his arrival, the Anyanya One leadership signed the Addis Ababa Agreement that Garang bitterly opposed, leading to the penning of his famous 1972 letter.

He was absorbed into the Sudanese army after the peace accord, but demonstrated numerous acts of disobedience and rebelliousness. In a move calculated to preclude him from dragging Southerners “into trouble prematurely,”[i] Joseph Lagu and Abel Alier recommended John Garang for a military training course in the US, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in military science, third in a class of 200 students.

He pursued his studies further, earning a doctorate degree in economics from Iowa State University in 1981.

Upon returning to the Sudan in 1982, he was promptly promoted to the rank of colonel, posted to the Army General Headquarters in Khartoum, and appointed as a deputy director for military research. At the same time, Garang’s American friend and schoolmate, Dr. Brian de Silva, requested him to join their faculty of agriculture at Khartoum University as an adjunct professor of agricultural economics. He accepted.

It was during his time at the Army General Headquarters in Khartoum that John Garang commenced reorganizing the Underground Movement for a planned revolutionary war to be launched on 18 August 1983. August 18 was chosen in homage to the Torit Mutiny that erupted on 18 August 1955. However, political and security events were getting out of control in the South, particularly in Bor, where ex-Anyanya soldiers were resisting mass transfer to the North.

Thus, the Underground Movement changed tactics and launched the premeditated revolution on 16 May 1983 instead of the scheduled August 18. The SPLM/A war of liberation, which commenced on May 16, went on relentlessly for the next two decades with Garang at the helm, until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on 9 January 2005.

Although Garang passed away in a tragic plane crash just three weeks after he was sworn in as First Vice President of the Sudan—plunging Southerners into an unprecedented state of uncertainty—a successful referendum was later conducted and Southern Sudan was declared an independent state on 9 July 2011 under the leadership of his longtime deputy and successor, Comrade Salva Kiir Mayaardit

Garang was the political conscience of, and moral advocate for, the marginalized people of the Sudan.

A Dinka from the long suppressed region of Southern Sudan, he gazed on the iron curtain of marginalization and envisaged that the vision of the New Sudan could tear it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to free the marginalized people of the Sudan from a century-old bondage of political marginalization, social deprivation and economic exploitation, he wrung the most eloquent statements of his vision of what the Sudan could become.

He helped Southerners overcome Khartoum’s divide and rule conspiracy, and the debilitating ignorance of clothing themselves in the insignia of a Southerner that had denied them vital allies during the Anyanya One War. He railed against the repressive policies of despotic successive regimes in Khartoum, as much as he had spoken out against self-serving opportunistic Southern comrades who were ready to betray and sacrifice the people’s aspirations on the altar of a selfish quest for ephemeral monetary and political benefits.

By his sheer commitment to, and sacrifice for, his beloved people of Southern Sudan, Garang made the people’s movement better and their liberationary struggle stronger, leading it stalwartly until the CPA era. For this, he was the man of the people, by the people and for the people because they loved him and he loved them.

They honored him with songs and dances, and by slaughtering bulls. The people rejoiced with him over the triumphs of the SPLM/A, shouldered the losses together, cheered him on during his long but humorous speeches, and celebrated with him the signing of the CPA.

By these gestures, he was invigorated and empowered, for those for whom he struggled up to the end were solidly behind him. In him they saw the embodiment of their resolve and their quest for freedom; in his utterances was revealed the sum total of their long bitter suffering and their strong determination to triumph at all cost.

He became a Moses of and to the suffering people of Southern Sudan and the marginalized regions of the Sudan. He continued until his last days to strive for a befitting homeland for his people: “a restructured democratic, New Sudan where social justice, freedom and human dignity for all flourish.”[ii]

Upon his untimely and mysterious death, they poured out their hearts, revealing to the world the great man that he was—his indispensability to their cause and his centrality to their aspirations and struggles for freedom and justice. His life informs South Sudanese about their subjugation, their struggle for liberation, and their ultimate realization of freedom and liberty.

His vision sustained the South Sudanese during the dark years of the early 1990s when the movement fragmented into two warring factions, and still gives South Sudanese hope for a better possibility, a brighter tomorrow, in the new Republic of South Sudan.

Who among the South Sudanese of today can say that they would have succeeded in fighting the war of liberation effectively, in negotiating the peace agreement skillfully, and in signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) successfully were it not for his persistent bravery and his strong vision of the New Sudan?

Dr. John Garang and the Pioneering Fathers of the South Sudanese Liberationary Struggle

He was not the first dedicated Southern leader, for many had struggled and died before him, but he was uniquely different from them.Garang was not the first Southerner, or a leader from the marginalized regions of the Sudan to lead a protest against the double apartheid of racism and religious bigotry and to advocate for the liberation of his people.

He was indeed a disciple, albeit an exceptional one, who learned from and excelled in the mainstream of the great Southern Sudanese tradition of dissent against Northern domination. Precisely because he was a student of this dissenting tradition, he was both a unique personality and a representative of his people. Many South Sudanese do not have any inkling about, or have simply forgotten, how indebted Garang was to the Southern dissenting tradition.

The dignified determination to liberate Southerners from Northern domination by the pioneering fathers of the Southern Sudan liberationary struggle—dedicated and patriotic men like Father Saturnino Lohure, Joseph Oduho, William Deng Nhial, Marko Rume, Aggrey Jaden, Gordon Mourtat Mayen, Joseph Lagu, Emmanuel Abuur Nhial and Joseph Akuon—helped shape some of Garang’s most fundamental policies and ideas, as exemplified in his vision of the New Sudan.

In fact, the seed for the vision of the New Sudan later championed by Garang could be traced back to the Sudan African Closed Districts National Union (SACDNU)—the first political party formed by the pioneering fathers of the South Sudanese liberationary struggle while exiled in Uganda after fleeing political persecution in the Sudan in the wake of the bloodless military coup of General Abboud in 1958. 

SACDNU, which was later renamed the Sudan African National Union (SANU), was the forerunner of the Anyanya One movement.

Garang did not betray the aspirations of the pioneering fathers of the Southern Sudanese liberationary struggle; rather, he fulfilled it through the independence of South Sudan.

Garang’s inheritance of the mantle from the pioneering fathers of South Sudanese liberationary struggle and the awe-inspiring way he compelled the South Sudanese to envisage themselves in him, their grievances and aspirations in his speeches and writings, their determinations in his steadfastness and devotion, their convictions in his confidence and dedication, their freedom and future in his vision of the New Sudan, shaped and molded them into one great war machine against Northern domination and ensured their victorious march into independence from the North.

Garang’s roots were indeed in the political consciousness of his people.

A myriad of South Sudanese tribes experienced political suppression, economic deprivation, social oppression and cultural humiliation at the hands of their foreign masters—Arabs and Europeans—and this encouraged a new compact between their tribal groupings, set on freeing themselves from foreign domination.

A culture of resistance was developed and sustained until independence.

Out of this identity of opposition emerged a new political consciousness that wanted amicable accommodation with, and assurance of equal treatment from, the North.

The pioneering leaders of the revolutionary struggle pursued this object for equal treatment, first at the Juba Conference of 1947, and later on the eve of and after Sudan’s independence in 1956. Although they succeeded in obtaining a promissory note, to be considered after independence, their spirited insistence on cashing in the promissory note was contemptuously rebuffed, setting in place what Uncle Abel Alier Kwai called an uninterrupted tradition of “too many agreements dishonored” in the Sudan.

It was eventually quenched only with a premeditated bloodless military coup launched by General Abboud, bringing an end to civilian rule and electoral politics in the Sudan—the only avenue left for Southerners to express and present their grievances.

Northern parliamentarians colluded with the Northern army to dissolve parliament along with political parties, and following the bloodless coup, Southern leaders were systematically targeted and repressed. Southerners were left with little choice but to resort to arms, giving birth to the Anyanya One movement.

Thus, as Garang consistently put it, the Southerners never declared war on Khartoum; rather, it was Khartoum that declared war on the Southerners. Since the Southerners were left with no other choice, they had to respond in kind, and respond in kind they did, leading to independence after five decades of protracted war. 

Though many previous generations of South Sudanese liberationary leaders left their conspicuous mark on Garang, he was uniquely different from them, both in ideology and his approach to the conduct of a revolutionary war against Khartoum.

From the coming of foreigners into Southern Sudan until the end of the Anyanya One war, the pioneering leaders of Southern nationalism kept the flame of liberation flickering, reflecting the prevailing Southerners’ mood for independence. But few of those Southern Sudanese nationalists set the stage for a battle royale for national liberation as much as Garang did.

With the help of his own highly agitated, fed-up people, and in alliance with those who were marginalized in other regions of the Sudan, Garang proclaimed that the fundamental problem of the Sudan was the Sudanese refusal to accept and identify themselves as Sudanese first and everything else later.

This failure, he argued, resulted in an identity crisis leading some to search for meaning outside that narrow definition. Consequently, some resorted to calling themselves Arabs, Africans, Afro-Arabs, Arabo-Africans, etc., all resulting in the cancer of racial discrimination and religious fanaticism that has plagued Sudan right from independence.

He demonstrated to the nation that religious prejudice and racial chauvinism had infected and wrenched apart Sudan’s rich heritage of multi-ethnicity, multi-religiosity, and multi-lingual and multiracial identity.

Surely, many in the North might have felt that they were being judged collectively and unfairly, but it was their complacency, not their racial background or religiosity, that Garang indicted.

He equally rejected the Southern Sudanese acceptance of their everyday suffering—their banal acceptance of political, social, and economic evils meted upon them by Khartoum.

His relentless call for Southerners to be “masters of [their] own destiny”[iii] rather than “being mere spectators in life,”[iv] moved many to join the people’s revolutionary movement and fight against the forces that had chained them and undermined their God-given rights of freedom and liberty.

Despite the success of the first Anyanya One war, the development and expansion of Southern nationalism was beleaguered by the inability of Southern nationalists to join in solidarity across all tribal lines.

This was mainly because of ethnic divisions, exacerbated by Khartoum’s cultivation of tribal militias to fuel, further, and actualize the state policy of divide and rule.

Paradoxically, instead of overwhelming Garang, these policies emboldened him, deepening his revolutionary grounding, not just to free his people from marginalization by Khartoum, but also to educate them about the source of their strength—their huge numbers—to dismantle and restructure the center of power in Khartoum.

With his innovative proposition of the New Sudan Vision, Garang was able to sermonize that the conflict was not between North and South, Africans and Arabs, Christians and Muslims. Rather, it was a conflict between the marginalized people of the Sudan against the ruling clique in Khartoum that had perfected the misuse of religious and racial cards to advance and maintain their hold on power.

The solution to the country’s fundamental problem, Garang maintained, was, firstly, the total dismantling of the center of power in Khartoum, and secondly, for all the Sudanese people to decide whether to (1) voluntarily live together in a systematically restructured democratic New (United) Sudan through a consensus rather than by force or coercion, or alternatively to (2) break up the country peacefully instead of having it being broken down violently by the discriminative policies of the Arab-Islamism.

Consequently, Garang’s vision turned the Southerners’ pursuit of freedom and liberty into a question of saving the entire country from an otherwise inevitable disintegration. He made a practical call for each and every patriot to undergo rigorous self-examination, make a decision to part ways with the discriminative policies of Arab chauvinism that would destroy the nation, and to take the path of hope and progress into the New Sudan where all people would be free and equal.

Garang would have never entertained taking all the credit of liberation unto himself alone, for he was quick to acknowledge and praise his colleagues, martyrs, and even opponents. Garang would not have wanted today’s South Sudanese to laud him without recognizing his comrades in the liberationary struggle from all corners of the marginalized regions of the Sudan.

He would have wanted the South Sudanese to acknowledge the people of the New Sudan without whose material and moral support the SPLM/A could not have effectually executed the war; the children and the youth—Jesh Amer—whom he identified as the Seeds of the Nation, and particularly women whom he christened “the marginalized of the marginalized.”[v]

And above all, he would, and often did, emphasize the centrality of the martyrs, the war veterans, and the wounded heroes/heroines as the crowning of the utmost mark of sacrifice necessary for the realization of freedom. Most of the South Sudanese vividly recall Garang going out of his way to pay tribute to his fallen comrades and habitually reminding his officers and foot soldiers of his own readiness and acceptance to die like the fallen comrades, all in the name of the liberation of his people.

Central to his message was the idea that self-determination is not something given to you by someone else on a silver plate; it is something that, by definition, you must attain for yourself.

Therefore, as previously cited, Garang maintained that Southerners and the marginalized people of the Sudan should not be, “mere spectators of their own lives”; they should rather be “masters of their own destiny.”[vi] Attaining self-determination called for the ultimate sacrifices on the part of the participants in the liberation struggle.

Because many were willing and readily available to answer this call for the ultimate sacrifice, he never tired of acknowledging each and everyone to whom South Sudanese owe the freedom and liberty they are enjoying today and for millennia to come.

Garang was very critical of some South Sudanese leaders—those of Anyanya One, based on their “wrong diagnosis”[vii] of the problem as a Southern one instead of one for Sudan as a whole; the leaders of Anyanya Two whom he termed regressive and self-defeating, and the ringleaders of the 1991 Nasir coup whom he condemned as merchants of escapism and opportunism who stabbed the people’s movement in the back when it was on the verge of capturing Juba.

Those South Sudanese leaders who dabbled in divisive and destructive politics at the expense of the people’s freedom particularly frustrated Garang. He despised those who valued political positions, who lusted for jobs and money to the detriment of the aspirations of the marginalized people.

He was disappointed in those who exhibited no foresight and an “eagle view” vision in terms of strategies and tactics that would win the war of liberation. Although he often decried their shortsighted political prostitution and economic opportunism, Garang never disinherited them from the South Sudanese revolutionary struggle.

This was made clear by his speeches, first in reference to Kerubino Kwanyin Bol in the 2004 SPLM/A Rumbek meeting, and then in reference to Gordon Kong Chol during the 2005 South-South reconciliation conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

It was also revealed in his consistency in lauding the sacrifices of and remembrance for the fallen heroes and heroines whenever an occasion presented itself. No ceremonial event commenced without him honoring the martyrs. He even honored those who died as a result of their rebellion against him. He believed they differed from him only on strategy, not the goal itself, for all had been subjected to the violent repression unleashed upon them by the consecutive Arab-Islamic regimes in Khartoum.

He never took political differences personally, for the death of his comrades, irrespective of their political and ideological differences, strengthened and deepened his determination to see through to the end of the liberation struggle lest their blood would have flown in vain.

Forces that Shaped and Molded Dr. John Garang

Garang saw the South Sudanese liberationary struggle as part of the wider worldwide struggle against racial injustice and religious bigotry. Hence, he borrowed heavily from, and domesticated many of, the international political ideologies and economic philosophies of his time and environment. During his studies in Tanzania, for instance, he was deeply influenced by the African Socialism of President Julius Nyerere and the Pan-Africanism of his mentor and teacher, Professor Walter Rodney.

And while studying for his bachelor, master’s and doctoral degrees in the US, he absorbed and successfully domesticated the lessons of the American Civil Rights Movement as an embodiment of Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation on the inalienability of individual right and liberty. He was greatly fascinated too by the fiery speeches of hope and determination by the charismatic American leader, President John F. Kennedy. Later, while he was in the bush, waging war on Khartoum, Garang could be heard over SPLA Radio echoing John F. Kennedy: “Let us not be Southerners or Northerners. Let us be, first and foremost, Sudanese.”[viii]

But most importantly, Garang embraced and utilized the tenets of the dependency theory that he learned at Grinnell College in the US. Dependency theory, Andrew Natsios explains, was to have “a profound effect on his understanding of what ailed Sudan. Dependency theory argued that rich Northern countries, mostly former colonial powers, were extracting natural resources and raw agricultural products from poor developing countries at depressed prices, trapping them in a state of permanent underdevelopment, while the big Northern factories were able to process the raw material and take large profits. Any poor countries that resisted this ‘world system’ would be marginalized by the North or, in some cases, subjected to military threats or invasion. But given Sudan’s history as well as its ongoing political and economic crises, dependency theory presented Garang with a remarkable prescient explanation for his country’s structural dysfunctions.”[ix]

To Garang, dependency theory illuminated the political and economic marginalization of the peripheral regions of the Sudan by the central government in Khartoum. The rich Northern countries represented the central government in Khartoum while the poor Southern countries being exploited epitomized the marginalized regions of the Sudan in general and in Southern Sudan in particular.

By extracting natural resources and raw agricultural products and making large profits out of those raw materials, Garang believed that Khartoum had trapped the marginalized regions in a state of permanent underdevelopment. The excluded regions such as Southern Sudan, by attempting to resist, had been ostracized by the North or, in some cases, subjected to military threats or invasions, as it was the case during the Anyanya One war.

Garang was also certainly a product of Southern nationalism, and indeed a veteran of the Anyanya One war that championed the independence of South Sudan. He was brought up and fed with the morsels of secessionism. Sympathetic and understanding of Southerners’ rationales for seeking independence as he was, Garang, however, was more pragmatic.

In his 1992 conversation with Steven Wondu, Garang told him that he knew that “the South feels strongly about its quest for independence…but the strength of passion is not the same as the practicality of the proposition at this time.”[x] He further told Wondu that the movement must base its approach to war “on the objective realities facing us,”[xi] not on emotionalism or any received wisdom of Southern nationalism.

To Garang, it did not matter whether the cat (approach) was black or white (separation or unity) provided that it caught the mouse (results in liberation).[xii] Though he adopted different strategies, he was faithful to the core belief of the South Sudanese struggle for liberation.

He was loyal to the ideal of the pioneers of the South Sudanese liberation movement insofar as their goal was the liberation of the oppressed people of the South. Some analysts have argued that Garang’s vision of the New Sudan was a fantasy, a wild dream with no basis in reality. If so, that fantasy was shared by many people of Southern Sudan and beyond who responded to the call for the New Sudan, fighting and dying in their millions for the cause they believed in.

Dr. John Garang and his Critics

It was Winston Churchill, one of the greatest British statesmen, who once said that if you have no enemies, then you have never stood for anything. Garang stood for the most innovative vision ever proclaimed in an independent Sudan. As such, Garang attracted fierce opposition from all sides: Southern separatists accused him of being an ardent unionist, while Northern fundamentalists accused him of being a secret separatist.

Garang’s first critics were the leaders of the Anyanya Two movement—Akuot Atem Mayen, Samuel Ghai Tut, and William Abdallah Chuol; his second opposition came from the reactionary group led by Kerubino Kuanyin Bol; the third hailed from the Nasir group, when the people’s movement was on the verge of capturing Juba; and the last was from his closest comrade, Salva Kiir Mayardit.

While he was largely hated and feared in equal measure by the Arab North, there were supporters there, too: Mansour Khalid and Yasser Arman, among others. The masses from the marginalized regions did not contest the alleged authoritarianism of Dr. John Garang and neither did Garang dismiss the charges against him as smear campaigns concocted by his critics, serving at the mercy of Khartoum.

When some internal and external voices began to claim that the SPLM/A did not “care to protect the very people whom it was purporting to liberate”[xiii] Garang responded by accepting that “indeed mistakes had been made in the movement during the discharge of duties, [but] he believed that the basket containing the mistakes was lighter than the one containing the positive contributions that had been made in the furtherance of the nationalist cause. He then went on and apologized for mistakes done and proceeded to say this: ‘I take full responsibility for all the mistakes committed during all these years of our national liberation, but the people take credit for all that has been good and positive’.”[xiv]

One could even suppose that some of Garang’s shortcomings resulted from his firm belief that “a liberation movement and army could not take decisions by consensus. The buck stopped with him.”[xv] Most Southern Sudanese were ready to tolerate these flaws, with the rationalization that “he may have been authoritarian, but he had to be, because the survival of the liberation struggle was dependent on not leaving anything to chance.”[xvi] For sure “some have even argued in retrospect that without Garang’s autocratic leadership the South would have lost the Second Civil War and no peace agreement would have been negotiated.”[xvii]

In fact, the conviction that the movement was too young and fragile to “take risk”[xviii] was one that was not unique to Garang; other intellectuals within the movement such as Dr. Lam Akol had enthusiastically championed it. For example, in December 1989—in Nairobi, Kenya—Lam, then the SPLM/A’s top negotiator, once bluntly told Khartoum’s delegation that “Yes, we have imprisoned some and killed others and we will kill many more because we are a liberation movement who would not take risks.”[xix] Lam had accused Khartoum of human rights violations and they in turn questioned Lam about SPLM/A’s political detainees.

Out of this somber understanding, the South Sudanese came to regard Garang as the symbol of their opposition to and protest against the North in spite of his apparent failings. Out of this sincere appreciation came the conviction to give him the benefit of doubt, to follow and believe in him, as reflected in the way most people from the South and the marginalized regions came to view his limitations and mistakes as a small, tolerable price to pay for the greater goal of liberation.

The Legacy of Dr. John Garang

The historical significance of Garang from the time he authored his famous letter in January 1972 to the time he died in July 2005 is that he had, more than any other South Sudanese leader (and Sudanese leader for that matter) within that brief span of time, shaken the entire edifice of power in Khartoum. True to his declaration, Sudan has not been the same since and will never be again.

Garang believed that the state policy of Arab-Islamism was a direct assault on Sudan-ness, what he called Sudanism. Sudanism is the idea that the Sudanese people should first and foremost be Sudanese before becoming Christians or Muslims, Africans or Arabs, Southerners or Northerners, and so on. Garang believed that the endeavor of seeking an outside identity to subsume Sudanism conflicted with the sacred values of democracy, justice, freedom, and long lasting peace in the Sudan.

The contrived Arab-Islamist identity, strange and foreign as it was and thus largely unacceptable to most Sudanese, had to be imposed and sustained by force, and it was a force that engendered equal opposition from the disadvantaged majority Sudanese who responded in kind to the injustice meted upon them by the ruling clique in Khartoum.

It was to right this injustice that Garang dedicated his entire life from the time he burst on the South Sudanese political scene with his 1972 letter to his boss, Joseph Lagu, throughout the war of liberation, and until he died in July 2005 after the signing of the CPA.

Garang understood that the Sudan’s richness and diversity in cultures, languages, religion, and politics was more of an asset than a liability, yet it had been victimized and dilapidated by the chauvinistic policy of Arab-Islamism. The solution, in his view, was for Southerners to seek refuge in numbers—the combined forces of the marginalized people of the Sudan.

It is difficult to appreciate Garang’s achievement if we do not understand that his dilemma was that he saw both the need for and the danger of seeking refuge in numbers—the New Sudan Vision. On the one hand, he had the conviction that the only effective way to restructure the center of power in Khartoum was through the New Sudan Vision.

If only the combined energies of the marginalized people were spent fighting the central government, then these groups could collectively finish off the dragon and then, freely and without coercion, could decide to remain together in one voluntary union by consensus rather than by force.

Alternatively, if they so wished and preferred, they could decide to break up the union freely and peacefully, each going her own way to form independent amicable sister nation-states. Although this was evidently a plausible vision, the stark reality was that Southerners had, over the years, cultivated and internalized a culture of secessionism. So strong and entrenched was the pursuit of Southern independence that any alternative view, the New Sudan Vision, for example, was taken as an act of betrayal of the dissenting tradition.

Indeed, Garang’s vision proved to be too threatening to both sides.

Ardent Southern separatists saw it as at best a dangerous distraction, at worst an outright betrayal of their long pursued dream of independence. On the other hand, Northerners saw it as an existential threat to their discriminatory ideology of Arab-Islamism. Ironically, Garang ended up alarming and offending everyone, the victims and the oppressors alike.

War broke out among Southerners—partly over the objective for the war and partly over leadership—and it was not until Garang defeated Southern “separatists” that he began his war of liberation against Khartoum.

The effectiveness and viability of the New Sudan Vision explains the irony of the Anyanya One movement that started out as a secessionist movement, only to end up signing a unionist agreement in contrast to the SPLM/A that commenced as a unionist movement but ended up signing an accord that brought the independence of South Sudan. Truly, as the old saying among the SPLM/A cadres attests, they knew what they were fighting for—kë thärku angicku.[xx]  Thus, in retrospect, it was only opinions regarding tactics that differentiated Garang from his pioneering predecessors of Southern nationalism, for all had held the same overriding aim—freedom and liberty to their beleaguered region. Garang secured that wider support precisely because he promised the world of freedom and liberty for all Sudanese people, with new government based on mutual consensus rather than by force or coercion, of which all marginalized people dreamt.

His vision implied a complete and extensive restructuring of the center of power, just distribution of national resources and equal and fair political representation in the central government. But the very possibility of the success of his vision, the near realization of the tenets of the New Sudan Vision, might have been behind the sudden and mysterious death of Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005.

His vision, however, still excites South Sudanese socioeconomic and political imaginations—the tantalizing prospects of political freedom, economic prosperity, and social progress. It still beckons them to manifest the New Sudan Vision in the new Republic of South Sudan—to provide a democratic and pluralistic society where freedom and liberty are guaranteed to all regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, tribe, religion or region. And it imbues them with the conviction that the two Sudans could prosper and shine as a beacon of hope for the rest of the African continent.

Garang’s vision was not only that the freedom of the marginalized regions would herald the true freedom and peace for the whole Sudan (Southerners’ freedom will make Northerners’ freedom possible) but also that the vision of the New Sudan could be a template to solving continental issues, wherever marginalization and exploitation of the peripheral regions by a central government is experienced.

There is this pervading phrase nowadays in all corners of South Sudan, whenever there is an overwhelming national quandary: “if only John Garang was alive.” Yet, critics of Garang have been quick to interpose that Garang would never have voted for an independent South Sudan. Implied therein is the supposition that Garang was a power hungry man who wanted to rule the whole Sudan at the expense of the aspirations of South Sudanese people.

Yet, back in 1992 during his conversation with Steven Wondu in Nairobi, Kenya, Garang told Wondu that he knew about the aspirations of the South Sudanese as much as the Nasir group: “I know as much as they do that the South feels strongly about its quest for independence. There are valid reasons for their wish but the strength of passion is not the same as the practicality of the proposition at this time. We must base our approach on the objective realities facing us.”[xxi]

Garang also knew that if given a chance to vote in a free and fair referendum, South Sudanese would “vote almost 100% for independence.”[xxii] And knowing this, he told Riek Machar (after Riek had signed the Khartoum peace agreement) that if Khartoum was serious about letting the South go, he (Riek) should let Khartoum withdraw their forces from Juba, Wau, and Malakal and conduct the referendum.

Garang’s unambiguous prediction of the January 2011 South Sudan’s referendum outcomes, coupled with his “Rumbek Exhortation” in which he had urged the South Sudanese not to be second class citizens in their own country, hardly leave any room for doubt regarding his intent and political stance had he been alive to vote during the referendum on South Sudan independence.

Garang was the right man at the right time; as Steve Wondu succinctly observed: “I felt that Southern Sudan was blessed to have him at its hour of most need and that those Southerners who sought to bring him down were making a grievous mistake.”[xxiii]

But in the cruelest irony of fate, Garang who had “single-handedly kept the hopes of the black Africans in the Sudan”[xxiv] and the man who “fought for the freedom and justice of Southern Sudan for over 20 years”[xxv] was suddenly killed in a mysterious helicopter crash on his way back from Uganda.

Today, there is no bigger honor that South Sudanese people can accord Garang than to ensure that the vision of the liberationary struggle that he led and for which he paid the ultimate price is actualized in the new Republic of South Sudan. Anything less will be the ultimate betrayal, not just of Garang, but also of all the pioneering fathers and all the martyrs—men and women without whose blood and flesh this country would have never been freed.

The greatest legacy of Garang over and above his comrades—the pioneering fathers of Southern Sudanese liberationary struggle—will always be (as Francis Mading Deng decorously recognizes) the extent to which he “shifted the Southern outlook from that of a minority, struggling for recognition and a degree of autonomy in a marginalized corner of the country, to one of self-assertiveness, pride, and dignity in the struggle for a democratic Sudan.”[xxvi]

Although Dr. John Garang de Mabioor, “the most visionary and incisive revolutionary thinker of Africa and undying martyr of South Sudan,”[xxvii] died physically on 30 July 2005, “his vision will continue to inspire many peace loving people around the globe.”[xxviii] Return in peace (R.I.P) Dr. John Garang.

1. Joseph Lagu, Sudan: Odyssey through a state (From Ruin to Hope), 2006.

2. Please see Garang’s speech on the New Sudan vision, in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

3. Please see, “Dr. John Garang’s Address to the SPLM/A and Other Armed Groups (OAGS) Dialogue Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, 2005,” in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

4. Ibid

5. Please see Dr. John Garang’s speech on the signing ceremony of the CPA in 2005, in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

6. Please see, “Dr. John Garang’s Address to the SPLM/A and Other Armed Groups (OAGS) Dialogue Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, 2005,” in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

7. Please see, “The Minnesota Address: Dr. John Garang’s Address to the Conference of the Equatorian Sudanese Community Association in the USA, 2002,” in The Genius of Dr. John Garang: The Essential Writings and Speeches of the Late SPLM/A’s Leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabioor, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

8. James Bandi Shimanyula, John Garang and the SPLM/A, 2005, pp. 15-26.

9. Andrew Natsios, Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know, 2012.

10. Steven Wondu, From Bush to Bush: Journey to Liberty in South Sudan, 2011.

11. Ibid

12. Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty- first Century, 2013

13. Elijah Malok Aleng, The Southern Sudan: Struggle for Liberty, 2009.

14. Ibid

15. Hilde Johnson, Waging Peace in Sudan: The Inside Story of the Negotiations that Ended Africa’s Longest Civil War, 2011.

16. Ibid

17.  Ibid

18. Please see, John Garang Speaks (Call for Democracy in Sudan), edited by Mansour Khalid, 1992.

19. Ibid

20. A common response/saying among the rank and file of the SPLM/A whenever a foreigner would ask them what they were fighting for.

21. Steven Wondu, From Bush to Bush: Journey to Liberty in South Sudan, 2011.

22. Please see John Garang de Mabior, “You Can Kill Self-Determination Through Self-Determination,” in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

23. Steven Wondu, From Bush to Bush: Journey to Liberty in South Sudan, 2011.

24. Please see Watts Gibia Nyirigwa, “Garang’s Superseded Aircraft: Who Killed Dr. John Garang de Mabior?” in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

25. Ibid

26. Please see New Sudan in the Making, edited by Francis Mading Deng, 2010.

27. Please see Watts Nyirigwa, “Garang’s Superseded Aircraft: Who Killed Dr. John Garang de Mabior?” in The Genius of Dr. John Garang, edited by PaanLuel Wël, 2013.

28. Ibid

  1. kailoor says:

    This reflection of who the man of people is will create unerasable pictographic image and distinguish the true son of the land and mass traitors of his time who deserve mentioning here but withheld for God knows their fates and those of their children whom they nourished with our blood and wealth.

    Dr. Garang passes with great wealth of honor from deceased comrade and the living; he made several future South Sudanese billionaires a character that made him stand tall in the history of the black people til his return with his Lord Jesus Christ.

    we praise Almighty Lord for giving us Dr.John Garang at a time when he was needed the most.

    Very fascinating to read the book of his life.



  2. Andrew Shacuj Pau says:

    Is Aman of his words look dangerous but good in heart


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