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Dr. John Garang: The father of the nation

By Vision Reporter

Added 7th February 2011 03:00 AM

AS Southern Sudan braces itself for self rule, the late Dr. John De Mabior Garang must be smiling in his grave. Garang is the man most credited for this struggle.

AS Southern Sudan braces itself for self rule, the late Dr. John De Mabior Garang must be smiling in his grave. Garang is the man most credited for this struggle.

By Frederick Womakuyu

AS Southern Sudan braces itself for self rule, the late Dr. John De Mabior Garang must be smiling in his grave. Garang is the man most credited for this struggle.

For more than 20 years, Garang who led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), epitomised the struggle of the mainly Christian and animist people of southern Sudan against the oppressive Arab and Islamic culture of the north.

Garang skillfully held together the disparate factions of the SPLA. But he did so at a cost of serious human-rights violations; by imprisoning or killing anyone who threatened it.

Who was Dr. John Garang?
Despite his being at the centre of the Sudan conflict for a long time, very little was known about Garang.

He was, at best, described as a difficult man caught up in a complicated war.

With his beard, bulky physique and jet-black skin of his Dinka ethnic group, Garang came across as one of the most complicated rebels on the African continent.

Garang was born in 1945, in the small village of Wagkulei in Upper Nile, Southern Sudan. He belonged to the southern Dinka people famous for worshipping the sky, playing music on ram’s horns and their love of roast meat. His family was Christian.

Garang had a PhD in agricultural economics from the US. He spent his early and middle life planning to blow up oil wells in the Sudan.

Garang’s first taste of guerrilla warfare was when he joined the southern-based Anya Anya movement, led by Gen. Joseph Lagu, in 1962.

The Anya Anya came into existence in August 1955 when a military unit composed of southerners, mutinied and disappeared with weapons. This marked the beginning of the first Anyanya war, one year before Sudan got its independence. By the late 1960s, half a million people were reported to have died.

In 1972, the government signed a deal with Lagu. So, Garang, along with other fighters, was absorbed into the government army. During this period of peace, Garang went to study in the US at Grinnell College in Iowa. He later went back to the US for military training at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Lagu says Garang was a “brave leader hardened by oppression by Arabs. He believed that our people would never be free without us taking the military route.”

Peter Moszynski, a Sudan specialist who covered the war for many years, says Garang was an expert in survival: someone who knew how to bend with the wind and yet maintain his political objectives.

“Above all he was someone who understood the cardinal rule of political longevity: keep your friends close but your enemies closer. He believed in a united Sudan.”

Garang forms SPLA
Oil was discovered in Southern Sudan in 1978, which inevitably, encouraged secessionists to believe that with the control of its revenues they could found a viable state.

Five years later the civil war resumed when President Jaafar Nimieri imposed the Sharia (Islamic) law on the whole country, including the south.

Lagu says in May 1983, as a government army officer, Garang was sent to quell a mutiny of 500 southern troops who were resisting orders to be shipped north.

“Instead of doing so, Garang joined the mutineers, encouraged revolts in other garrisons and placed himself at the head of a rebellion against Khartoum,” explains Lagu. Garang then founded the SPLA.

In the 1980s the main thrust of the SPLA was against the Western oil companies in the south.

Garang was unapologetic about this, describing them as “mercenaries working for the Islamic regime”. A series of attacks forced Chevron to close its operations for a time.

But the rebel administrations were often inept, and human rights activists accused Garang of presiding over serious human-rights violations. This made him lose credibility.

This presented the most serious challenge to Garang’s position and to the overall strength of the SPLA.

A number of his top commanders, including Dr. Riek Machar (now vice-president) broke away and concluded a peace agreement with Khartoum in 1997.

Peaceful settlement
In July 2002 Garang met Sudanese President Omar el Bashir in Uganda. This was a week after the Government and the rebels had agreed on a framework to end the war.

The south was granted the right to hold a referendum on its future after a six-year transition period. In return, Khartoum agreed to separate state and religion at least partially, and withdraw most of its troops from the south.

Despite this, heavy fighting broke out in late 2002, but it was ended by a partial ceasefire signed in October 2002.

The war officially ended in 2005 when a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Navaisha, Kenya.

Garang declared the peace agreement “a great battle and a major victory”. He said the dignity of the southern people had been restored. “Nobody will take us for granted . . . we have come to stay.”

Garang was appointed first vice-president of Sudan, a position he held for only three weeks before he was killed in a helicopter crash.

He was married to Rebecca Garang, a long time SPLA colonel with whom they had six children — four girls and two boys. They live in Juba, Southern Sudan.

Dr. John Garang: The father of the nation

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