Eric Reeve •
The death of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, longtime leader of the struggle for a just peace in southern Sudan, casts an ominous shadow over the prospects for sustaining the north/south peace agreement signed this past January in Nairobi. For the unfortunate truth is that there is no leader within Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that has his qualities of leadership, realism, wide experience, and deep intelligence.
Nor does anyone else in the SPLM have the necessary diplomatic or political skills, as well as the respect of southern military field commanders. No one else has dealt so effectively with the officials of regional powers and organizations (Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, and the East African Intergovernmental Authority for Development, a consortium that provided the diplomatic auspices for peace negotiations). And no one else has the confidence and authority to refuse, as Garang did, the premature US urgings in early 2002 that the SPLM drop the key demand made by all southern constituencies: the right to self-determination, including a referendum on secession.
Under Garang’s tough-minded leadership, the right to southern self-determination was incorporated into the breakthrough Machakos (Kenya) Protocol of July 2002, which started negotiations with the Khartoum regime that would two and a half years later see the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA dealt with issues of national and regional governance; wealth-sharing; security arrangements; geographical disputes; and the role of shari’a (Islamic law) in Sudanese jurisprudence.
To be sure, the agreement was far from perfect, particularly in its treatment of two key regions on the north/south border—the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile. Moreover, Garang has rightly been criticized on various counts: he did not easily delegate responsibilities, and thus made it difficult for his potential successors to gain necessary leadership experience; he did not commit sufficiently to the various efforts at “south-south” reconciliation, attempts to overcome inter- and intra-tribal divisions that have weakened southern Sudan. The human rights record of the SPLM under Garang was at times appalling in earlier years, though improvements in recent years have not been sufficiently recognized.
But Garang is dead and only his legacy lives on. The challenge for SPLM political and military leaders is to ensure that this legacy is not lost to infighting, defection, and parochialism. It will be a moment of supreme trial for these men, many of whom are barely known except to those who follow Sudan carefully. They will be tested relentlessly by the National Islamic Front (NIF) in Khartoum, still the dominant force in the new “government of national unity” sworn in on July 9, 2005. The NIF controls the military, the security and intelligence services, and various paramilitary proxies. In Darfur’s ongoing genocide the NIF’s best known proxy is the Janjaweed; in southern Sudan the proxy force takes the form of the South Sudan Defense Forces—militias that are supported and paid by the NIF, and whose officers in many cases have been given senior ranks in Khartoum’s regular army.
Many observers have long regarded these militia forces, especially in the southern oil regions, as the greatest potential spoilers of the peace process. Recently there have been signs that the militias were being forced closer to a decision about demobilization, but Garang’s death casts much in doubt. Khartoum’s use of these militias may very well increase in coming weeks, especially before the slow-moving UN peace-support operation deploys to a significant level.
Salva Kiir Mayardit, long-time deputy to Garang and a member of the Dinka tribe from Bahr el-Ghazal Province, was sworn in shortly after news of Garang’s death in a helicopter crash became public—all in formal accordance with the terms of the peace agreement. But while the collegial Salva Kiir may be acceptable to the majority of SPLM commanders in the field, he is not likely to garner the same respect as Garang—or to command anything like unanimous political support in the fractious SPLM. Riek Machar, a “vice chairman” of the SPLM and the leading figure from the Nuer tribe in the incipient southern government, is widely regarded as unwilling to serve under Salva Kiir. If Riek Machar abandons the southern government, he may lead others away as well, auguring a significant increase in warlordism of the sort presently embodied in the Khartoum-backed militias.
SPLM officials should support Salva Kiir as leader, but encourage him to create a leadership council that functions as a collective source of wisdom and guidance in making key political, diplomatic, and military decisions. As the NIF begins testing southern leadership in earnest, the historic peace agreement of January will become only a bitter memory if the legacy of John Garang is not preserved with vigilant, disciplined efforts by all within the SPLM leadership. Yet greater inclusion of southerners in the new governance structures is also imperative. Peace is still possible for Sudan, but it became a great deal more difficult with this tragic death.
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