Backgrounder

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

SUDAN: John Garang's Death

Author: Esther Pan
August 2, 2005

What will be the impact of John Garang’s death?

John Garang, the 60-year-old Sudanese vice president and former rebel leader, was a critical partner with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in plans to build a new government of national unity and to ease tensions between north and south Sudan after a 21-year civil war. His death in a helicopter crash July 31 makes those goals "much more complex and difficult," says Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria and the Ralph Bunche senior fellow in Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Share

How will Garang’s death affect the peace process?

Garang, head of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the main southern rebel group, took office in a power-sharing deal just three weeks ago as part of a peace agreement signed in January. The agreement ended a war that had raged since 1983, when Khartoum attempted to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on the south. The fighting claimed about 2 million lives and left some 4.5 million southern Sudanese homeless. Garang's death, which occurred just as he and Bashir were about to appoint a new government, happened at "the worst possible moment" for Sudan's peace process, says Suliman Baldo, director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. "The government of national unity is not yet established. The government of southern Sudan is not yet established. No one is ready to cope with this situation. There are no fallback scenarios to go to," he says.

Do early signs point to a peaceful or chaotic transition?

Two weeks before his death, Garang chose Silva Kiir, a longtime SPLM/A leader with strong support from members, as his deputy. On August 1, Kiir took over Garang's positions as head of the SPLM/A and president of south Sudan and vowed to continue Garang's work. Bashir's government also claimed that Garang's death will not derail the peace. "The march of peace will continue toward its goal, and his death will only make us stronger and more determined to complete the march which he began and his companions began," the president said in a statement read on state television August 1. However, there has been unrest in the capital, Khartoum, with more than 130 people killed in rioting since Garang's death was announced.

What’s the background of Sudan’s peace process?

Civil war between successive Khartoum-based Arab Muslim governments and rebels from the country’s south--whose population is mostly Christian or practitioners of traditional African faiths--wracked the country from 1956 to 1972, and from 1983 until 2002, when a cease-fire was signed.  Protracted negotiations followed until Garang and then-Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha signed a peace agreement January 9, 2005. The south is now at the beginning of a six-year political process, at the end of which it may vote for independence in a public referendum.

What are the terms of the peace deal?

The deal created a semi-autonomous region in the south, headed by Garang, who also joined the Khartoum government. It divided the parliament: Bashir's party received 52 percent of the seats and Garang's party received 28 percent, with 20 percent going to opposition groups from both north and south. The south will be exempt from sharia, which is enforced in Khartoum and the northern regions, and oil revenues will be divided evenly between north and south. The south is also slated to receive $2 billion in international aid. Despite the terms, some experts doubt Khartoum's commitment, or ability, to carry out its promises. Bashir's government's "long-term interest is not in the peace agreement," Baldo says. "It's about keeping their access to money and power."

How will Garang’s death affect hopes for southern independence?

It will help the separatists, experts say. The south, which holds the nation's reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals, has long complained of persecution by the north. "If you had a referendum today in the south, it would be overwhelmingly in favor of separation from Sudan," says Robert O. Collins, a longtime Sudan expert and professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Even the majority of Garang's advisers were "closet separatists," he says. As leader of the SPLM/A, Garang was resolutely in favor of a unified, democratic, secular Sudan, but experts say Bashir's government must tread lightly about exploiting that legacy. "If Khartoum is not careful, they'll just strengthen the hand of the separatists," Baldo says.

How will the tragedy affect the SPLM/A?

Garang, who was criticized as an authoritarian leader who concentrated power on himself, had dissolved his organization's leadership council two weeks ago in preparation for the new national unity government. Kiir hastily revived the council August 1, but it was an "ad hoc decision, made under the pressures of the moment," Baldo says. The SPLM/A leadership is fragmented and disorganized at the moment; despite this, Baldo says, the party is under strong pressure to improve life for the southern Sudanese. "The peace agreement raised hopes, but now they have to deliver," he says. The SPLM/A will also have to try to hold together a fractious collection of parties, militias, and other rebel groups in the south. "Garang's stature and personality were a major factor in bringing all those factions in,” Lyman says, adding that the coalition is very fragile and could easily split.

Will Kiir be able to fill Garang’s shoes?

Experts say Kiir, who had challenged Garang in the past, may be a strong enough leader to take Garang's place. "There's no question that the SPLM/A will rally around Kiir," says Collins, who praises Kiir as smart and well-liked. "He has some charisma and is independent-minded," Balto says. However, Lyman warns that "a lot depends on how good he is at holding everything together."

How did Sudanese society react to Garang’s death?

Along with the riots in Khartoum, there were reports of violence in the south. Khartoum is currently under a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am. Three days of official mourning have been declared nationwide. "There will be a lot of chaos and a lot of opportunity for people who oppose the peace process," Collins says.

What caused Garang’s helicopter to crash?

The Ugandan presidential helicopter was carrying Garang back to Sudan from a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni when it flew into bad weather. It crashed into a mountain in the Amatonj range in southern Sudan, government officials said, killing Garang, six of his associates, and seven Ugandan crew members. Many angry Garang supporters accused Bashir’s government of involvement in his death. But there has been no official accusation from the SPLM/A of foul play in the crash, and initial investigations appeared to indicate bad weather was responsible. The chief mediator of the Sudanese peace negotiations, retired Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, told the Associated Press he "totally disregard[ed]" any claims the flight was sabotaged.

How will Garang’s death affect the crisis in Darfur?

Garang had been publicly committed to helping solve the crisis in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, where nearly 200,000 people have been killed and some 2 million driven into exile by roaming bands of janjaweed attackers reportedly backed by the government. But Garang’s death "will distract [attention] away from resolving the crisis," Baldo says. Without Garang to pressure the Khartoum government on Darfur, it will go back to "business as usual," Collins says.

What is the U.S. relationship with Sudan?

The U.S. government designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and imposed extensive sanctions in 1997 that banned commerce, investment, arms sales, and international loans. In August 1998, in retaliation for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States launched a cruise-missile attack on a suspected al-Qaeda-linked pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum. Recently, however, U.S. officials have sought Sudan's cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, and actively assisted in the settlement of the North-South civil war. Sudanese officials are eager to normalize relations with the international community in order to gain increased access to international markets and foreign direct investment, especially to develop the nation's untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Their efforts have been hampered by their failure to stop the Darfur crisis, which the Bush administration has labeled genocide.

Some U.S. officials had expressed hope the U.S.-educated Garang--he attended Grinnell College in Iowa and received a doctorate in agricultural economics from Iowa State University--could help improve U.S. relations with Khartoum and moderate the position of the Bashir government. Despite his death, the United States will continue to remain involved. On August 1, two high-level envoys from Washington headed to Khartoum to encourage a smooth transition in the SPLM/A leadership and the continuation of the peace process. "Whatever you think of the Bush administration, they've been very, very good on Sudan," Collins says. "They've gone too far down the road to go back. Now we have to maintain that level of concern and pressure to make sure the peace process doesn't collapse."

More on This Topic

Analysis Brief

Darfur and the UN

The United Nations announced it will send a peacekeeping force to Darfur to quell the ongoing violence. But can the UN succeed where the...