The Ghost of John Garang

2011-01-15 16:43

It is easy to make heroes of the dead who are not around to err any longer, but spending 12 days in Sudan reveals a people who are in dire need of towering presences like the late John Garang, to help illuminate the path ahead as ­Africa’s ­largest nation deals with its most definitive referendum.

Garang was a South Sudanese leader and thinker credited with having a national vision ­expansive enough to reconcile most factions in the country’s body politic. He led the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) until his death in an air crash in 2005.

Garang co-founded the current government of national unity and played a big part in a peace agreement which ended the civil war and included plans for the referendum.

The Sudanese will decide in the historic poll whether or not their land should split into two nations – the north, led from Khartoum, and the south, under its own government in Juba.

The poll is a bid to finally establish lasting peace and resolve a conflict that has been raging since before 1956, when Sudan won ­independence from British rule.

Early results of the vote – which ended yesterday – indicate that the south has achieved the 60% turnout ­needed to create a new country.

It is true that for launching one of Africa’s longest-­running armed struggles with his SPLM/A, ­Garang has been labelled a warlord by his critics. So to a visiting journalist it was clear that the Sudanese, like all people going through a great trial, need to resurrect the best of their traditions.

This will not be easy, especially given that – unlike South Africa during the early ’90s and late ’80s – the Sudanese have not built a ­national public discourse on the ­future character of their country.

The voices of everyday people are generally muted, thanks to half a century of conflict.

Spending some time in Sudan ­also ­refutes a tendency by outsiders to sum up the country as being ­divided between Arab north and Christian south. I discovered a much more complex reality.

The northerners are not racial, but cultural Arabs; a result of the spread of Islam throughout North Africa and some racial hybridisation. In an apt demonstration of this complexity, my fixer, a Khartoum ­local called Mustafa Ali, looked me in the eye and asked: “Do I look ­Arab to you?” He insisted he is more African than Arab.

South Sudan, on the other hand, is made up of multiple ethnic groups, the majority of whom are ­neither Christian nor Muslim, but keep to their African beliefs.

Of the country’s oil reserves, 55% are in the south and 45% in the north – at least according to the minister of petroleum, Lual Deng.

Deng is a southerner in the government of national unity who spoke to our group in his office in Khartoum.

It is predicted the oil wells of Africa’s third-largest producer will dry up in 25 years – a fact that Garang was apparently aware of.

Deng quotes him as having said: “The engine of Sudan’s economy is ­agriculture, not oil.”

Hence the minister believes that oil revenue should fuel agricultural development. A ­further crucial detail is that the north and the south will have to maintain friendly relations in the event of a split. The oil pipelines have their taps in Port Sudan, which is in the north.

Deng also recognises the ­importance of a peaceful reaction to whatever result the referendum delivers: “That is crucial for development,” he said. And development is something the south, especially, needs a whole lot of.

In fact southern Sudan has such a huge development deficit that its capital, ­Juba, for instance, situated in Central Equatorial state, was ­described by one observer as “a mere 30km of tarred road”.

Mammoth as the task may seem, Sudan can rely on its most unifying figure to find its way. Garang managed to broaden the objective and scope of the southerners’ struggle, to include the rights of all marginalised peoples.

Twice when he was offered the deputy presidency as southern leader, by Jaafar Nimeiri’s regime and then by the 1985 Transitional Military Council (TMC), Garang demanded the ­recognition of other regions as equal members in a ­single Sudan.

“What about Darfur, the Beja and the Nuba? Do they have to take up arms for their place to be recognised?” he asked, thus setting a crucial precedent: it was possible to win liberty for the southerners and other marginalised groups within a united, democratic Sudan.

That precedent flies in the face of voices that seem to have muted this alternative, framing the referendum as a vote for southern self-determination and independence, thus not focusing on a struggle to democratise a united Sudan.

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