August 4, 2005


Sudan's chance: The recent death of John Garang is a shocking setback to Sudan's peace process, but not a fatal one. The Bush administration deserves much of the credit for the peace deal signed in January, and if it keeps its nerve, can help preserve the peace with Garang’s successor (Alex De Waal, August 2005, Prospect)

his year, despite Garang’s death, bad news is less than half of Sudan’s story. The country hasn’t looked as hopeful for a generation. The main reason is that Sudan’s leaders are exhausted by war and have hammered out a new power-sharing deal. But the British and American governments can also take much of the credit.

Two Sudanese leaders made peace possible. One is the late Garang, veteran leader of the SPLA. In May 1983, Garang, who had a PhD from Iowa State University, was serving in the military’s economics department. He was on the way to Bor, his home town, on leave, but before he arrived, the garrison mutinied. They were southern Sudanese soldiers, absorbed into the national army when the previous civil war ended 11 years earlier, who had heard they were to be rotated to the north. Instead of following orders to suppress the rebellion, Garang joined the mutineers. A few weeks later, he issued a manifesto calling for a united, secular and socialist Sudan.

On 9 July 2005—after a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and left much of southern Sudan worse off than in the 19th century, and six months after the final signatures on a “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” —Garang was sworn in as first vice-president of Sudan, a post he held for just three weeks before his death. His commitment to national unity was modulated by a provision in the agreement that provides for southern Sudanese to vote on self-determination in six years; in the meantime, the country is to be run by a transitional government of national unity. Garang’s secularism was compromised by the retention of Islamic law in northern Sudan. And his socialism had vanished. But the southern Sudanese had achieved peace, and an astonishingly good deal that provides them with a guaranteed share of national wealth and posts in the central government, as well as formidable autonomous powers, including their own army for the six-year transitional period—and an opt-out clause, should they decide that independence is a better option after all.

Under Garang, the SPLA was as much a personal fiefdom as a political movement. Major compromises, including internal institutions, consultative processes and much of the peace settlement itself, were forced upon the leader by his lieutenants. Prominent among these was his second in command, Salva Kiir Mayardit. After Garang’s death, Salva Kiir was unanimously voted in as head of the SPLA and thus sole candidate for the first vice-presidency. (Kiir will be a more unifying figure in southern Sudan than Garang, but he doesn’t command the same national profile, and Khartoum’s leaders fear he harbours a separatist agenda.)

It took three years to hammer out the hundreds of pages of text in the peace agreement. The key intermediary on the government side is the man who now serves as second vice-president, Ali Osman Taha. He too is an intellectual and ideologue. In the 1990s, Taha served as deputy to Hassan al Turabi, engineering the sheikh’s dreams into reality, trying to replace the conventional architecture of a state with a new design of purely Islamist institutions, using Koranic principles for drafting legislation, raising taxes and running services. A decade into this experiment, Taha had to admit that it wasn’t working. Not only was the country poor and ostracised, but the regime was at the brink of losing the civil war.

So Taha began to argue that Sudan’s Islamists should now just consolidate their gains, keeping Islamic law but suspending further ambitions. This was the politics of exhaustion: ideals had been hammered down by the unforgiving realities of running a country and fighting an unwinnable war. And the Islamists were falling out among themselves. After an internal power struggle, Turabi was deposed and imprisoned and Taha became the power-broker. He gambled that if he signed a peace accord with Garang, he could deliver international acceptability, debt relief, investment and aid funds. This July, he pulled it off. But a vital part of the deal was Garang’s commitment to national unity. Now that the vice-president is dead, Ali Osman will struggle to hold in check the military intelligence officers who believe that their interests are best served by fomenting unrest and division in the south.

The peace process took a severe knock when Garang’s helicopter came down. But the procedures under the peace deal for replacing Garang and forming the government of national unity are clear. Omer al Bashir stays as president, and real power resides with the two vice-presidents, Kiir—who must now fly to Khartoum to be sworn in—and Taha. It can still work.

The successes thus far would not have happened without George W Bush’s most remarkable foreign policy initiative, and peace can be maintained if he sticks to that policy. In the early months of the Republican administration, a small state department team reviewed Sudan. They concluded that Clinton’s regime change policy wasn’t working, because the war was in a stalemate and American assistance to the SPLA, even if scaled up, wouldn’t deliver. The CIA reported that Sudan had ceased active support to international terrorism. The president decided to support peace in Sudan. The chances of success were vanishingly small but the administration saw no alternative. Bush has been utterly consistent since then, even in the face of extremely vocal congressional and Christian lobbies that have demanded the overthrow of the Khartoum government.

If Garang was as good a leader as we'd like to think, his project won't die just because he has.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2005 4:04 PM

It may. People there may well choose to believe the government shot down the man's helicopter because... well, just because.

Over 100 people have died in rioting and protests since. In contrast, we had a full-blown coup in Mauritania with no related deaths.

Reading the tea leaves in some of these places is just that... reading tea leaves.

Posted by: kevin whited at August 5, 2005 12:52 AM

We set him up to be killed. If we thought he was important to have around, we shouldn't have done that.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 5, 2005 3:35 PM

If it was necessary for him to be alive then he wasn't particularly important.

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2005 4:49 PM

A cautionary tale to democrats to whom we offer friendship, though.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 5, 2005 7:54 PM

Anybody who doesn't know better than to fly in Africa is asking for it.

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2005 8:56 PM