The audacious life and legacy of Dr. John Garang

john_garangJuly 30, 2008 (Texas, USA) - I have always enjoyed writing. And this time, I would like to write on someone whose life and contribution has been so significant to millions of people across Sudan and particularly Southern Sudanese.

John Garang was born on June 23, 1945, in Wanglei, Jonglei State. Wanglei is a small town located in Twic East County. Garang’s parents Mabior Atem and Gak Malual were farmers with no formal education. Both Mabior and his wife Gak had seven children including Garang. In his family, Garang was the sixth of the seventh children. When speaking of him, he earned an admiration and respect of many people including William Deng. Deng admired Garang’s intelligence and character. Mr. Deng was a veteran politician in the sixties.

Later in his youth, Garang went to school at Tonj Primary School and finished an elementary education in 1952. In 1956, he went on to complete the next level of education at Buseri Intermediate School in Wau. Four years later, Garang left without completing high school from Rumbek Senior Secondary. The reason cited for his early departure was to take on an international scholarship being offered in Tanzania. Those scholarships were awarded to students on merit and he was picked on that criteria. As his success advances, he was granted admission to attend Grinnell College in Iowa State, USA. In 1968, he graduated from Grinnell College with Bachelor of Arts in economics. Mr. Garang was educated in the United States and earned a doctorate in economics at Iowa State University in 1981. Before graduating from Iowa State, he married his lovely wife Rebecca Nyandeng in 1976; they have six children.

Following graduate school, Garang returned to Sudan and became an associate professor at University of Khartoum. After choosing teaching as a career, John Garang joined the faculty of agriculture at Khartoum University, Shambat, where he taught agricultural economics. Besides teaching agriculture, Prof. Garang rose to the rank of captain in the Sudanese army. As a professor, he usually encouraged studentd to find ways in which illiteracy and equal education opportunity can be tackled. He enjoyed both reading and teaching, and most people branded him as “bookish.”

In the eighties, changes in government policies started gradually to take effect: President Jafari Nimeiry began issuing series of provocative sharia laws and oil policies which led to start of conflict in South Sudan. In 1980, Mr. Nimeiry called for border changes after oil wells had been discovered in Bentiu, South Sudan. In similar way he called for more decrees, Mr. Nimeiry decided to illegally removed Gen. Joseph Lagu from the presidency of South Sudan. Nimeiry did it because some southerners were politically motivated and interested for that position, [and] told him it is appropriate to remove Gen.Lagu due to his own failure to deliver services to the people. Nimeiry also strongly demanded and politically thought that sharia law must be practiced in all parts of the country. That meant regardless of separate beliefs one has, Islam must and will remain the only national religion in Sudan. Yet the man who called himself president of the republic of Sudan did not give up issuing ridiculous decrees that caused an enormous outcry in the country. In a most suicidal move, he further called Addis Ababa Accord which was signed in 1972 “not a holy Quran” and said he intended to violate it. And he did it. However, the most important question is: Why did President Nimeiry violate the peace accord?

He claims that any agreement which fails to recognize Islam as national religion would not be respected. Southerners upset over Nimeiry divisive policies and his relocation of oil pipelines to the north, and [who]felt that swift actions would be needed to respond to him. Considerably, the response was to launch peaceful and massive demonstrations in major towns and cities across South Sudan. Nimeiry who was the president of Sudan at the time, did not expect his polarizing decrees to lead to violence, but surprisingly they exacerbated the mutiny in Bor.

As it happened, the mutiny in Bor got out of control and prompted southern military officers’ attention and five hundred people to quickly respond in the town of Bor. The country was on the brink of civil war without government notice. Civilians responded angrily with slashing tires, breaking shops and calling Arabs to go back to the north. Southern military officers, however, shot bullets in towns in order to scare Arabs away. Then, that was where they can sneak out of town from being captured by the Nimeiry regime. What was Nimeiry respond to mutiny in Bor?

After the mutiny, Nimeiri sent Dr.Garang to Bor so that he can quell down the mutiny, but certainly Garang chose to join his fellow southerners in the bush. Nimeiry was disappointed with the decision Garang made to join the rebels and he noted that it would be better for 10, 000 troops to die than Garang joining the rebels. Nimeiry viewed Garang departure as a huge blow to his regime for two reasons: Garang was a confidant and trusted person; he was an army officer who knew the regime's weaknesses inside and outside.

On May 16, 1983, the longest civil war on the continent of Africa had officially broken out in Bor. Southerners left the country to fight for their own freedom from Arabs. Fighting began between the southerners and the northerners. Having left the country and the Nimeiry regime, southerners began to face challenges from power struggle to military supplies. In Bilpam, competitive interests on who should lead the movement dominated most of the discussions.

Military officers: Keribino Kuanyin Bol, William Nyuon Bany and Arok Thon Arok, Salva Kiir Mayardit, Gai Tut, Yusif Kuwo, Akuot Atem and Dr.John Garang were participants present at the meeting.

During the process of deliberations, Akuot thought he had the best experience in Sudanese politics to lead the movement, and then follow by Gai Tut. According to Kuanyin, that argument was lacking foundation because of limited foreign affairs both Akuot and Gai possessed to hold that position. Kuanyin took an issue with his opponents and he vehemently disagreed with them on bogus claims of experience. Kuanyin, on the other hand, strongly believed that Dr. Garang was highly educated and had accumulated enough foreign policy to be a chairman. In fact, Kuanyin succeeded when Dr.Garang became the chairman and him, a deputy. It was a tough challenge for them to deal with, but apparently they came up with a solution. At the end, Dr.Garang in turn became the founder and chairman of SPLM. So the same pattern was used to fit every remaining officer in the chain of command. Though most of them did not honorably serve the mission of South Sudan, I think they deserve respect and their places in history. With the 21 years of long struggle for peace and freedom in Sudan, 2.2 million people lost their lives.

The culmination of the struggle arrived in 2004 when both SPLM and NCP agreed to cease hostility in Sudan. The deal paved the way for peace negotiations. In the process of negotiations, both partners in peace came to the common solution of Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It was called comprehensive because its included security arrangements, power and wealth sharing deals.

In an effort to forge peace settlement, countries such as Italy, Norway, Great Britain and the United States, under IGGAD's media, financially sponsored the peace negotiations. The same peace gave Abyei, Nubian Mountains and Southern Blue Nile special rights to vote for their statuses before 2011 referendum. In 2005, Dr.Garang and Ali Taha signed that agreement into permanent peace. During the signing ceremony, peace mediators, international diplomats, United Nations representatives and [Former]US Secretary of State Colin Powell witnessed the agreement in signing.

In July 2005, Dr.Garang was sworn in as first vice president of Sudan and president of South Sudan. He was the first southerner to hold that office in Sudan history. During the inauguration of Dr.Garang into office, statisticians believed that six million people welcome him back in Khartoum. It was a historic turnout to celebrate peace, but to most people-it was a moment in history to share stories of joy and hope. That joy and hope did not last longer because something horrifying happened. Garang's presidential helicopter crashed in a remote area near Imatong Mountain, killing all fourteen aboard, including Vice President Garang. Garang was 60, when his plane crashed while he was flying from Uganda to his headquarters at New Site in South Sudan.

When news about his death started broadcasting on televisions, people inside and outside of Sudan were shocked and saddenned to learn about the tragedy. He served only three weeks in office.

On August of 2005, a piece published in the Financial Times put his death this way: “Garang’s death sparked riots and inter-ethnic group violence on Monday in Juba, the southern capital, and in Khartoum, fanning concerns that his death could jeopardize the peace agreement between the southern rebels and the government in the north.” People were very emotional and desperate because their hopes and aspirations were overshadowed by his death. Others believed that Khartoum was behind his death. But according to investigative team, the death was deemed as "an accident."

In a finding released in 2006, the investigators probing the matter blamed bad weather and pilot error responsible for both plane crash and death of passengers on board. The results of that finding could be true but important questions on who killed him were not satisfactorily addressed.

When it comes to Mr. Garang's legacy, adjectival and adverbial words may not exactly describe his towering accomplishments, but telling the truth about his life is so critical to his legacy. By that I mean recognizing his extraordinary achievement and patriotism he offered to his country. His service and sacrifices were remarkable. During the war of liberation, Dr.Garang fought more aggressively for freedom, liberty and peace for marginalized Sudanese. His courageous fight and steadfast leadership on matters of peace and war resulted in the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. This landmark peace will put Mr.Garang in a very strong place in history. In history, people will remember him for CPA which has brought the peace. Without his commitment to peace negotiations, CPA would not have been achieved.

Although laying the groundwork for peace with National Congress Party took many months and years of tough negotiations, Mr. Garang finally delivered CPA in a “golden plate” to Sudanese of all ethnicities. Therefore, to some of us who are not generous at giving credit where it is due, it is fair to honor his true legacy of diplomacy and negotiation. Diplomacy can be a complicated subject if not handled cautiously but at the end of the process it has great rewards, such as peace.

Dr.Garang will be remembered in history as freedom fighter, liberator, diplomat and an iconic figure and an architect of CPA.


I’ve had the privilege of meeting the late Dr. Garang in August 2004, when he flew in from London and made a stop over at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Texas on his way to phoenix, Arizona. The Dr. Garang I met was a friendly person and a terrific man who can connect with people on a personal level. Garang who dressed up in blue suit and dotted red tie was looking sharp and standing out smart in his diplomatic attire. He was also traveling with his wife Rebecca and two secret service agents. The secret services were there to protect him on each trip abroad. I found him very interesting and inspiring. Before he departed to phoenix, he said to me that people with a lot of knowledge can change the world for better and added we the lost boys of Sudan “can make a tremendous difference.” He further explained that Arab Sudanese in the Arab world comes back to Sudan and it is our turn to be back.”

So hearing those remarks from him struck me most, and I thought it would be a good idea for me to write about him on this day. This biographical information is intended to educate people on his life and, more importantly, it is the best chance for each citizen to appreciate his personal sacrifices and public service he made to Sudan.

Lastly but not the least, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once put it this way: “all great things are simple and many can be expressed in single words- freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy and hope.” Churchill was right, and his remarks came at the time in which England faced a fierce attack from Nazi Germany.

Garang, Mandela and Churchill defended freedom and liberty in their countries to show solidarity with the common man. They did it with courage and determination. But before concluding this discussion, it is right to mention the importance of Dr. Garang's military successes in his homeland of Southern Sudan.

Over the course of his military career, John Garang has made some important decisions which helped him win battles in the war of liberation as well as Civil War in Southern Sudan. His success is credited to his best military training he received from Fort Benning, Georgia. Fort Benning is a leading camp for training infantry and commanders. It is appropriate to conclude that freedom is the most precious gift he sacrificed his life for. Sadly, he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of freedom and liberty he championed in Sudan.

Samuel N. Dau is a guest writer and contributer to The New Sudan Vision. Mr. Dau lives in Texas.


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