John Garang: Sudanese Rebel
By Shola Adenekan
Three weeks ago, John Garang, who has died
aged 60, in a helicopter crash, was sworn in as
the first Vice President of Sudan.
The ceremony was cheered by many in and
outside the country as signalling the end of Africa’
s longest running civil war.
In 1983, Garang, a Colonel in the Sudanese Army
was sent by his superiors to quell the growing
mutiny of 500 south-based troops who were
ignoring orders to move north.
But instead of obeying orders, he joined the
mutiny and spearheaded the formation of the
Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – a rebel
army that sought autonomy for the mainly
Christian and traditional religion south from the
majority Arab north.
The insurgency sparked an ethnic war which has
claimed over two million lives, displaced millions
more and impacted on ethnic clashes in countries
With his bulky frame and greying beard, Garang
came across to many who knew him as
charismatic, authoritative but with a good sense
Perhaps it was his charm that endeared him to
the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, who supplied him
arms alongside the Ugandan and Ethiopian
Garang strongly opposed military rule and the
imposition of Sharia law by the government in
He claimed his troops’ courage came from the
conviction that they are fighting a just cause.
While his critics suggested he was motivated by
the oil wealth that lies in the south.
John Garang de Mabior was born on June 23,
1945 into a Christian family of Dinka extractions.
Although his parents were poor, they managed to
educate him. He attended Magamba Senior
Secondary School in Lushoto, Tanzania,
graduating in 1964, and later studied at Grinnell
College in the US.
Garang was a research associate in rural
economics at University of Dar-es-Salaam,
Tanzania, between 1969 an 1970. It was while
he was there that he met and became friend with
Yoweri Museveni, who was also studying at the
Since capturing power in Uganda, Museveni has
been accused by the Sudanese Government of
assisting Garang's SPLA in its struggle for power
Garang had his first taste of guerrilla warfare with
the Anya Anya movement during the country’s
first post-independent civil war.
In 1972, the Khartoum government reached a
peace accord with the rebel group and the south
became a self-governing region. Garang and the
rest of the guerrillas were absorbed into the
Sudanese Armed Forces and Garang was posted
to the capital.
He returned to further studies in the US in 1977,
returning to Sudan with a PhD in economics from
Iowa State University four years later. He was
promoted to the rank of colonel and became an
instructor at Khartoum Military Academy.
Two years later, the then president, Jaafar
Numeiri ordered Garang to stamp out rebellion in
the south, only for Garang to join the rebels
against his commander-in-chief.
While the Sudanese government has been
accused by many international observers of gross
human right abuses, including genocide, it also
made some half-hearted attempts to lure Garang
to peace settlements, which he always decline.
Garang refused to take part in the 1985 interim
government and the 1986 elections, choosing
instead to remain a rebel leader.
It was hard to pin down Garang’s ideological
He flirted with Marxism during the Cold War era to
gain supports from the Eastern Bloc. He later
embraced Christian fundamentalism to gain favour
from the religious right and neo-conservative
groups in America.
There was also confusion on central issues such
as whether the SPLA was fighting for
independence for southern Sudan or merely more
Friends and foes alike found the SPLA's human
rights record in southern Sudan and his style of
In recent years, Garang has been spending most
of his time under tight security in an exclusive
Nairobi, Kenya suburb, while most parts of the
Sudan he governed lack basic social amenities and
He recently survived an attempt on his life with
fingers pointed at some disgruntled elements
within his own faction.
In January this year, with a growing crisis in the
Darfur region and with Washington’s readiness to
exert stronger political pressure on Sudan, Garang
seized the opportunity to grab a viable peace
settlement with el-Bashir government in Khartoum.
It was perhaps the deal he had been waiting for.
Major highlights include granting greater
autonomy to the south, the appointment of
Garang himself as the country’s first southern vice
president, equal division of the oil wealth and a
provision for a referendum for total independence
from Khartoum in six years time.
But while Garang got what he wanted, rebel
groups in the western Darfur region were left out.
Garang acknowledged that genocide was taking
place in the area and called for international
sanctions against Khartoum if the killings do not
stop even when he becomes part of the Sudanese
In July 9, 2005, after 21 years, he re-entered
Khartoum to a rapturous welcome. As Garang and
his wife stepped up the plane, dozens of
government officials lined the red carpet to shake
Among the crowd were people waving SPLA flags,
something which was an offence only a few
He died while returning from a visit to Yoweri
Museveni, the Ugandan president.
He is survived by his wife Rebecca Nyandeng de
Mabior, who is a commander in the SPLA and five
John Garang de Mabior: Born on June 23, 1945;
died on August 1, 2005. Aged 60.