John Garang’s death unlikely to avert Sudan’s impending break-up

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

A Correspondent in Khartoum

Rajab 27, 1426 2005-09-01


by A Correspondent in Khartoum (World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 7, Rajab, 1426)

The peace deal signed last January for which the late John Garang fought for more than two decades secures for southern Sudan the right to secede, which it will exercise through a referendum to be held in six years’ time. There is little doubt that Garang would have insisted on the referendum being held, had he lived, and that the southerners will vote for secession because of their strong hostility towards the north and their backers’ keenness to have the “largest Muslim-dominated country in Africa” broken up. That keenness is currently seen in the passion with which the US-led campaign to detach Darfur from the rest of Sudan is being conducted. In these circumstances it is odd that Garang – the former chief of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), the southern guerrilla-group fighting for secession– is being described as a leader who was dedicated to the preservation of Sudanese unity.

That is exactly how he was described in his obituaries and eulogies, especially in the Western media, after his death on July 30, just three weeks after being installed as Sudan’s first vice president, while at the same time keeping his position as head of the SPLM.. An editorial in the Guardian (London) on August 3, for example, described him as a trained economist and soldier, who had staked his reputation on the agreement signed in January. “While other sections of the SPLA wanted nothing less than an independent southern Sudan, Mr Garang was willing to settle for autonomy for the region as part of a unitary Islamic state,” it said. It is, of course, true that many southerners wanted the war for outright independence to continue, because the region’s population is also divided along ethnic and religious lines, with Christians forming a minority and animists the majority.

Garang’s contribution was to unite the feuding southerners against Sudan’s central government. This unity enabled him to wring from the government, headed by general Omar al-Bashir (who is branded as an extremist in the West) a peace deal that is guaranteed to deliver independence for the south within six years. The US and the African countries backing Garang all believe that the deal will deliver independence. It is obviously natural for those who believe so to prefer it to a violent bid for independence, which would be far more costly for them to support. Moreover, the six-year provisional period will give them time to heal the ethnic and religious divisions in the south, which are bound to lead to conflict if independence arrives sooner or through war.

This explains the speed with which the SPLM confirmed Garang’s deputy, Salva Kiiv, as its new leader, automatically making him Sudan’s first vice-president, and preventing rivalries from breaking out among the SPLA’s potentially fractious top men for the two positions. Like Garang, Kiiv is a Dinka (i.e. he is a member of the largest ethnic group in the south), and has vowed to support the deal. But it does not explain president Bashir’s pledge to work with Kiiv to implement a deal that will – if implemented successfully – give independence to the south and break up his country. Bashir is under intense pressure to comply and also believes that he cannot resist the pressure being exerted by the so-called ‘international community’ and media over Darfur. He is also under pressure from Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Husni Mubarak not to antagonise the Bush administration by rejecting the peace deal.

The failure of the members of the Arab League – and, indeed, of other Muslim countries – to encourage Bashir to stand firm in the face of Washington’s dictat, has made it easier for other countries to add to the pressure being exerted on Khartoum on both the southern and Darfur fronts. It was not an accident that president George W. Bush declared, on the very day that Garang’s death was announced, that he backs the peace deal, and despatched an envoy to Sudan to help to preserve it. Washington always backed the SPLM and exerted pressure on African and Western countries to support it, although that backing increased greatly on the arrival of president Bush in the White House. It is no secret that Bush’s administration is in the grip of the American Evangelical movement, which regards the conflict in Sudan (both in Darfur and in the south) as a war between Muslims and Christians.

This is not an exaggerated claim by Muslims or other supporters of Sudanese unity. Even analysts in the Western media see Bush’s view of Garang as a “visionary leader and peacekeeper” helping his people to resist domination by Muslim Arabs as confirmation of his religious approach to the issue. But they see the evangelical groups’ total involvement as even more menacing. The Economist of London, for instance, made a similar point on August 6. “Many right wing American Christians go further, seeing in Africa’s longest war a biblical struggle,” it wrote. “Its recent conclusion, with the southerners being promised autonomy for six years followed by an option to secede, and with Garang sworn in three weeks ago as the country’s top vice-president, looked like a victory of good over evil.”

It would be more accurate to describe the involvement of the evangelical groups and the Bush administration in the Sudanese issue as a victory of evil over good. How else could the expenditure of so much money and effort on a racial and religious war be described? If, as the Westerners claim, they are averting a racial war in Sudan, then they could prove their sincerity about racial issues by giving up the blatant discrimination and harassment that is meted out to non-whites in their own countries. But that that is not happening proves the opposite.

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