Cover Story

More than a Warlord

The SPLA's John Garang has defied military odds, jihad warriors, and the rebel tag long enough to shape a new Sudan

Issue: "More than a warlord," July 21, 2001

in Eastern Equatoria, Sudan-The affability of the man in the oxford button-down and blue jeans, eating cornflakes in early sunlight, defies the tortuous journey required to meet him. John Garang, commander-in-chief of the Sudan People's Liberation Army for two decades, operates within a security zone bordering on paranoia. More than the leader of a rebel band, Mr. Garang projects like a head of state. Deputies rarely reveal whether he is in Sudan or abroad, in uniform or civilian mode. No one simply drives over for a chat with the boss they like to call "Dr. Garang" or "the chairman." In this instance, a trusted bodyguard has ferried visitors in the chairman's trademark late-model Land Cruiser. The rendezvous begins under cloak of darkness from a meeting point in northern Kenya. It ends hours later, after navigating two rushing riverbeds, scores of jackrabbits, and a small herd of baby gazelles, at an undisclosed location inside Sudan. Security along the way is vigilant and well armed. But inside the SPLA compound the following morning, despite the presence of top military aides and relentless threats against Mr. Garang's life, the atmosphere is relaxed and confidently upbeat. It has been a good year for the SPLA. Military gains have brought its enemy, the Islamic regime based in Sudan's capital of Khartoum, to the brink of a peace agreement. On July 4, Khartoum signed onto a peace arrangement brokered by Egypt and Libya that has at least a nod from Mr. Garang. Sudan's civil war between its predominantly Muslim north and mostly Christian south, entering its 19th year, is finally on the front burner in Washington's State Department as well as a few European foreign ministries. The SPLA, historically regarded as a guerrilla movement with its own internal problems, has also begun in recent months to reconcile its various tribal factions and establish rustic frameworks for civil government. All those factors add up to SPLA momentum on the ground-even though observers had predicted that the $500 million in annual revenue coming into Khartoum's coffers from new sales of oil would create momentum the other way. Mr. Garang enjoys recalling the forecasts a year ago of the Sudan government's "last" dry-season offensive: "The government was going to crush the SPLA." But Mr. Garang and his commanders adopted a defensive but mobile strategy, falling back to avoid frontal attacks in key areas, then moving in quickly where they saw any temporary advantage. Operating on six well-defined fronts across southern Sudan, with perhaps 40,000 soldiers, the SPLA has made surprising territorial gains against government forces that may number several million. One victory in eastern Sudan, near Kassala, proved especially decisive because the SPLA inflicted heavy casualties and captured government armaments that it then used in more assaults. The SPLA drive culminated in its capture of the town of Raja on June 2, the same day Mr. Garang and Sudan's president, Omar el-Bashir, had agreed to meet, along with other African leaders, at a peace summit in Nairobi, Kenya. When Mr. Bashir received word of the SPLA conquest, he refused to see Mr. Garang face-to-face. Compounding Mr. Bashir's humiliation is the ongoing defection of several southern militias that have been government allies. Those factions, primarily from Upper Nile's Nuer tribe, are ceding crucial oil-related territory to the SPLA as they abandon posts protecting government troops and foreign oil operators. Many of the fighters at one time sided with Mr. Garang, who is from the Dinka tribe, but abandoned his SPLA forces years ago over deep-running tribal differences. Those differences led to brutal massacres that now have to be healed over both internally and on the international human-rights stage. "As fighting intensifies, we see more clearly the need for reconciliation," said Nuer officer John Jok Nhial. He said personal ambitions of Nuer militia commanders interfered with "thinking about the future of this country, and we have suffered because of those ambitions. Now it is necessary to fight the one common enemy." Mr. Garang is avidly courting their loyalty. In late June he summoned many of the once-disaffected to this retreat setting to cement the new alliance. "Our primary tactic is to win back the former combatants of ours and have them back fully with equal responsibilities and duties-just like any other SPLA soldiers. It is more political than anything else," he said. It is also a strategic imperative because it gives the SPLA an opportunity unimaginable one year ago: to threaten oil production. "Oil workers are not a target, but the installations, definitely we would like to close them down," said Mr. Garang. "We want the oil companies, in the interest of the lives of their workers, to evacuate. But they do not believe us." Asked about a rumor that his forces in late June captured Chinese workers near China's oil concession in Upper Nile, he will only reply, "I have heard of it also. But I cannot confirm it." Shrewd political maneuvering by Mr. Garang is one reason Khartoum heads are now showing up at the peace table. By straight odds, government forces should have finished off Mr. Garang's army a long time ago. The SPLA has no aircraft and no anti-aircraft weapons to use against the government's admittedly outdated but relentless airpower. SPLA ground forces are clearly outnumbered, yet somehow find themselves in control of an area of Sudan equal to the size of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi combined-what Mr. Garang calls "New Sudan." Mr. Garang says his fighters' durability comes from "the strength of conviction that we are fighting a just cause. That isn't something North Sudan and its people have." He pulls memorized passages from Isaiah 18 and the New Testament book of Acts, references to the Ethiopian and the land of Cush, as evidence of Sudan's long Christian roots, a culture he says many people in the north and south do not want to lose. But he does not want to be portrayed as fighting only a religious war. "Our war is a subset of global problems and universal human rights. In the beginning it was about Islamization and the enforcement of Islamic law," he said. "Then it was about Arabization, the imposition of the Arabic language, along with job opportunities and the general neglect visited on the south. Now you could say it is a conflict over resources, the oil complication. To talk about one of these things is to have only a partial picture." When leaders of the ruling National Islamic Front announced support for a peace plan brokered by Egypt and Libya earlier this month, Mr. Garang was cautious, even though the SPLA had already signed onto it as a framework for peace. Mr. Garang says the plan currently lacks a provision for the south to determine its own form of government through a referendum, and the plan does not address all-important questions about freedom of religion. While the plan allows for the opposition to participate in a ruling National Islamic Front government, it does not make way for transition to a new, all-party government, which the SPLA wants. "There is no way we will accept Shariah [Islamic law] as supreme law of the land," Mr. Garang told WORLD. "Since the other side will not accept constitutional separation of religion and the state, which would guarantee freedom of religion to all religions, then the only sensible way forward is to accept the reality that we have a fundamental disagreement." Mr. Garang does not want a United Nations-brokered peace (as seen in other parts of Africa and the Balkans) that leads to status quo stability but lacks resolution to underlying sources of conflict. He prefers a "confederal arrangement" by which north and south would exist under two separate constitutions during a period of several years. Then, a referendum would allow the people of Sudan to choose one system over the other, or allow the dual system to continue. Given the aggressiveness of some radical Islamic leaders, what's at stake in Sudan has ramifications not only for Sudan but for many other countries as well. As Mr. Garang asked the UN Human Rights Commission in 1999, "Is a war based on jihad ... a religious right of those who declare and wage it, or is it a violation of the human rights of the people against whom it is declared and waged?" Mr. Garang has already demonstrated that finding a way out of the gridlock over principles takes more than military muscle. He is learning that it takes more than careful rhetoric as well. "If you fight war without establishing government, without development, without provisional services for our people, we will lose generations of children," he said. "In the interest of our civilian population, which is scattered, we need to provide them with something that will give them hope, something in which they have a vested interest, something run by them." Mr. Garang sounds like more than a warlord, and he is. After serving in Sudan's army he spent nine years in the United States. During that time he studied economics, earning a bachelor's degree from Grinnell College and master's and doctoral degrees from Iowa State University. He also spent one year training with the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Ga. Mr. Garang's return to Sudan coincided with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the constitutional imposition of Shariah, all of which made long-standing divisions between the north and south harder to overcome. Still on active duty in the army but lecturing at the University of Khartoum, he saw a "growing dissatisfaction among South Sudanese" and a split within the army. By the time the current president, Mr. Bashir, took over in a 1989 coup, Mr. Garang for six years had been head of an emerging circle of rebels known as the SPLA. Mr. Garang's training is evident in the movement this year of the SPLA toward what it calls "peace through development," putting in place local government structures-an independent court system and police force, schools and small-scale enterprises-in areas brought under its control. Many of the civic projects are still in planning stages, but Mr. Garang has found a trusted ally in bringing them to life: his wife, Rebecca Nyandeng. Overseeing the construction of a new community in Eastern Equatoria near the border with Kenya, she is trying to take the best of what she has learned from visits to UNICEF development projects abroad, particularly in Bangladesh, while at the same time retaining proven Sudanese methods. That means substituting metal bunkbeds in dormitories for traditional rope cots ("to eliminate bedbugs"), but sticking to mud and brick construction ("much cooler") over the UN's generic metal sheeting. The Taposa tribe that dominates the area has in the past not been inclined toward the SPLA, but the prolonged security the SPLA has brought to the region has won some support. So have Mrs. Nyandeng's ideas and energy: "We are building a model community out of the forest and keeping the trees," she said dryly. The SPLA and its civic leaders also want the community to be a model for independence from overseas relief programs. Mrs. Nyandeng, working with Swiss Disaster Relief, a small relief group, has used seed money from UNICEF and individual donors. She rejects, though, big-project models of development that she says large charity organizations have tried-and failed at-in other parts of south Sudan. These lack long-term commitment to the community, while at the same time they are obligated to pay overseas salaries. "They educate a few children with a lot of money; here we will educate a lot of children with a little money," she said. The location of the community has advantages. It is more temperate and well watered than most of Sudan, and has dirt-road access to markets in both Kenya and Uganda. Local laborers, since beginning the project two years ago, have been able to construct a 5,000-gallon water tank and a brickmaking operation that has enabled them to build a generator station and buildings for a new boarding school. The school, called Nakwotom Heritage Academy, is near completion and set to open with over 100 students, all girls at first, later this year. Local authorities are planning to make the school self-sufficient by cultivating onions and poultry for market, and by renting out facilities for conferences. "Just a small investment can boost these areas," Mrs. Nyandeng believes. "We know that the people have lost hope but they can regain it very fast." Helping Sudanese to regain hope is also part of her husband's strategy for a New Sudan. "It is emerging governance, fighting and building, building and fighting," Mr. Garang explained. Critics worry that he could be just another dictator if he gains power, another despot who talks democratic principles while insisting on "movement" politics over genuine individual freedom. Asked about multiparty governance in an emerging New Sudan, the steady, penetrating gaze flashes. "I prefer to cross my bridges when I reach them," he noted, before drawing parallels to America's revolutionary period. "Only the form of government came initially," he said of the Founding Fathers. "Republicans and Democrats came later. The form of government we are establishing now is within the context of war." Mr. Garang can, however, boil down the multiple objectives to a singular analysis: "I believe Islamic fundamentalism can be defeated through demonstrating the effectiveness of a better system."

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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