Sudan: The Shadow of a Death

Salva Kiir Mayardit, a long-time military companion of Garang in the SPLM had been chosen by Garang as his second-in-command and has now been accepted by the southern leadership of Garang’s followers, but will Mayardit be acceptable to northern leadership and to the wider southern society which is divided on ethnic and clanic lines?  It is also unclear what impact Garang’s death will have on finding a compromise within Darfur society now deeply divided by conflict.  Although Garang had spent most of his life as a military commander, he had a PhD in agriculture from a US university and so had some feeling of the difficulties of re-establishing an ecologically sound agriculture for Sudan, while Mayardit has been a soldier/guerrilla leader all his life.

There have been two phases to the Sudanese Civil War. The first phase (1954-1972) had ended with negotiations facilitated by the All-African Conference of Churches. The 1972-1982 decade was one of relative peace, but it was not used to heal the divisions or to work out forms of government, administration, and legal systems that would be acceptable to all segments of Sudanese society.  International attention on Sudan had diminished once the 1972 peace agreement was signed, and warning signals that all was not well were ignored internationally.  Thus, in 1982 southern soldiers who had been integrated into the national army revolted, and a second phase of the civil war continued from 1983 until the end of 2004.

By 2004, there were basically two major changes in the social and economic conditions which could lead to a peace-power-sharing agreement. The first was the growth of a Sudanese civil society which, worn out waiting for political leaders to settle the violence started to make their own efforts.  There have been local agreements, especially in the south, to lessen the Nuer-Dinka ethnic conflicts and between the Dinka and the Baggara Arab groups who have been used as government militias and slave raiders against the Dinka.  In the north, there has been the growth of women and student associations working for peace as well as some relatively independent publications.  These civil society actors started being key catalysts for reform and change in Sudan.  Though brutalized early on by the regime, they have been slowly reorganizing and building their capacity to participate meaningfully in the future.

The second and most powerful force for an end to fighting is the desire for wealth from oil.  Exploitation of major oil deposits since 1999 has changed the nature of the struggles.  Oil wealth is a promise of a better material life which can overcome religious and ethnic motivations. Oil also brings in China as a major player.  China wants oil and stability.  It is uninterested in human rights and wants to avoid votes on self-determination. (South Sudan today, Tibet tomorrow).  Therefore China as the leading country in Sudan‘s oil business has pushed behind the scenes for a power and wealth-sharing solution which would provide relative stability, not divide the country, and avoid a referendum on self-determination.  In this policy China has a close partner in Egypt which still has some influence in Sudan, especially with Muhammad Osman Mirghani, leader of the Khatmiyyah Sufi movement.  As the useful study by the International Crisis Group" God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan "(Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2002, 249pp.) states "The lure of the oil rush is as powerful within the Sudan as it has been for the international companies that have flocked to the country.  Both the government and northern opposition see significant economic potential in oil exports.  A process is already emerging by which elements of the three main parties – the National Islamic Front, the Umma and the Democratic Unionist Party – are gradually meshing.  It could produce a new, more moderate power bloc in Sudan that would then reach out to southerners."

The end of the war proposed a power-sharing deal for ministries within the central government and an asymmetrical federal system for the whole country – with a higher degree of autonomy for the south.  There is also a promise of a referendum in south Sudan after a 6-year trial period – a referendum which some hope will never have to be held, the south seeing its interest in a united Sudan.

The political use of Islam may now also fade as the ideological power of the Parliament’s former President Hassan al-Turabi has been sidelined.  In a variation on the French King Henri the Fourth "Paris is well worth a Mass", the new Sudanese government’s motto will be "Oil wealth is well worth fewer Friday prayers."  The power sharing should have been one in which China and the USA could cooperate to help rebuild the country.  The Americans will present the solution as one advancing democracy and the Chinese as a step toward stability.

Garang was a strong single-minded leader concerned with getting his personal share of power.  He was able to bring most of the southern leadership along with him.  Garang had also monopolized foreign contacts for the SPLM.  From his studies in the USA, he spoke English well and could be a dramatic orator when the moment called for it. He was, however, an "African chief" who shared little decision-making power with his subordinates.  Some who differed started their own movements, others "disappeared".

The south was held together by its opposition to the north.  Will it be able to continue to play a united role?  The situation merits watching closely.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo of John Garang is from Wikipedia.