The Rise and Fall of John Garang: Eighth Anniversary of his death


It is an old story with guerilla warfare – a strong man invariably emerges to rein in the contending factions that make up an armed resistance movement. John Garang de Mabior was such a man and he knew the task at hand could turn messy. For 22 years, he led one of the longest guerilla wars in Sudan against the Arab Muslim dominated government, and managed the transition from guerilla leader to political leader with much international acclaim.

But his life and career ended on July 30, 2005. He was the vice president of Sudan and former leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM], a political wing of the Sudan People’s liberation Army (SPLA).

The 60-year-old leader, six of his comrades and seven Ugandan friends died in a Ugandan presidential helicopter which crashed into a mountain range in South Sudan. The helicopter went down on the Ugandan-South Sudanese border, an area overrun with fighters of the Lord Resistance’s Army (LRA), a notorious Ugandan rebel group that had long been a sworn enemy of Garang and President Museveni.

The Ugandan leader was devastated by the loss and immediately declared a public holiday in Kampala, honoring Garang and Ugandans who died with him.

According to a Ugandan media report, Museveni publicly stated that: ”The accident may not be what it seems. Some people say accident. It may be an accident. It may be something else, but I assure you that if the investigation finds that it was a result of foul play, the perpetrator will pay,” he told Garang’s mourners.

Although Museveni had been a long-time friend and ally of Garang, Ugandan parliamentarian, Mr. Aggrey Awori, suggested a negligence on his part and other Ugandan officials that contributed to Garang’s tragic demise. Awori told a local media outlet that Ugandan authorities had never followed proper procedure with regarding to the doomed flight.

“They took off after hours, definitely. According to CAA regulations, no a helicopter can take off after 5 pm. for any destination lasting more than one hour, and Museveni should have advised Garang to stay in Kampala, or to cut short their meeting so Garang could arrive home before nightfall,” he averred.

Enraged by what he termed vicious rumors, Museveni shut down a popular radio station after it aired a program discussing theories about crash, including some that blamed the Ugandan government. Most Ugandan media had speculated that the LRA might have shot down the helicopter.

Operating from bases in South Sudan, with past support from the Khartoum regime, the LRA has for some years been fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government. It is notorious for vicious tactics including abduction of thousands of children forced to become soldiers or concubines for rebels.

In Sudan things were different. The former leader’s death, three weeks after he took office as part of a peace deal to end the civil war, sparked the worst riots in the country’s recent history. Grief stricken supporters of Garang tore through the capital Khartoum in riots, smashing cars and shops belonging to Arab Muslims, and angrily blaming the Islamist government of President Omar Bashir for the death of their hero.

They clashed with heavily armed Sudanese police; the death toll was 100, with scores injured, and Bashir had to assure them that Garang’s death did not mean an end to the peace agreement. “We are confident the peace agreement will proceed as planned,” he said.

A joint Ugandan-Sudanese report into the incident released in 2006 blamed pilot error and poor weather; however, some members of Sudanese Diaspora community still don’t accept investigators’ immediate conclusion. They believe Garang’s death was political and the experts in plane crashes should be brought in from the United States or Canada to open a new investigation.

In 2006, neither the SPLM nor the GOSS had a resolution endorsing the investigators’ report. In 2008, Riak Machar, the South Sudan’s Vice President, told the Reuters that many top officials in the party believed their former leader had been murdered.

“When we look at such a situation it may be best for us to reopen the investigation so that once and for all we put it to rest,” Machar said in an interview with Reuters. “We do not want anything connected to Dr. John Garang to divide our party.”

The party’s Secretary General Pagan Amum, Sudan’s former Foreign Minister Deng Alor, and Aleu Ayeny Aleu– a top SPLM member who was part of the investigation team but disagreed with its findings– had expressed doubts about the crash.

Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng, had also expressed doubts about the crash. “When my husband died, I didn’t come out openly and said he was killed because I knew the consequences, Mrs Garang claimed.
“At the back of my mind, I knew my husband had been assassinated.”

Mrs. Garang publicly spoke those chilling words at an award ceremony by the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Foundation (JOOF) in Nairobi, Kenya, where Garang was being honored with a posthumous Uhuru Award for his contribution to the liberation of Africa.

She spoke not just about her husband’s death but also about a number of sensitive matters across Africa. One of them is how Africans treat partners of their heroes. Often they are not seen as persons in their own right. They may have been married to heroes but some of them have a place in the struggle in their own right.

Mrs Garang spoke from her heart but not as a grieving widow rather as a combatant. She revealed embarrassing fact that the award by the JOOF was the first time Garang was being honored by an African organization. What does this tell outsiders about the way in which Africans treat their heroes and heroins?

Garang was the recipient of several awards from all kinds of people in Europe and North America, she said, but his first award from Africa is posthumous and even then an Independent Foundation.

In 1983, the Khartoum regime sent Colonel Garang, a Dinka officer, to quell a mutiny of 500 southern troops who were resisting orders to be shipped to north. Instead of doing so, he encouraged them and other southern units to rebel, forming the nucleus of his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

This mutiny marked the beginning of Sudan’s protracted armed conflict which resulted in one and half million deaths. The 1983 mutiny of 500 southern troops was not the first in the history of southern rebellion.

In June 1955, orders came from Khartoum that a unit of Southern Command would have to leave for Khartoum at the end of year to take part in the big army parade to mark the departure of the British forces from Sudan and to mark the independence of the country on January 1, 1956.

However, before independence, southern soldiers mutinied at their headquarters in Torit, Eastern Equatoria. A rebellion that was to develop into first civil war in Sudan and would last for seventeen years had begun. It quickly spread from Torit to most parts of Equatoria, with a wholesale massacre of northern Sudanese service men and civilians.

Reverend Anderson, a Canadian missionary, remembered meeting Garang the first time at the Presbyterian mission printing press in South Sudan in 1965. A tall, lanky young, he was pedalling a stationary bicycle that powered a small press. His gangly height and piercing eyes set in a jet black face instantly revealed he was a Dinka, Sudan’s largest ethnic group. His Presbyterian mentors, Reverend and Mrs. Lowery Anderson, had led him to Christ and taught him the operation of the press which turned out Gospel pamphlets and Bible studies.

Schooled by missionaries in East Africa, Garang was sent as a promising young officer in the Sudanese army to the United States for military training at Fort Benning, Georgia, before completing his education with a PhD. D. in agricultural economics at Iowa State University. For his doctoral thesis, Garang chose the Jonglei Canal, criticizing the lack of development planning in the project.

Another Canadian, Peter Pigott in his little delightful book Canada in Sudan, says this: “With beard and heavy physique and the dark skin of his ethnic group, Garang was one of the most complicated rebels in African history, and despite his being at the center of the Sudanese conflict for 22 years, little was known about him. Marxist to Ethiopians, Christian fundamentalist to Americans what is known about Garang is that he was an expert in survival– someone who knew how to bend with the wind and be all things to all men.”

University of Khartoum law professor, Ahmed Musa, describes Garang as a man of the great intellect, a determined revolutionary fighter who had applied those qualities to help achieve a peace in the country.

“He was a moral beacon for many marginalized people in Sudan,” Musa said in a telephone interview in Khartoum.

From the very beginning of the southern rebellion in 1983, Garang had always fought for the concept of a new, united Sudan in which a secular state would give all regions and ethnic groups equal social status, a share of the national wealth and political access. This was in strong opposition to the feelings of his rank and file troops who were much more interested in secession.

But he argued that the secessionist objective had been one of the key reasons why the 1960 Any-Nya war had failed to achieve a major geopolitical redistribution of cards in the global Sudanese national environment. Then both Muslim non-Arab population of the north and some southerners viewed Garang’s argument as the only right course of action in getting rid the Sudan of Arab domination.

Nevertheless, it was difficult for him to keep implementing this unitary policy in the face of continuous feeling in favor of secession.

When Garang lost his major source of outside support with the collapse of the Mengistu regime, this difficulty in controlling his movement combined with ethnic tensions and disenchantment with his extremely autocratic style of leadership, gave birth to a neo-secessionist group which rose against his authority.

In 1991 the guerrilla movement split. Several senior members denounced Garang as a dictator and tried to overthrow him. The leader of the anti-Garang faction was a young Nuer chief, Riak Machar, married to an English woman. Machar claimed he stood for democracy and human rights. But his rebellion also had ethnic flavor, since most of the commanders of the SPLA were Dinka and most of the rebels were Nuer or Shilluk or from minority groups.

After several months the rebellion failed, and he and other leaders went over to the government side. They accepted jobs, acquired wealth and built families’ homes in Khartoum, and the government gave their fighters guns to continue their tribal war against Garang.

This was within a civil war created havoc in South Sudan. Guerilla commanders became warlords, living off ordinary citizens by rape and pillage. In ferocity and barbarity, this tribal war exceeded anything that the Khartoum government and the SPLA had done to each other. Panyagor’s airstrip in Upper Nile region was the battleground of the conflict. Whoever could control the airstrip could fly weapons into the front line.

Despite this great tribal war, Garang insisted on his unitary credentials, first to reassure African Muslims in the north, second, to try to appease the Arab League, third, to consolidate his standing with the UN, the OAU and other international elements, and, fourth to please Washington.

What better way than to intervene in Darfur in order to show that his” New Sudan” concept included the liberation of all the marginalized areas of the Sudan and not only the south. In September 1991 Garang publicly announced that the SPLA had occupied Southern Darfur but the Khartoum regime bluntly denied that there was anything like an attack in Southern Darfur.

Kola Boof, a controversial Sudanese American novelist, has also been a long-time champion for the cause of the marginalized people in Sudan. Boof first met Garang in 1978. At age of five, her Egyptian father, the late archaeologist Harith Bin Farouk, took her to Garang’s home where the two men discussed the formation of what would much later become the SPLA.

She was banished from the Sudan because of what was considered her seditious attitude. She lives in exile. Boof had no relationship with Garang as a child other than playing on his floor and repeatedly asking for cups of water or peaking in and out of the rooms. She remembers that Garang was a very humorous, lovable figure, with a keen seriousness. Her father would bring him information as Garang was contemplating leaving the Arab dominated government in Khartoum and starting up a rebellion which he did years later.

“I remember him being appalled when my father reported to him that there were actually Arab people conducting slave raids and selling Dinka and Nuer children like cattle,” Boof said. “His death is a loss because he wanted to bring north and south together in one Sudan.”

She describes Garang as a brilliant politician, a provocative thinker and great speaker, who was able to capture and inspire the minds of the Sudanese. “I do not believe that the peace agreement would have been possible without Garang’s commitment to peace and justice…he was sent to us by God,” she added.

Every African country has its own colonial legacy, residues of alien rule. Traveling around the entire continent, it is shocking to find how things are still done in the old colonial way. Sudan is no exception.

The modern Sudan is ruled as an empire as it was 100 years ago when the British ruled and Ottomans before that. The government in Khartoum, whoever it is, governs by neglect, repression and realpolitik.

The word Sudan means the land of black people, but it has always been ruled by the riverine Arab elites. In 2000, a publication written by Sudan’s African Muslim leaders appeared, known as The Black Book. It listed the origins of everyone in Sudan power structure from minsters to drivers. They were overwhelmingly from three Arab tribes from one area just north of Khartoum representing 6 per cent of the population.

Several languages are spoken in Sudan but among its ruling elite you will find only one– Arabic. Ask most members of the Khartoum regime if they are African and you will get an ambiguous reply. Ask them if they are Arab and they will say of course. They are in Africa but not of Africa.

Looking north and the Arab world, not south, east and west, they see themselves and- Sudan- Arab and Islamic. If they look to south, east and west, it is the spirit of Islamizing and Arabizing of black Africans who live in those parts of the country. Black Africans, not only the southerners, have always felt neglected by the riverine Arab rulers.

That was why Garang insisted on his vision of a new, united, secular and democratic Sudan, based on equality, freedom, economic and social justice and respect for human rights for all Sudanese:

“I believe that the basic problem of the Sudan is that since independence in 1956, various regimes that have come and gone in Khartoum…have failed to provide a commonality for the Sudan as a state; that is, there has been no conscious evolution of that common Sudanese identity and destiny to which we all pay undivided allegiance, irrespective of our backgrounds, irrespective of our tribes, irrespective of race, irrespective of religious belief.

And the way to solve this problem is to address the question of how power is organized. The method which we have chosen in order to achieve the united Sudan is to struggle to restructure power in the center so that the question as to what do black Africans want does not arise.”

Garang died prematurely, only a few weeks after he assumed the position of first vice president in Sudan. The very day of his arrival suggested that even if guerilla struggle had ended, its impact on the Sudanese politics was just beginning. The millions of the Sudanese citizens who gathered to welcome him cut across all conventional political divisions– north-south, Muslim-Christian, Arab-non-Arab.

It had the hint of something new. It may be that what Garang said had a much great effect than what he did. The effect of what the man said could be read in the actions of those who took his words seriously. This much is clear from the development of new armed resistance movements in the north, particularly in Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and Darfur inspired by Garang’s vision of new, united Sudan.

But would the non-Arab rebels achieve power structure in Khartoum in the face of growing Arab nationalism?. In Sudan, Arab nationalism turns out to be a fig leaf for the domination of the riverine Arab elite. Arab nationalism reached its high in northern Sudan in the 1950s, in the aftermath of the Free Officer-led overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, and the subsequent upsurge of Arab nationalism.

The Arab political identity in riverine Sudan developed in three phases: if the Funj royalty claimed an Arab descent in the sixteenth century and the middle class of merchants and holy men embraced an Arab identity in the late eighteenth century, it is only in the course of anti-colonial agitation in the post-Second World War period that Arab identity can be said to have become the hallmark of a popular political consciousness.

The central problems in the current northern Sudanese conflict are: (1) the domination of the riverine Arab elite; (2) the sectarian and religious bigotry that dominated the country’s political scene since independence; and(3) the unequal development in that country. Unless the nationality question is solved correctly, the religious bigotry is destroyed and a balanced development for all the regions of the Sudan is struck, the armed conflict may drag on for years in the country.

Conspiracy of Silence
The death of John Garang in a mysterious helicopter crash while in his way to South Sudan is a tragedy that still shakes the entire Sudanese nation. A report into the incident released in 2006 blamed pilot error, but the exiled Sudanese believe Garang had been murdered. They have raised questions about the failure by investigators to provide them with convincing answers.

The fact that the more than sixteen page report on Garang’s death, buried in the National Achives and unavailable to average Sudanese men and women, has spurred the public belief in a conspiracy. The report did not reflect the public concern with how and why a young and popular leader died in the prime of his life and the height of his career.

Garang’s tragic death will continue to attract much public attention and controversy because it is unique in the Sudanese political experience. There are two reasons for this uniqueness: the sudden and unexpected nature of the death and the special nature of the man killed. Other past events, particularly the assassination of William Deng Nhial in 1968 by members of the Sudanese army, lacks this telling combination.

Deng was murdered by the army commanded by his political friend, Sadiq El Mahdi. Mahdi, who was then Sudan’s Prime Minister, had never instructed the army to protect Deng and his party men while on an election campaign in the south during the first civil war. He was one of the southern nationalists who led the armed struggle in the early 1960s.

Deng returned to Sudan in 1965 to seek a peaceful internal settlement with the Sudan government when he formed a friendship with Mahdi. He was in his seventies and his death was due to miscalculations.

Late Garang in contrast, was in earlier fifties, and in the public eyes, he seemed youthful, vigorous and full of energy. For such a charismatic leader to have been cut down so suddenly and so shocking and under a cloud of suspicion at time when his public contribution to democratic transformation still lay ahead is what remains today unbearable.

People refused to accept the investigators’ conclusion that it was accident. Not because they missed Garang very much and found it impossible to let go which they did. But because the explanation was too obvious.

Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng, told a crowd at an award ceremony honoring her husband in Nairobi that she believed he had been murdered, yet she was harshly criticized by both Khartoum and Juba for offering no evidence for her accusation.

Mrs Garang has thrown open widely what Sudanese people had been suspecting. So who could have done it?
The first suspect remains the extremist wing of the Khartoum regime and hegemonists in the security forces. Their heart must have shook and their desperation further heightened by the tumultuous welcome from all Sudanese commitment to creating a new Sudan when he arrived in Khartoum to be sown in July 9, 2005. They must have seen their world collapsing before their eyes.

Garang was a formidable person who had distinguished himself both militarily and politically; therefore, both the Islamists and the Arabists shook at what would happen to their rule were Garang to have the opportunity to reshape the country.

For Sudanese democrats, he was a bridge of hope with the potential of turning the country into a genuinely democratic environment where black Sudanese might, “in the Martin Luther King hope, be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The enemy of hope had to act quickly before the achievement of the democratic transformation in a country that has been at war with itself for most of its post independence existence.

On the other hand, Islamists and Arabists are not the only suspects in Garang’s death. There are other suspects within the SPLM. Chief among them could be extremist wing of southern nationalists whose agenda was to secede from Sudan and might have great fears that Garang’s commitment to creating a new Sudan uniting north and south was a betrayal. But they needed Garang and backed him in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which has given them political independence.

In 2011, they declared the southern region of Sudan as Republic of South Sudan. But after independence a series of bad policies, wrong judgements, mismanagement of public affairs, and indeed corruption and deceit by southern nationalists, have created a nationwide situation of despair and frustration among politically conscious citizens.

Citizens of the new Republic, both at home and abroad, also feel that they have not been given a chance to participate in the running of the affairs of their country and cannot contribute towards finding solutions to the pressing national problems.

Mrs Garang believes she has a compelling evidence regarding her husband’s death, yet she does not want to reveal this evidence to the Sudanese public as she said herself, “I did not come out openly and said he was killed because I knew the consequences.”

Garang is one of the moral heroes of this age. I met him in Harare, Zimbabwe, during my school days at a huge open-air dinner for thousands of his Harare supporters. I joined him to celebrate the year of revolution, the beginning of the spectacularly successful battle which wiped out enemy soldiers in my native town (Gogrial), which I have never seen for some years now.

Garang arrived late, with a hint of a swagger, at the long platform of favored guests. He was clad in boots and an olive green uniform, his eyes alert and a warm smile on his mouth. I arose from my seat to greet him. He was the miracle man of the Sudanese guerilla campaign, a builder of a guerilla army in the forests and bush hospitals. He had led his little guerilla band across the Sudanese-Ethiopian border through jungles and swamps to wage the crucial battle of Bor town that smashed the Khartoum forces.

Today his ashes lie in a urban graveyard in South Sudan. He led a longer guerilla campaign against the most repressive military junta in Africa. More than that, he aroused all oppressed people, both in north and south against the backward, feudal slave holding regime and its allies– those who support Arab-Islamic traditions, economic and political control.

Garang is dead, but his spirit lives. His name and portrait appear on placards carried by new guerilla bands in the northern Sudan. It seems that Sudan is once again engulfed in civil war. African Muslim fighters using the tactics of mobile and guerilla warfare have won key victories in several areas in Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and Darfur against the Khartoum regime’s over-extended troops.

These victories may soon be followed by massive desertions from the regime forces. However, one thing is not yet clear within the new armed resistance groups fighting to remove uncompromising Islamists and Arabists from power in Khartoum.

Since the outbreak of new conflict in 2003, there have never been any serious possibility of building a viable coalition among these disparate groups when they all share the same objectives: the national unity and regional autonomy and power and resources sharing which had been the main goals of late John Garang.

In order to survive Khartoum’s dirty tactics, they should revisit John Garang’s guerilla tactics to advance their cause.

Garang used to say that what cannot be obtained by frontal attack may be obtained by a stratagem– that the man who cannot be knocked down in front can be stabbed from behind– the right strategy for military and political actions.

Garang represented the militant spirit of our revolutionary age. He died for intellectual freedom, equality and democracy. He represented youth and the future.

John Juac


  1. BigO says:

    Thank you, John Juac. Dr. John’s narrative was powerful. Real power. It freed me from mental slavery and slavery to material things, so that at any age and wherever I go in the world, I am free. No greater gift than that.

  2. G Deng says:

    Just a correction , Deng Nhial was not in his seventies. He was born in 1929 and assassinated 1968. That makes him 39 when he died.

  3. Choromke Jas says:

    A moving piece on Dr Garang. Some time ago, I read a comment by a northerner on a site. With tongue in cheek, he asked, “so the liberation is what is going on in the South. You guys have the cheek to liberate the entire Sudan. What a joke?!”
    We will never know if indeed Garang was a real Southern nationalist or a believer in the liberation of the whole Sudan. Clearly, his successors are definitely liberators for their own stomachs.
    The work of the SPLM-North has been made very difficult, if not impossible, by what is happening in the South. Can somebody seriously believe that SPLM-North want to bring justice to Sudan after all that is happening in South Sudan?

    It was very unkind for a Jieng from Bahr el Ghazal, who after hearing of the demise of Garang shouted, “God loves the South”.

    Now his very own kinsmen who are fleecing, torturing and doing all sorts of terrible things to South Sudanese. Where is the God’s love he boasted about? May God bless South Sudan.

    • Lapai says:

      What a lie, Garang led the longest civil war because he was smuggling gold in Kapoeta and kept himself into power through deceit. He would otherwise have accepted the invitation to the 1985 elections but he was not confident enough to go and stand for elections as he had little wealth that time.
      As if he was there serving who? He only accepted the peace offer of the CPA because he now had stolen enough wealth to go and seek the public office through the “ballot not the bullet”.
      How shameful is it that some people actually call it a victory to lead the longest civil war without winning.
      That in fact indicates failure because the same papers signed by the Anya nya one are the same papers signed in Anya nya two by Dr. John.
      So did he actually capture Khartoum, Wan Achol, Wau etc according to the songs of his army as he has been telling them?
      What a shame to narrate a story of such a great failure as a story of victory.

  4. Juac Deng,

    Your article is just a written series of lies and imaginations. Dr. Garang was not a patriot but he was a serial killer who killed all Nyanya II for seeking Southern Sudan independence. Do not try to fool Southerners with that fake story of your Dr. Kim Jong il Garang.

  5. What a garbage! Mr. Juac Deng
    If your believe and I quote, ” There are other suspects within the SPLM. Chief among them could be extremist wing of southern nationalists whose agenda was to secede from Sudan and might have great fears that Garang’s commitment to creating a new Sudan uniting north and south was a betrayal,” is true then they r paying him back for the same did to separatists. Period! In your conclusion you stated and I quote; “He died for intellectual freedom, equality and democracy. He represented youth and the future.”

    Where is the freedom, equality and democracy he died for now in South Sudan? In you home town, Gogrial Girls are removed from classrooms to be auctioned for herds of cows and even Maj. Generals are auctioneers, Juac Deng, my brother. I think God blesses the separatists that Garang slaughtered. Their vision is attained on July 9th 2011. But, we need another leader with a clear vision to grant Equality, Unity… to the people of South Sudan; this current one who plans stealing public funds, Jobs for their Girlfriends, nephews… and call themselves leaders or liberators are liars.

  6. Your Absolutely @ bro juch Deng for the fews remarked you narrated to us , actually it was came like dream at the time we heard that our only main light of the nation has been passed away, ( Dr John Garang de mabior), but why the result are not yet clear out about the caustive of the death of our hero leader” i am a kind of a man who aways determined to get what was the caustive root of his death, someticulously i do feel like he will rise up from the death, so my blaming goes to all Africa leaders and white people at large why did they killed our prophet who was too intergenet, faithful, honesty, humbled, kindly, and respected man of the whole world or each everyone,

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