The death of SPLM leader John Garang is a tragedy and potentially a deadly setback to the crucially important peace process in the country.
After his triumphant return to Khartoum on July 8th, Garang was also Vice President of Sudan, and it was the axis between him and President Bashir that was the key axis in a peace process more complicated than most.
Sudan is Africa’s largest country with an ethnic and geographic diversity that borders on the mind-boggling. Ever since achieving its independence in 1956, it has been seriously affected by the tension between its Northern and Southern parts. Wars have alternated with periods of relative peace.
In its latest version, this war went on for more than twenty years and caused more than two million deaths. It’s been one of the world’s most devastating conflict for decades.
It was not the least the Bush administration that put the issue of peace in Sudan high up on the agenda, and it played a key role in forging the agreement that resulted in Garang becoming Vice President of the country.
It’s a highly complex deal. And the task of truly implementing it will not be an easy one. Sudan has seen peace agreements before, but they have all failed some way down the difficult implementation stage.
In essence, the agreement foresees a six year transition period in which an effort is made to build a united country with a very high level of autonomy for the South. After these six years, a referendum will be held in which the South has the option of becoming an independent state.
Within the South, there were mixed emotions concerning the deal. Some undoubtedly see the six year period as little more than a waiting period for independence. John Garang was the man that could have made the difference. He genuinly believed in a united Sudan, and in all probability would have worked hard for the agreement to succeed and the country to stay together.
Now everything is up in the air. That the US is rushing high-level envoys to Khartoum is hardly surprising. A break-down of the peace process in Sudan could have devastating consequences for the entire region. One only wonders if the European Union will also wake up.
John Garang was important in keeping the South reasonable united. The ethnic diversity here is great, and numerous groups are in more or less open conflict with each other. But some sort of cohesion of the South is a precondition for making the North-South agreement work. If the South fractures, so does th possibilities for peace in the country.
This also affects Darfur. Here, efforts to achieve a political settlement has made very little progress. With Garang’s death and the new uncertainity in Sudan as a whole, the possibilities of progress here virtually disappears. The already reluctant rebel groups are unlikely to sit down and make a deal if the future of the entire country is suddenly uncertain. And militant groups on the Khartoum side might well think in similar terms.
Then, there is a severe risk of the human suffering just continuing.
My own contact with Garang were limited. I know some of the other Southern leaders better. But his political role and importance was always the decisive on the big and important issues. He was a strong – sometimes outright brutal – leader of the South that could also maneauver the chancelleries of the world.
Now Me Salva Kiir has been appointed as his succesor as leader of the SPLM and Vice President of Sudan. He’s the former military commander of SPLA, but his political skills is a somewhat more unknown quantity.
His main task now will be to keep the South together. If the South fractures, so does Sudan, and then the risk of a large part of Africa fracturing is very real indeed. The human suffering to follow risks being truly immense.