With Garang’s Death, Southern Sudan May Secede By COBIE KWASI HARRIS Pacific News Service

Tuesday August 09, 2005

Sudan Vice President John Garang’s recent death imperils the peace accord that stopped the country’s civil war and gave Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) a role in the military government headed by General Omar Bashir.  

With the influential Garang gone, separatists from the northern Arabized minority groups led by Bashir may junk the peace accord and attempt a power grab. In fact, some Islamic fundamentalists have issued fatwas against anyone renting places or giving support to the SPLAs in the capital city.  

Ethnic groups like the Nuer and Shilluk may call for total independence from the North. There is also a new group of secularist anti-Bashir fighters in the North, by the Port of Sudan.  

If Garang’s successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, who is a Dinka, cannot keep the Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk together, Sudan may truly become a failed state violently divided by Arab, African, Christian and Islamic sectarianism.  

Sudan has been long wracked by violent strife. More than 2 million Africans from the country’s southern region have died in the civil war that began in l983 between the north and south. Millions have been permanently displaced and scarred by living as refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Southern Sudan’s population has lost two generations to war, the first from 1958-72 during the Anya-Nya liberation struggle, the second from 1983 to the present. Another half-million Africans have perished in Darfur in western Sudan, victims of armed Arabized militias.  

Sudan is Africa’s largest geographical state, nearly a third the size of the United States, with a small population of only 30 million. It is a state without a nation as the majority of the African population has no access to social services, economic resources and political power. A small northern Arabized minority controls the armed forces, even though Africans make up 61 percent of the population and the Arabized Muslim elite only constitutes 39 percent. Unlike in Egypt and Libya, everyone is black in Sudan. However, Africans who speak Arabic as their primary or only language self-identify as Arabs, although they are racially black. It is this group, now led by Bashir, that has controlled the military since Sudan gained its independence in 1955.  

This Arabized minority group has created an apartheid government and committed atrocities against the African population since independence in 1956. With military rule in 1958-1964, the government used genocide to stop the South from breaking away. Using airplanes and heavy artillery against largely unarmed civilians, the government killed nearly 300,000 Southerners. This led to the first liberation struggle, from the early 1960s until 1972, called the Anya-Nya movement, which fought the incorporation of southern Sudan with the north.  

In 1972, using the “free officers’ movement” influenced by the Sudanese Communist Party, Ja’afar Muhammad Nimairi led a military coup that toppled the civilian regime. He ended the Anya-Nya liberation struggle by creating a federal state, giving regional autonomy to the South. His peace accords brought hope, and Anya-Nya forces disarmed.  

However, Nimairi in l983 changed from a radical military officer into an Islamist fundamentalist and made Islam’s Sharia law the national law. He also revoked the South’s regional autonomy. (Coincidentally, Chevron found oil in the South in 1978.) Rejecting the imposition of Islamic law over African customary law, Southerners, including Christians, resisted.  

Nimairis’ conversion led to the current 22-year civil war. More importantly, his imposition of Sharia law gave rise to a new Southern leader in John Garang, a Dinka, which is the largest African group and also one of the most Christianized. Garang was a military officer, Western-educated, fluent in Arabic, secular and socialist. He was sent by the national army to suppress the Southern rebellion; instead he joined the liberation forces.  

Garang created a new liberation movement—the SPLA. He was able to gain support and legitimacy from the outside world. Garang’s Christianity, secularism and socialist ideals made him an advocate of unification—it was the bridge to teachers and friends from the late 1960s, which were awash in pan-Africanism and Arab socialism.  

But in the early 1990s, Southerners engaged in a civil war among themselves over the issue of secession versus federalism. The Shilluk and Nuer nationalities favored secession, after a nearly 100-year resistance to their incorporation into the Arab bloc. Garang’s leadership led the Dinka to argue for federalism. (Recently signed peace accords gives the federalism six years to work. If it does not, the South can legitimately secede.)  

Not all ethnic Arabs in northern Sudan identify with the ruling regime. Some Arabized minorities have joined the Communist Party, making it the largest Communist party in Africa. Another Arabized social force is the New Democratic Movement, which is engaged in a guerrilla war with the Bashir military government in the eastern part of the country, by the Port of Sudan.  

Ironically, the Arabized intellectuals, liberals and secularists benefit the most from the SPLA’s struggle, because it breaks the Islamist conservatives’ choke-hold on society. In addition, although the SPLA is the largest armed force against the Bashir government, it represents integration, not separation.  

Garang believed in the unity of Sudan and its people, a vision supported by Islamic thinkers like Hassan Turabi and other secular Arabs. Garang became the George Washington of Sudanese nationalism because he included all faiths, regions and religions and races. Sudan also represents the bridge between Arab and Black Africa. If Sudan disintegrates into a civil war, Arab against black, then the African Union, newly formed by the recent peace accord, is endangered. 


Cobie Kwasi Harris says that without a unifier like Garang, the country could become a failed state. Harris is a professor of political science at San Jose State University.+