By Nhial T. Tutlam
Let’s imagine that on the fateful day of July 30, 2005 the helicopter carrying Dr. John Garang from Uganda back to his base in Southern Sudan arrived safely. Let’s further imagine fate was not cruel to South Sudanese and Dr. John were still alive today. This begs the question: what kind of country would South Sudan be under his leadership? This is a question that understandably comes up, almost as a ritual, every time South Sudanese start discussing the deplorable state of affairs in their motherland.
The lamenting often focuses on the inexplicable deviation from the sacred vision nurtured by the blood of millions that the movement had vigorously pursued during the liberation struggle. Many South Sudanese believe that this loss of vision, after the death of Dr. John, has led to spectacular failures in three critical areas necessary for the founding of a vibrant nation: establishment of strong national institutions, addressing rampant corruption, and forging a cohesive society.
The reality of what could and should have been is really not that difficult to envision. For that, we have Dr. John’s vision throughout his 22-year tenure at the helm of the liberation struggle. We can also get some sense of where he wanted to take the post-conflict Southern Sudan based on his actions and plans immediately preceding his demise. Moreover, there are countries on the continent, such as Rwanda, that have emerged from similar or worse carnage to become shining examples of progress. In the Rwandese model, for instance, South Sudanese see a concert example of what is possible with visionary leadership.
So, what was Dr. John’s vision? As he articulated in numerous public pronouncements, Dr. John’s vision was the creation of a secular, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, democratic republic, where the rights of all citizens in every corner of the land are respected. This is what he called a vision for a New Sudan. Although this vision was expressed in the context of a united Sudan, because over 98% of Southern Sudanese ultimately voted for independence in the 2011 referendum, it is safe to assume this would have been his vision for the new nation, the Republic of South Sudan.
In pursuit of this vision, as he began the arduous task of transitioning the SPLM/A from a liberation movement to a legitimate government, Dr. John made important decisions on whom he wanted in key positions to run the affairs of Southern Sudan.
To this end, soon after taking office as First Vice President of Sudan and President of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), he appointed some of the highest ranking leaders of the movement to be caretaker governors of the ten states of Southern Sudan. These included Dr. Riek Machar – current SPLM/A – IO leader and former Vice President (Western Equatoria), James Wani Igga – current Vice President (Upper Nile), Kuol Manyang – current Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs (Northern Bahr-El-Ghazal), and Pagan Amum Okiech – former Secretary General of SPLM (Lake).
Viewed through the prism of his vision to establish strong national institutions as a precondition for establishing a viable strong nation, these appointments were his first unambiguous signal of how he intended to bring this vision to reality. These appointments can also be viewed as the first building blocks of his strategy to navigate the treacherous terrain that lay ahead and prepare for any eventualities after the 6-year interim period. In particular, if the eventual outcome of the referendum was to be independence, then South Sudanese would be ready to govern themselves without missing a step. In this regard, he wanted to install competent individuals in key positions to run the affairs of the states.
As a competent leader himself, he was a man who put a premium on competence. Indeed, Dr. Lual A. Deng, in his book, The Power of Creative Reasoning: The Ideas and Vision of John Garang, identifies competency as a fundamental element of what he calls Garangism.
Consistent with this vision, the young generation, what some have dubbed the sunrise generation, would have played a significant role in his administration. He often said that these were the leaders of tomorrow and encouraged them to acquire skills and knowledge, just as he and many of his comrades did during the first civil war, in order to help build the nation. Many young people have heeded his advice and have now acquired knowledge and skills necessary to help build the young nation. Unfortunately, this crucial human resource has largely been sidelined as they are seen as a threat by the old guard. That would not have been the case under his leadership.
Linked to the failure to establish strong institutions, one major issue that has hampered progress and has had a detrimental impact on the young nation is the endemic corruption. The culprits have in many cases been the top leaders of the country, giving credence to the adage that a fish rots from the head down. A common excuse the looters of public coffers often give is that they have liberated the country and it was now their time to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Never mind the fact that some of these people never spent a day in the bush during the liberation struggle. Dr. John would have disabused them of this perverted notion that they were entitled to loot simply because they fought to liberate the country.
This is not to say, however, that there would have been zero corruption. Far from it. Indeed, it is fair to say that there was some level of corruption in the movement and the liberated areas controlled by SPLM/A during his leadership. But many believe that if he were alive and in charge of the country today, the cancer of corruption would have been mitigated. And if there was clear evidence of corruption among his top lieutenants, he would not merely beg them to return stolen public resources but would have leveraged whatever tools at his disposal to hold the culprits accountable.
He would also have vehemently fought corruption because it directly threatened the central element of his vision of peace through development. Specifically, Dr. John and the movement had a vision of bringing development to the rural parts of the country that had been deliberately neglected by successive regimes in Khartoum.
This is what he famously referred to as “taking towns to villages rather than people to towns.” Developing the agriculture economy was a crucial component of this vision. Indeed, as he aptly stated in a speech to a Sudanese audience in London in 2004, the strategy to realize this vision was “to use oil money literally to fuel agriculture.” Even long before the flow of oil revenues, he spoke about how Southern Sudanese in the liberated areas could and should grow cash crops such as sesame to be sold in the international markets and use the revenues to build schools and hospitals in their local communities.
He fervently believed Southern Sudan had the potential to be the breadbasket not only for the whole Sudan, but for the rest of the continent as well. As an agricultural economist, there is no doubt he had ideas and the knowledge necessary to make this vision a reality. Rampant corruption and lack of fidelity to this vision have completely shattered that vision.
Another thorny problem that has plagued the young nation that has now ruptured the social fabric of the nation is the scourge of tribalism. Even more damaging, this is instigated by the country’s top leadership. This has made it difficult to forge a cohesive society where the different communities can coexist in harmony. Dr. John was a transcendent figure with a grand vision to unite not only Southern Sudanese but all Sudanese. He frequently spoke of embracing the historical, cultural, and religious diversity as a strength and forge a united society based on equality.
He appealed to and had support among people beyond tribal interests. He was a bona fide nationalist. In fact, some have argued that if he had a chance to contest any free and fair elections across the whole Sudan, he would have won in a landslide. Therefore, if he had lived to lead Southern Sudanese to the Promised Land, he would have considered instilling a common national identity and unity of purpose as his solemn duty rather than presiding over tribal groupings.
Some people may suggest that these are unrealistic expectations based on nostalgia. Indeed, a good case can be made that he would likely have faced some of the same challenges the country is currently embroiled in. But the question is how he would have addressed these issues. If history is any guide, there are many reasons to believe he would have succeeded in bringing his vision to reality. A relevant point in this regard is that Dr. John was a charismatic leader with clear-eyed vision of where he wanted to take the country. He was a man of superior intellect and superb political acumen. He was also a pragmatic leader who was ready and willing to adjust his strategies based on prevailing conditions.
These skills were particularly useful in keeping together for years a mammoth movement made up of diverse groups, some of whom at times appeared to have different objectives, and would have been very helpful in resolving some of the protracted challenges. Moreover, as an astute student of history, he clearly understood his place in history and many of his actions were guided by his long-term vision for the country and how he wanted posterity to remember him and his comrades who fought for freedom. Accordingly, he would not have allowed the country to descend into the unfolding nightmare.
*The author can be reached at [email protected]