Death of Ex-Rebel Roils Sudan

Times Staff Writers

Uncertainty and grief gripped Sudan on Monday as mobs angered by the death of former rebel leader John Garang rioted in the capital and officials scrambled to ensure that the peace pact he recently sealed didn’t collapse.

Garang, 60, was killed late Saturday when his helicopter crashed en route from Uganda to southern Sudan. For 22 years, the 6-foot-4, U.S.-educated Garang had led Christian and animist southern Sudanese in a civil war against Arab Muslim northerners, a conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million people.

But after concluding a peace agreement in January, Garang returned to the capital, Khartoum, just three weeks ago to take his place as vice president and was cheered by a crowd of more than 1 million people. His presence in the new government had raised hopes that the violence could be quelled in Sudan’s western Darfur region, where an estimated 180,000 people have died at the hands of militias in the last few years.


Although Monday’s rioting reflected suspicions that Garang’s death might have been the result of foul play rather than bad weather, government officials, members of Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and analysts said that seemed unlikely.

His longtime foes in the Khartoum government pledged to continue the peace process, and SPLM leaders reiterated their support for the new regime.

“We want to assure everyone that the leadership ... will remain united and strive to faithfully implement the comprehensive peace agreement,” said Garang deputy Salva Keer, who emerged as the movement’s new leader and appeared likely to take over as first vice president of Sudan.

“We call upon all members of the SPLM and the entire Sudanese nation to remain calm and vigilant.”

Added Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir: “We guarantee that the peace process will continue progressing in the same direction.”

Bashir’s administration imposed a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew on the capital after mobs looted stores, smashed cars with crowbars and set fires around the city. At least two dozen people were killed, news services reported.


Besides containing the initial violence, Sudan will face many challenges in the wake of Garang’s death, analysts said, not the least of which is holding his movement together and establishing the SPLM as a ruling party in the now largely autonomous south.

“Everything hinges on SPLM cohesion at this point,” said John Prendergast, a former director of African affairs at the National Security Council and now a special advisor on Sudan at the International Crisis Group. “Ethnic and regional divisions, which Garang was masterful at negotiating these past 20 years, have the potential to blow the SPLM apart.”

Experts on Sudan said hard-liners in the ruling party or discontented members of the SPLM could use Garang’s death to disrupt the peace process, sow division or even revive the fighting.

“The people who signed the agreement will want to go forward with it, but it’s not impossible that some in the military will see it as an opportunity to win a military victory,” said David Shinn, director of East African affairs at the State Department from 1993 to 1996. “That’s not at all a certainty, but it can’t be ruled out.”

Garang and Bashir had not yet pieced together a new Cabinet, and ordinary Sudanese questioned whether the new government, which mixes leaders from the north and south, could survive without Garang as a middleman.

“He was the one person who could stand firm to make the peace process work,” said Acuil Malith Banggol, a businessman in Rumbek, the town in southern Sudan that Garang had proposed as the region’s seat of government.


Under the January peace accord, southerners are to receive about one-third of the seats in the joint government. Oil revenue is to be split evenly between north and south, and southerners are to have a substantial autonomy until they have the chance to vote on secession in 2011.

Garang was a staunch supporter of keeping Africa’s geographically largest country united, even as many of his followers retained deep distrust for the north-dominated government and preferred to break away and form a separate country.

Garang, who received undergraduate and doctoral degrees in Iowa, used his charisma to rally support from Washington and conservative Christian groups in America.

But his outsize personality left little room for strong deputies, and some observers said Keer might struggle to cement support.

Garang “didn’t run a very democratic organization. There was Garang and nobody,” Shinn said.

“There was never any talk about succession because he was so important to the organization. Salva Keer is the No. 2, but it’s not clear how solid his support is, and he could be challenged,” Shinn said.


Others, though, noted that Keer’s history with the SPLM dates to the mid-1980s and that he was a key player in the peace negotiations.

“He is not a complete unknown,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He has the confidence of the men in the field.”

Keer now faces the enormous task of transforming the rebel movement into a democratic civilian government in southern Sudan that will satisfy international donors.

Although the south stands to receive $2 billion in international aid and $1.5 billion in annual oil revenue, the area suffers from a severe lack of infrastructure, legal framework and even an official currency.

On Monday, Garang’s body was brought to New Site, Sudan, one of his southern bases, where it was met by his wife, Rebecca, a former commander in the rebel army. A ceremony is planned for today, an SPLM official said.

As Bashir declared three days of national mourning for Garang, world leaders offered their condolences.


President Bush praised Garang as a “visionary leader and peacemaker” and said the U.S. was “determined to maintain our commitment to the peace process in Sudan.”

He urged Sudanese to refrain from violence.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was a friend of Garang’s since the two attended high school.

“It was a great shock and a source of anger to see that Dr. Garang, who has survived so many trials and tribulations, could lose his life when peace was beginning to come back to Sudan,” he said.

After visiting Museveni’s ranch Saturday, Garang was traveling back to Sudan in a Ugandan military helicopter with five bodyguards and aides when the craft went down in SPLM territory. Everyone aboard was killed.

Although Garang had his enemies, officials and analysts expressed doubt that he was killed by foes in the Khartoum government.

The site of the crash is “not a place where the government has any control or support, and it would have been absolutely stupid for the government to do it,” Shinn said.


“You can’t rule out a rogue element within the government, but even then the location would have made it difficult. There are far easier places to [have killed Garang] if they wanted to.”

Despite the rioting in the north and reports of sporadic violence in the south Monday, the mood in Rumbek was largely somber and peaceful.

“Rumbek is very sad indeed,” said David Gressley, a United Nations official in the city.


Sanders reported from Goma and Silverstein from Washington. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.