In 2006, I was the only Nigerian journalist attending John Garang’s funeral ceremony in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. I was in the company of Babagana Kingibe, then African Union Ambassador for the Darfur crisis. Kabiru Yusuf and I had been the first Nigerian journalists to report from Darfur and were on our way back home, when the trip to Juba came up, so my travel was pure serendipity really.
But I had long followed the struggle by the SPLM and the political perspectives of John Garang; he was a socialist, pan-Africanist and despite the huge sacrifices (over three million people died in the Sudanese war!), he was dedicated to the liberation and unity of the Sudan, north and south.
When the Naivasha Agreement ending the bloody war was signed and Garang returned to Khartoum for the first time in years, over one million people welcomed him, Arab and African! I spoke to many people in Khartoum and recall an Arab Sudanese who cried that John Garang died in that chopper crash. He was, the chap told me, the liberator of the Sudan that they lost forever.
There were too many forces who never wanted a united Sudan and removal of John Garang was part of an elaborate script and up till today, it has remained unresolved. Rebecca, his widow, told us an old Dinka proverb, that they were willing to lose two cows to find a lost one. They will forever try to unknot the mystery of the death of a great son of Africa, John Garang. What was clear to me then, and always, was that if he had lived, he probably would have mobilized the South Sudanese to vote for continued unity of the Sudan.
But it seems a speculative point now, as the people voted to create Africa’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan. It is very rich in oil and has tremendous agricultural riches. Yet it has always carried within its potentials very worrisome portents. It is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world and after decades of war, its desperately poor people have faced really difficult tasks of nation building.
On the one hand, there was the unresolved border dispute with the Northern neighbour; the economic difficulties of transportation of oil through pipelines in the North; the Abye question; internal insurgencies on both sides of the border which each side claims was being sponsored by the other side and the inter-ethnic rivalries which were being played out within the structures of the SPLM; personality clashes; and the massive corruption, which was beginning to become the talk of town in Juba, even in 2006!
Soldiers of the SPLA were becoming restive even by then, because of allegations of unpaid salaries, while the erstwhile revolutionary fighters were trading military fatigues for smart suits and driving around in four-wheel vehicles on unpaved roads, as the poor people in whose name they had fought and who made tremendous sacrifices, remained in desperate poverty. I always recall with pleasure, that in my trips around Africa, the peoples of South Sudan and the Saharawi, are the most friendly, accommodating and kind, I ever met, anywhere on our continent.
So when Salva Kirr Mayardit, the South Sudan President appeared on television dressed as a full army general, over a week ago, announcing that he had suppressed a coup, which was allegedly led by former vice president, Dr. Riek Mashar, I knew there was trouble in South Sudan. President Salva Kirr was a brilliant military general whose exploits during the war were legendary. He inherited the mantle of leadership after Garang’s death but he was not, in my view, exactly a good politician.
He was a typical soldier, with the military mindset, who has not made a successful transition into the statesmanship which a new country facing enormous challenges like South Sudan requires. On the other hand, there is Dr. Riek Machar, who was always a controversial figure in the war of liberation and was a master of tactical manuvers, which were often very opportunistic, but has always been a great survivor in the quicksand of South Sudan politics. Each is ambitious and egoistic.