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The Garang I Knew: African Icon Of Visionary Leadership

By Luka Biong Deng

 

The people of South Sudan and the marginalized people of Sudan will remember their great leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, on July 30, the day he died in a plane crash seven years ago. Garang, a thinker, a freedom fighter, a military officer and an intellectual, will be remembered for generations to come as a leader who laid the foundation for the new nation of South Sudan and set the agenda for transforming Sudan. Certainly during his entire life of struggle, Garang has left unforgettable and positive marks and memories with many people of South, Sudan, the continent and the world at large. During the last seven years, I came to value the profound impact and legacy our great leader left behind. His name has become almost synonymous with the struggle of the marginalized people of Sudan.

Although there are people who knew Dr. Garang better than others, I strongly believe that every South Sudanese has come to know our great leader in different ways. Based on my personal recollection, I would describe Garang as the African icon of visionary leadership. Yasir Arman described Dr. Garang as a gift to humanity and the most influential Sudanese leader in the twentieth century. We, the people of the South, should be exceptionally proud that we produced such a charismatic leader during the final stage of our liberation struggle that resulted in the birth of our new nation. The seventh anniversary of the commemoration of his death is special as it came at the time when we celebrated the first anniversary of our independence. As we struggle to build an effective and successful new nation, we need to reflect on the virtues and thinking of the founding father, which can inspire and enrich our efforts for building a prosperous and peaceful South Sudan.

I came to know Dr. Garang as a strategic thinker and politician when I was at the final year in the University of Khartoum in the early 1980s. We organised ourselves as students into secret cells to disseminate and popularise the political agenda of the SPLM. I was struck by his diagnosis of the problem of Sudan as a problem of the centre and not the problem of the peripheries. Garang remarkably shifted the dominant thinking about the Southern problem to the Sudan problem. He did not only diagnose the problem well but he also skillfully prescribed a solution in the context of the New Sudan vision. By doing so, he managed to mobilise all Sudanese behind the goal of the New Sudan, regardless of region, religion or race.

Garang looked at the bigger picture rather than being bogged down by the Southern problem which he saw as a symptom. Without this strategic thinking, the South would not have gained its independence. In fact, the political agenda of the New Sudan is also useful for building our new nation. Building a cohesive and tolerant nation, as well as meeting the aspirations of rural communities and move the towns to the people, are valid points for building our new nation. My nephew, Daniel Francis Deng, always reminds me whenever we discuss any issue of “The Eagle Wisdom”. The eagle lifts itself high in the sky to see better and then swiftly comes to the ground with clear targets and it avoids muddling itself on the ground where it cannot see well. Garang used this wisdom well. It is even relevant to our daily life and in building our new nation. Sometimes we waste our energies with past and trivial issues without looking at the bigger picture. It is that bigger picture and vision we need to see for a better future of our new nation.

I came to know Garang also as a people-centred developmentalist when he designated me to be in charge of the SPLM National Economic Commission for Western Equatoria in 1991, after it was liberated by the SPLM. It was the first time he shared with me face-to-face his vision of how the SPLM can develop Western Equatoria during the war. He asked me to make the Nzara agro- industrial complex work and engage farmers in supplying cotton for the Nzara textile industry. He was passionate about rural agro-industry and saw it as the most effective way to economically empower rural communities and take services to the people. Garang articulated his vision of development around his popular statements of “taking the town to the people” and “using oil to fuel agriculture”. This agenda will continue to be the economic path through which we can build a prosperous and peaceful South Sudan. We are still a long way from realizing these commitments as our people are paradoxically attracted to towns where there are services and agriculture is being neglected.

I came to know Garang also as a skillful and shrewd negotiator in 2003 during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) negotiations in Kenya. Garang excelled in showing leadership and knowledge, and managed to incorporate most aspects of his vision of a New Sudan in the CPA. Without his leadership, the CPA would not have been signed. I remember the time when he was receiving a lot of pressure from the international community and even some SPLM leaders to abandon the issue of Abyei and the two areas since the South got the right of self-determination. But Garang stood firmly behind the cause of the people of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Garang was also very humorous. He used different stories and jokes with his counterpart, Ustaz Ali Osman, to create a conducive environment for negotiations. Sometimes we could be waiting impatiently outside the room where they were meeting and were surprised to hear only laughter. Although the South got its independence, we should not abandon our solidarity with the marginalised people of Sudan. It would be ethically and morally a crime and a betrayal if we turned our back to our people and comrades in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, eastern Sudan and Darfur.

I also came to know Garang as a religious and meticulous leader when he gave me his own Bible, printed in his name, for his swearing-in as the First Vice President on July 9, 2005. I was shocked going over the Holy Book to realise how deeply he read it. When I informed the Minister of Presidential Affairs that Dr. Garang would use this Bible for his swearing in, he tried to argue that the Palace had its own bibles. I argued how some Southerners were made to falsely swear in using the Quran instead of the Bible. This simple act showed how Garang was meticulous. He paid attention to details, which is necessary in leadership. I observed this also during the peace talks. He followed in detail the drafting of all protocols of the CPA and read carefully the entire CPA before it was finally signed.

Dr Garang traced the history of the people of Sudan in the Holy Bible and started with ancient Kush. He often referenced the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 18, where the prophet addresses “an aggressive nation” of “people tall and smooth skinned” in a “land divided by rivers.” Ominously, Isaiah foresaw events that the whole world would “hear” and “see,” when the people of Kush would die in droves, their corpses consumed by birds of prey and wild beasts. However, Isaiah goes on to call this period “the harvest, when the blossom is gone and the flower becomes a ripening grape,” and the gardener must “cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and cut down and take away the spreading branches.” Garang situated the greatest tragedy of South Sudan’s war in a bigger picture of renewal and birth. Like the Phoenix, the destiny of the people of the South is to prosper in a time of peace after having been born again from the ashes of war.

These are few examples of my interaction with Dr Garang as a leader whom I admired and I looked up to as a model for visionary leadership. When he suddenly died in a plane crush on July 30, 2005, I was in Rumbek with a committee that was drafting the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan, whom Dr. Garang met three days earlier. I have never seen a nation mourn the way it did for Dr. Garang. It showed how he touched the heart of every citizen in Sudan, particularly in the South. When his body was brought to Rumbek, I was at the airport, where I came across a 10-year-old boy crying. I sat down with him and asked why he was crying. He said: “As he has died, I don’t know who will look after our education”. During these difficult times, I was exceptionally moved by the courage of his wife, Rebecca de Mabior. She emerged as a true mother to the nation and her words greatly consoled the people. One would have wished Comrade Rebecca to continue to play the role of mother for all the people of the South while paying due attention to the issues of Twic, Bor and Jongeli.

There were, however, people who paradoxically enjoyed the death of Dr Garang. One of my colleagues of the Constitutional Drafting Committee and who holds now a key position in our government told me in Rumbek and without remorse immediately after the sad news of the death of our Great Leader that “Luka you are now orphaned and your time is gone with the death of Dr Garang”. As we will remember our great leader, the only way we can mark such event is by working to realise his unfinished business. President Salva did a lot, not only in attaining independence and protecting the territorial integrity but also in building the mausoleum and honouring him by having his feature on our new currency.

However, the biggest challenge is how to realise the dreams of Dr. Garang of “taking the town to the people” and “using oil to fuel our agriculture”. 

The other challenge is to look after the families of our martyrs. We should honour their selfless sacrifices that made us what we are today. The birth of South Sudan marks our increasing responsibilities for economic governance and accountability, human rights and the rule of law, and socio-economic development. Without these and visionary leadership, the fruit in Isaiah’s vision, which Dr. Garang saw early on, will be bitter and elusive. With them, however, the sweet fruit of the people of Kush will be enjoyed not only in our lifetimes, but also for many generations to come.

 

Luka Biong Deng is a leading member of the South Sudan ruling party, SPLM, former minister and he is currently a co-chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . This article was published by the New Nation Newspaper-Beijing,


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