Sudan After Garang: Saving the Peace

August 4, 2005
Rebecca Hamilton

International Herald Tribune

The Hague — John Garang, the southern Sudanese leader, is dead, less than three weeks after he became vice president of Sudan as part of a deal that ended the country's decades-long civil war. The potential fallout from his death cannot be overstated. The United States, which has played a crucial role in Sudan's south, must step in to ensure that the fragile peace there endures.

When Garang was sworn in as vice president last month, he said, "My presence here today in Khartoum is a true signal that the war is over." Since his death on Saturday in a helicopter crash, more than 50 people have been killed in rioting in Khartoum, and there have been outbreaks of violence in the southern towns of Juba and Malakal. Suddenly Garang's hopeful statement of last month seems a world away.

Not all of the southern Sudanese I spoke with last year trusted John Garang. Garang was from the Dinka tribe, and after decades of interethnic violence, the Nuer in the south could not help but regard him with suspicion. Yet if there was one thing stronger than their entrenched ethnic mistrust, it was their overwhelming desire for peace.

Southern Sudan is devastated in every sense of the word. There is no electricity. For the majority of villages, there is no access to clean water. Two generations have lived in war. The concept of planning has disappeared in many communities. As one mother in the southern Sudanese region of Kedi'ba asked me, "Why would I plant crops today when I do not know if I will be alive tomorrow?" And yet the prospect of peace was beginning to change all that.

Slowly but surely, people were making plans. Countless conversations would start with the phrase "When peace comes ..." When peace comes, the outside world will come and help build roads and schools. When peace comes, children will not have to be soldiers anymore. When peace comes, refugees will be able to return home. After two million deaths and four million people displaced, this did not seem like so much to ask.

However, peace in southern Sudan depends on two sets of actors; the leaders of the various ethnic tribes within southern Sudan, and the government of Sudan. With regard to the first, Garang's role was critical. Garang was no saint, but whatever his faults, he managed to hold the intense factionalism that exists in the south together for long enough to negotiate a peace agreement with the "greater enemy" in the north.

Southern factionalism is entrenched, partly because the government of Sudan monopolized political power in Khartoum for decades through the cost-effective strategy of getting its rivals to kill each other off. In the resource-poor environment of Sudan, it is not difficult to fuel ethnic conflict by arming one group against another. Khartoum has been using the same approach to control the rebel uprising in Darfur - and as we know, it is a frighteningly effective strategy. After Garang's death, there is no obvious successor who would be able to stop that dynamic rearing its ugly head once again in the South.

As for the government of Sudan, we know that it craves international legitimacy and responds to credible external pressure. Garang contributed to the north-south peace agreement by holding the south together for long enough to reach the negotiating table. But it was the United States that got Khartoum to open negotiations in the first place. Had it not been for President George W. Bush's commitment to the north-south peace process, signaled by the appointment of former Senator John Danforth as special envoy, it is unlikely the Sudanese government would have even considered a peace agreement with the south.

With Garang's death, southern Sudanese leaders are going to have to work out a way to rise above the factionalism that can devastate them. This will be easier if they believe that peace is still an achievable goal that is worth overcoming their differences for.

As for the other part of the equation, Washington must remember its track record of influence over Khartoum in the north-south peace process. The deployment of the U.S. officials Connie Newman and Roger Winter to Sudan this week marks a positive movement in this regard, but such support must be sustained after the initial mourning period is over.

With strong and consistent U.S. pressure, it might still be possible that after two million deaths and two decades of war, the phrase "when peace comes" could be something more than wishful thinking for the people of southern Sudan.

Rebecca Hamilton is pursuing a joint degree at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. She worked with internally displaced people in southern Sudan last year.

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