Sudan’s Vice President and former leader for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, John Garang de Mabior, died Saturday in a helicopter crash, sparking riots between southerners and northerners in the capital. We speak with Reuters correspondent for Sudan Opheera McDoom. [includes rush transcript]
The President of Sudan has declared three days of national mourning following the death of the newly sworn-in vice president. John Garang de Mabior was killed in a helicopter crash along with 13 others as he flew from Uganda back to Sudan. Garang is a former leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which fought for 21 years against the Islamic government in Khartoum. The SPLM sought more autonomy for the people of southern Sudan, who are mostly Christian or animist. It was Africa’s longest and costliest civil war.
Last January, Garang signed a deal to end the war and just three weeks ago he was sworn in as Sudan’s first vice-president, joining the government he spent so long fighting. Born in Sudan, Garang earned a bachelor’s degree at Grinnell College, Iowa and a doctorate at Iowa State University.
Garang negotiated the peace agreement between the north and south, and his death threatens the nascent peace process. He united the fighters in the north and south and many of the provisions in the agreement were his.
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke yesterday about the UN’s role in preserving the peace agreement.
- Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General:
"We have offered a very close collaboration with the government and SPLM, and, in fact, we have been working with them ever since the crash. It is our plane that has taken the body to New Site and also retrieving the other bodies. So we are on the ground very actively working with them, and we have made it clear that we will give them all the support necessary, both in the political process and in our efforts to contain the humanitarian situation and settle the process in Darfur. From my discussions with the President of Sudan, I gained the impression that they are determined to proceed, and then there’s the same sentiment on the SPLM side, so there is good hope that — I have good hope that this will hold together. And we should all do whatever we can to insure that it doesn’t unravel."
Supporters of the SPLM are suspicious of the government’s claim that Garang’s death was accidental. As news of his death spread, riots broke out among Christian and Arabs in the country. In Khartoum, there are reports that more than 30 people have been killed and more than 100 people hospitalized with injuries from some of the worst riots to shake the capital in recent years . Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir imposed a 12 hour curfew on the capital last night.
- Opheera McDoom, Reuters correspondent for Sudan reporting from Cairo.
AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke yesterday about the U.N.’s role in preserving the peace agreement.
KOFI ANNAN: We have offered a very close collaboration with the government and SPLM, and, in fact, we have been working with them ever since the crash. It is our plane that has taken the body to New Site and also retrieving the other bodies. So we are on the ground very actively working with them, and we have made it clear that we will give them all the support necessary, both in the political process and in our efforts to contain the humanitarian situation and settle the process in Darfur. From my discussions with the President of Sudan, I gained the impression that they are determined to proceed, and then there’s the same sentiment on the SPLM side, so there is good hope that — I have good hope that this will hold together. And we should all do whatever we can to insure that it doesn’t unravel.
AMY GOODMAN: That was U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking yesterday. Supporters of the SPLM are suspicious of the government’s claim that John Garang’s death was accidental. As news spread of his death, riots broke out among Christian and Arabs in the country in Khartoum. There are reports that 30, 40 or perhaps more people were killed and more than 100 people hospitalized with injuries from some of the worst riots to shake the capital in recent years. The Sudanese President, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, imposed a 12-hour curfew on Khartoum last night. We’re joined on the phone by Opheera McDoom. She is the Reuters correspondent covering Sudan and Egypt. Welcome to Democracy Now!
OPHEERA McDOOM: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of John Garang’s death and his life?
OPHEERA McDOOM: Well, John Garang remained a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for more than two decades and held together a highly tribalized southern Sudan for much of that period. He was entirely central to this peace deal. He negotiated it, the last period of it, almost one-on-one with former first Vice President, Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, and signed the deal and became First Vice President in a ceremony that was extremely symbolic in Khartoum three weeks ago, and was greeted by estimated more than a million people in the streets of Khartoum as he returned after more than two decades to Khartoum.
His death to many southerners — and there are estimated millions of southerners now living in Khartoum since the civil war has been raging in the south the last two decades — means a lot. They were running in the streets when he came back, saying, ’We’re here now. Our leader is here. We’re free. We can do what we want.’ So, the shock of the news of Garang’s death to a lot of the southerners is what sparked the riots that we saw in Khartoum yesterday that devastated the central commercial district and the marketplaces.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I understand, in Khartoum many were screaming, ’Murderer! Murderer!," not believing that the helicopter crash was accidental. John Garang, flying back from Uganda where he was meeting with the President, Museveni, there.
OPHEERA McDOOM: Indeed, many people on the street seemed to immediately cry foul play. The timing could not be worse, really, for Sudan and the peace process that people have — you know, so many international players have invested time and money, and the Sudanese themselves had invested so much hope in both northerners and southerners. I certainly don’t believe it will be in either the northern government or anyone in the south’s interests to assassinate John Garang, because he was so central to making this peace deal work.
This peace deal comes at the end of an exhausting civil war, which went on for more than two decades, devastated the south and kept Sudan as one of the poorest countries in the world when it has the potential to be so much of a richer country. So, everybody needed this peace deal, and the — although there were obviously cries of foul play, the Ugandans said — and it was a Ugandan helicopter belonging to [inaudible] from the very beginning. There were people who had speculated that because it was flying through territory which the northern Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, were active in, that there was a possibility that they had attacked the helicopter, seeing it as a Ugandan helicopter. There are all kinds of possibilities, but Uganda for now is sticking with it was bad weather. Certainly at much higher levels in politics — in politicians, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about foul play, but the average southerner on the streets, their first reaction was, 'This is foul play, and we're not very happy about it. He was our hero of peace.’
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the man who has now been sworn in as the Vice President replacing Garang, Salva Kiir Mayardit.
OPHEERA McDOOM: Salva Kiir is a military man. He has always been the military power in the Sudan People’s Liberation movement. He is a very straight man. He doesn’t drink. He gets up early. He leads a very soldier-like lifestyle. There had been problems between him and Garang in the past. On at least two occasions there are been rumors that he was planning to overthrow Garang, because he wasn’t happy with the amount of control that John Garang had over the south of Sudan and over the movement itself. He denies these rumors, but certainly there was tension between him and John Garang at times. But, Salva Kiir had backed the peace deal and had backed John Garang as First Vice President, and it’s certainly a very positive thing that the SPLM has come out so quickly and named him as their candidate for First Vice President to replace John Garang.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Opheera McDoom, who is the Sudan and Egypt correspondent for Reuters. Now, the north-south conflict is separate from the west, the — what is happening now in Darfur. Can you talk about how John Garang’s death could impact that?
OPHEERA McDOOM: Well, John Garang had good relations with at least one of the main rebel groups in Darfur. And it was hoped that his joining the government would have given more or brought more trust to the peace process that is ongoing in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and sponsored by the African Union to try and find some sort of political solution for Darfur. Those talks have dragged on for more than a year now and have not really gone very far. And it was hoped that John Garang’s relationship would — with the rebels and also joining the government would just bring more trust and make the talks more open. That could still well be the case because the SPLM will be part of the coalition government. But it will definitely have some sort of immediate effect on the peace talks if not the preoccupation of dealing with the aftermath of Garang’s death and the mourning that will take place in the next few weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: Opheera McDoom, what about these next few weeks, and do you see the country descending once again into civil war?
OPHEERA McDOOM: There is a possibility that there could be a future leadership crisis in the SPLM. There has been leadership crises in the past, even with John Garang, and John Garang is of the Denka tribe which makes up the majority of the population in the south. And the SPLM has in the past been accused of being Denka-dominant.
Now, one of the leaders that split with John Garang, and was Riyak Mashar, who was of a different tribe, and he came back and signed a separate peace deal with the northern government in 1997, and which eventually fell through. He joined John Garang again, but these are the tribal differences that could once again emerge in the future without Garang’s strong leadership that he lent to the movement. These are possibilities of — it leaves the possibilities of tribal clashes in the south which would affect the implementation of any peace deal there.
And the next few weeks will be key, because they will see within the next couple of weeks, Salva Kiir will be sworn in as the First Vice President, they will have to get back to the process of actually forming a brand new coalition government with the SPLM and any other northern political forces who want to join up or southern political forces that want to join up. And that is still all ahead of them, and this time without strong and central leadership of John Garang, which will make it for sure a much more difficult task. And it will overshadow the task that, on the other hand, maybe it will be of interest to, in the memory of John Garang, the SPLM wanting to remain united and wanting to make this peace deal work. The next few weeks will be key to seeing how united the SPLM and the south can remain.
AMY GOODMAN: Opheera McDoom, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Reuters correspondent for Sudan.