Remembering Dr John Garang

Published on 1st August 2017

Commemorating the 30th of July as Martyrs’ Day every year brings back the distressing memories of July 30, 2005, the day we lost our great leader, Dr. John Garang De Mabior. Every South Sudanese or Sudanese for that matter vividly remembers where that day found them. 

The life changing news reached me in my Immigrant Counselling Agency Office at The Central Mall in mid-town Omaha, Nebraska (USA). As part of my weekend routines, I just stopped by the office to double-check my billing invoices to the Child Protective Service and Court System at around 2:25PM. My cell phone then rang and it was Commander James Gatduel Gatluak who came to the United States as a part of Dr. John’s entourage for medical treatment on the phone. He briefly resided with me in Omaha to pursue his medical treatment but went to visit some relatives in Siouxfalls, South Dakota. We exchanged some casual greetings and then paused for a moment. 

His voice was loaded with grief but he did not want to break the horrible news to me. Knowing that the news would reach me any way, James reluctantly blew it into my ear at the end of our conversation, in an interrogative form: “Have you heard that Dr. John’s chopper has disappeared in the Immatong Range on its way to New Site from Uganda”? 

My mind went blank! We paused for about three seconds. He went on to narrate that none of the senior security officers was with him in this mission. We both lamented and cursed the SPLM/A leadership for failure to deploy senior security officers like Malual Majiok or General Bior Ajang with him on this mission for his physical safety. 

We went on to discuss other issues of political importance in the SPLM but we closed the conversation on a hopeful note that Dr. John must be safe no matter what happened! Phone calls both from far and near Diaspora came with contradicting narratives and perspectives. A wishful one from Commander James Gatduel himself had it that the chopper landed safely in New Site. Another from Nairobi had it that the chopper did not leave Uganda to begin with and that Dr. John was alive and well in Kampala. That was my news at least for the evening meal! 

The nightmare though was that none of the above contradicting news could be confirmed by any one closer to the events on the ground in South Sudan. In psychological terma, no news was good news as the gloomy reality began to settle in. Whatever the news at some point, we simply refused to accept the demise of our great leader. 

As Salva Kiir would announce in due course “Dr. John Garang De Mabior, the philosopher and a rare breed of political thinker has indeed died in the dreaded chopper crash.” This was the fatal truth but who could accept that? Not me! I went on to deceive my sub-conscience that John Garang did not die at the time we needed him the most to implement the vision of reconciliation for survival, unity of purpose and the peace through development he articulated.

In my own little world, John Garang could not just die now! The man’s head was full of projects for the common good. As a human being, he was witty and jolly almost about everything. With creative mind and resolve, Dr. John tackled enormous projects with aplomb, but as fate would have it, he left a lot of them unfinished. 

Books will be written about him but the extraordinary life called Dr. John Garang cannot be reduced to a set of biographical formulas. He was simply great. Yet there are fundamental contradictions underlying the itinerary he set to follow. Dr. John was a linchpin for so many with conflicting visions and ideologies within his vast movement. He led a national movement which was predominantly black or African Sudanese but solemnly maintained that the African cannot be liberated without involving their captors in the Arab North. This earned him enemies in the Southern political circles but he was politically responsive to their demands (self-determination) while focusing on the long journey of liberating both the oppressed and their oppressors. 

Thus marking this day for him and other unsung martyrs, we must always dedicate a tremendous amount of time to tout his audacious legacy and towering achievements which culminated to Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought about the Independence of South Sudan in 2011. 

To some of us who were raised in the extended fraternity of SPLM /A, Dr. John Garang was an immortal hope to deliver the people of South Sudan from the shackles of centuries of oppression. For one thing, the movement had just been reunified and the CPA was concluded under his able leadership. God must be crazy, I said! Among many things, the biggest worry was not the implementation of CPA and self-determination but the leadership arrangement within the SPLM/A. The following questions lingered in so many heads: Who would succeed him? Would that person fill his gigantic shoes? Would the leadership arrangement lead to another split and infighting within the rank and files of the SPLM/A? 

Given the long history of power struggle and infightings within the SPLM/A, this last question was asked mostly by foreign diplomats and journalists with critical interest on South Sudanese affairs. Those questions continued to rain on us from foreign friends of South Sudan in the United States and beyond. The enemies and the prophets of doom continued with their prophesy that the Southern Sudanese did not have the capacity to pass the test of leadership arrangement in a peaceful manner. They predicted even more devastating in-fighting and a failed state if independence was at all attained. They could not be more right than today but the truth is that there is nothing wrong with the people of South Sudan. The problem of South Sudan is squarely that of leadership! 

The leadership of the SPLM/A demonstrated that when they surprised the world with the unanimous election of Salva Kiir Mayardit to inherit the leadership dockets as the Chairman of the SPLM, C-in C of the SPLA, President of the of the Government of Southern Sudan and the 1st Vice President of the Republic of the Sudan. Salva Kiir then promised South Sudanese and the SPLM/A competent political leadership, freedom and heaven on earth in the Promised Land. He had this to say: “the SPLM is a vehicle without reverse gears.” With this statement, we were made to believe that one chairman had died a hero and another chairman assumed the leadership to defend the gains of the revolution and deliver on the promises made to the masses of the people of Southern Sudan during the struggle. 

To the dismay of so many South Sudanese and their foreign friends, none of the above transpired. For SPLM as a vehicle without reverse gears, the gross opposite happened. The new chairman neither had a clue to steer the vehicle forward nor to the reverse direction. The SPLM under General Kiir Mayardit miserably failed both at governance and political organization. The promised freedom transpired as dictatorship and the economic development and good governance transpired in the form of corruption, nepotism, institutionalised political tribalism and widespread insecurity throughout the country. As one writer metaphorically put it, ”the SPLM’s Ship has capsized and is left to sink in the middle of the ocean. True, in the spectacle of December 15, 2013 pogrom and the ongoing genocide commanded by none other than the SPLM Chairman and the President of the Republic, we can say with authority that the man on the driving seat has lost driving control crashing his vehicle without reverse gears down to the ditch in a steep valley of death and accelerated destruction reducing our state capitals to ashes and charcoals. 

Without any doubt, John Garang underneath his mausoleum on which we commemorate this day every year and other martyrs like Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, William Nyuon Bany, Arok Thon Arok, Francis Ngor Maciec, Samuel Gai Tut ,Martin Manyiel Ayuel , Kon Anok, Prophet Guek Ngundeng, Philip Pidak Lieth, Aggrey Jaden, Joseph Oduhu, Father Saturino, Akuot Atem,Gai ,William Abdal Chuol Deng and others must be restless in their graves to see that the surviving leadership has turned their sacrifices and commitment to liberation struggle into oppression, corruption , tribalism and wanton destruction. 

As things stand now, the only thing that could possibly lull them back to serene sleep in their graves is peace agreement that leads to restoration of freedom, gives the people of South Sudan an opportunity to write their own constitution, elect their own leaders with capacity to change the status quo and ultimately mend the rifts of their social fabric. Otherwise, we will live with the enigma of accepting Dr. John Garang’s demise and every commemoration of this day will always be another day to mourn him and all our other martyrs. 

By Stephen Par Kuol.

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