Intelligence Brief: Sudan
On July 31, a Ugandan MI-72 helicopter carrying John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (S.P.L.M./A.) for the past 22 years and Sudan's first vice president for the past three weeks, crashed in a remote area of southern Sudan, killing Garang and all 14 people on board. Rumors quickly spread that Sudan's government had shot down the helicopter, and rioting engulfed many areas of Khartoum, killing upwards of 50 people. The specter of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, sparked by the downing of a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, hung over the day's events.
However, it is not the initial riots that threaten the complexly fragile situation in Sudan: the recently signed Comprehensive Peace Agreement (C.P.A.) between the S.P.L.M./A. and Khartoum, the naming of a cabinet for the power-sharing government in Khartoum, the negotiations to end the fighting in the western Darfur region and engaging the rebels involved in the recently ramped up conflict in Sudan's northeast all depended on Garang's direct involvement. Garang was uniquely placed to help bring all of these conflicts to resolution and was expected to do so by the donor community; his successor will find that task to be much more difficult. [See: "Sudan's Changing Map"]
Rumors and Riots Spread in Sudan
As the news media filtered through conflicting reports about the helicopter crash and the status of John Garang, rumors quickly spread throughout Sudan that he had been assassinated. Soon thereafter, riots sprung up in several Khartoum neighborhoods resulting in the deaths of at least two-dozen people, the burning of over 17 cars and the looting or burning of no fewer than 20 businesses. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in the city, but the following day Khartoum's southern Jebera suburb and northeast Haji Yusuf neighborhood saw continued rioting. The mood in Rumbek, the southern town proposed to host the region's government, was more somber but not lacking similar rumors.
While the investigation into the crash is only in its initial phase, there is reason to believe that the Sudanese government did not play a role in the helicopter's downing. The weather made for difficult navigation and the crash occurred in a region not controlled by Khartoum (the S.P.L.M./A. still controls much of southern Sudan and will maintain significant levels of autonomy under the C.P.A.). Some reports also indicate that the helicopter may have run out of fuel. None of this evidence can categorically rule out the involvement of some hardliners or dissenters from the government or military playing a role in the crash, but that scenario seems unlikely at this juncture.
While it appears likely that the rioting in Khartoum will be contained, Garang's disappearance from Sudan's political scene will have reverberations throughout the various conflicts and negotiations in which Khartoum is involved.
Sudan's Weak Cohesion Loses its Magnetic Force
Garang's role in the S.P.L.M./A., like many other leaders in Africa, was that of the strongman. Though ethnic and regional divisions often found their way to the surface within the organization, Garang was able to maintain a coherent movement for 22 years. Garang's chief of staff, Salva Kiir Mayardit, was quickly named as the new leader of the S.P.L.M./A. and will likely succeed to the role of first vice president in Khartoum. Mayardit has been with the S.P.L.M./A. since the 1980s; however, he lacks the stature that Garang commanded at home and abroad.
Within the S.P.L.M./A. there are many differing opinions on southern Sudan's future. Whereas Garang favored protecting the territorial integrity of Sudan, Mayardit has endorsed a separation of southern Sudan from Khartoum in the past. Under the C.P.A., this issue is to come to referendum in 2011, but it is possible that Mayardit will push for a formal secession before that date if he does not find his reception in Khartoum to be friendly.
In Khartoum, Garang and al-Bashir had not yet settled on a cabinet. Although Mayardit was involved in the negotiations with the government that led to the C.P.A., he was never a leading force in the process. His first test, once named first vice president, will be to forge a cabinet with al-Bashir. A potential threat to this will be hardliners in Khartoum's government and military who may find in Garang's death and opportunity to achieve a military victory in the south. Mayardit will have to walk the line of projecting strength and unity amongst the S.P.L.M./A. while displaying flexibility in his negotiations with al-Bashir to avoid seeing the C.P.A. scuttled.
Washington, the U.N. and the greater donor community viewed bringing an end to the north/south civil war as a priority over resolving the conflict in Darfur and a simmering row in Sudan's northeast region near the border with Eritrea. The hope was that once Garang was given a role in the government, he would be able to bring the regional rebel groups into fruitful negotiations with the government. Garang's international stature gave this hope some grounding in reality.
Mayardit's relative anonymity on the international scene will weaken the government's hand in the negotiations with the Darfur rebels and makes engagement with the Beja Congress and Free Lions in the northeast less likely. The regional rebels also favored Garang's position on protecting the geographic integrity of Sudan; Mayardit will have to make the case that he will pursue a similar strategy if he hopes to assume Garang's role in the negotiations. It can be expected that the international community will embrace Mayardit by insisting he follow Garang's rhetoric on the division of Sudan.
The Bottom Line
Garang's death poses a serious threat to the cohesion of Sudan's political landscape. His successor, Mayardit, will face challenges from within his S.P.L.M./A. as well as from the newly formed government in Khartoum. Sudan is currently engaged in a center-periphery conflict that pits Khartoum against rebels in the west and northeast. It was the international donor community's expectation that resolving the north-south aspect of this conflict would provide a model for resolving the other regional clashes. The implementation of this was to fall into Garang's hands.
Unless Mayardit can quickly and decisively indicate to the other rebel groups that he can control the divisions within the S.P.L.M./A., while holding his own in the cabinet negotiations with al-Bashir and win the support of the donor community, this model of spreading peace to Darfur and the northeast appears destined for failure.
The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].