South Sudan has just marked ten years since the death of one of its most beloved figures, John Garang, who was killed in a mysterious helicopter explosion. A towering figure in the history of the world’s youngest state, Garang was simultaneously vice-president of all Sudan and president of the pre-independence south in the years before the two countries formally separated.

His inspirational power lasted beyond his death. I saw that much for myself when I served as an official observer in the 2010 national elections, a year before the 2011 referendum for southern independence.

I was stationed in the south, operating out of Juba, now capital of South Sudan, and also covered Rumbek – the epicentre of the uprising of the south against the north. In the wilds beyond Rumbek, at an immaculate polling station composed of a rope perimeter around a tree (though equipped with every last bit of electoral paraphernalia), there was a special queue for elderly people.

A wizened gentleman was helped into the enclosure. His hands were shaking as he first held his ballot paper above his head and then tried to put it into the box. It took him more than one attempt, and all the while, he kept shouting, “Garang! Garang!”

Dashed hopes

John Garang held two high offices as part of a comprehensive peace agreement that ended the second Sudanese civil war in January 2005. It had raged between north and south since 1983, and followed an earlier civil war that ended in 1972. Garang fought in both.

For the first civil war Garang trained in Israel; between the two civil wars, he rose to become a colonel in the Sudan army. He then trained at Fort Benning in the US and obtained a PhD from Iowa State University – following upon an earlier American sojourn when he gained his first degree, a time recorded in charming photographs of him learning how to cook at a dinner party.

John Garang learning to bake a cake, Iowa, 1966. Author provided

He never prioritised independence for the south, but instead pursued a vision of a powerful united Sudan, one that upheld full rights for all its southern citizens.

Today, Garang’s body lies beneath a great mausoleum in Juba. Nearby, the University of Juba’s library had no books younger than 20 years old. Students from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London donated 7,000 books after independence – and the cargo container in which they arrived was converted into a classroom.

In the run-up to independence in 2011, Juba was a tatty town. Containers were the make-shift accommodation of choice. Like South Sudan as a whole, the capital had almost no paved roads. The water was contaminated; the Nile looked beautiful, but caused me and my team members no end of illnesses. Development was at a very low level. Aid was pouring in, but with almost no national capacity to absorb it, a very great deal wound up in private hands.

So before long the new country rapidly returned to war, first in firefights with the north and with dissident southern generals around the oil fields that straddled the border – and then in a full-blown southern civil war. A deep cynicism set in as southern cabinet ministers were arrested and exiled in 2014, only to be brought back from exile in July 2015.

No end to war

Thanks to very limited roads and other infrastructure, a lack of effective waste disposal even in Juba, cattle rustling in many rural areas and a legacy of weapons and combat culture, South Sudan was always going to require a long transitional period before government was possible.

The enmities in South Sudan are old, the leaders have military experience, but no public administration or development experience. Some would say that war is all they’re qualified for.

No one knows who killed Garang in 2005, or whether his death was purely an accident. But regardless of the circumstances, his demise took away the guiding charisma that had brought the dream of either independence or equality into the realm of the possible.

His life inspired the old man I saw limping his way to the polling station in 2011 to vote – but if Garang could see South Sudan today, he would be appalled at the litany of lost opportunities, theft and poverty, war and division. Only four years after its birth, the newest nation on earth is far from the one its spiritual founder envisaged.


This article was originally published on The Conversation