Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 4 July 2008

The 1991 historic move is a blessing to Southern Sudan

By Gatkuoth Lam

July 3, 2008 — Members of the Dinka Bor community around the world have turned the 28th August a day on which they propagate every year claiming that thousands of their community members were massacred in Bor town in 1991 by the then forces of the SPLM/A-Nasir faction led by Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon.

Dr. Machar defected with Commander Dr. Lam Akol Ajawin and Commander Gordon Koang Chol with their forces in a historic move for better change from the old SPLM/A led by the late, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, which Garang then re-named ‘SPLM/A-Torit faction’ after the split. The move was declared on 28th August 1991 in Nasir town in Upper Nile region.
The reasons for the split were clearly articulated by the then SPLM/A-Nasir faction leadership and were understood and still being understood by the concerned people of Southern Sudan in particular and the international community at large. Before the split, the SPLM/A had no clear objective for which the people of Southern Sudan fought and lost two million souls. There were no proper structures put in place for clear responsibilities, which would also guarantee collective decision making in strategizing for the Movement’s programs and executing its war against the Khartoum government. There were also gross violations of human rights by late Garang’s leadership. Dr. Garang was using the Movement as his own property. I will shed some light on these issues in the next paragraphs below.

Since the inception of the SPLM/A in 1983 until 1991, if you asked any SPLA officer what he was fighting for, he would not provide a clear answer simply because he did not know what he was fighting for – or simply say he was not enlightened on the cause of war. I remember when I was in Itang in 1986 and asked a friend of mine who was also a SPLA officer what he was fighting for, he just replied “I don’t know but John Garang knows”. And he continued to say “to me I think we are fighting to liberate South Sudan territory from the Arabs who dominate us.” Even those who thought to be SPLM politicians were not sure about the objective for which the war was launched. And to inquire that from Garang himself for possible correction was deadly.. Tens of thousands of SPLA soldiers lost their lives in battles while not clear about the cause they died for and the destiny they wanted to reach and achieve. This was the pre-1991 situation in the Movement.

There were no proper structures established in the Movement although there were sufficient educated SPLM cadres who could run every necessary structure if established at the time for better strategies on policies and successful execution of the war. Dr. Garang instead established only what he called ‘Political Military High Command’ in 1980s in which he installed semi-literate personalities on most senior positions in that single structure. Dr. Machar was a member of that structure, but intentionally put in the bottom of the list by Garang. The Political Military High Command was mandated by Garang himself to look into matters related to both political and military. The group’s most powerful personalities lacked any political experience and could not even see what was wrong with the objective of the Movement, let alone the importance of establishing a separate structure for SPLM. The way they executed the war was not also professional and this might explain why they could not capture a single major city among the three capital cities of the three regions in the South for twenty one years until the CPA found a way out in early 2005. Worst of all, members of the Political Military High Command could not meet to decide what to do next as a collective body. Many of them did not even know their faces, they just heard of each other’s existence somewhere. Those who were fighting in the battle fields like Dr. Riek Machar in the early years of SPLM/A were depending on orders from Dr. John Garang without their views being put into consideration on how to effectively wage the war.

Late Garang also conspired against his colleagues he perceived to be a threat to his leadership because of they were highly educated. He used to expose PhD holders to battle fields instead of utilizing them to formulate policies for the SPLM as a political wing.

He ordered Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba to attack the government forces with child-soldiers in Jokou town. Dr. Nyaba lost one of his legs in the operation and came back with few survivors of his child-soldiers.

Garang also ordered Dr. Riek Machar Teny, another PhD holder in Strategic Planning in Industry to attack Malut in Upper Nile, which Dr. Machar captured in mid 1980s. After capturing Malut, Garang ordered Machar again to move up to Mayom in Unity state to capture it where the present President of the Republic, Omer Hassen el Beshir was the commanding officer in Mayom before he became the President in 1989. Dr. Machar’s forces got into very fierce battles with Beshir’s forces. His forces wounded Beshir in his leg, but failed to capture the town because they could not get reinforcement.

Late Garang also ordered Dr. Lam Akol Ajawin, another PhD holder in Petroleum Engineering to move to eastern Upper Nile to command SPLA forces in the area in 1980s.

Gross human rights violations were committed by late Garang’s forces against a number of ethnic groups in Southern Sudan, which included massacres. One of the worst massacres committed by Garang was the war he launched against the Gaajaak sub-clan of Jikany Nuer in 1985. The war was launched against the whole sub-clan simply because of an argument over fish between a villager of the sub-clan and a SPLA soldier. The villager went fishing with some of his colleagues, caught a fish and was ready to take it home. Some SPLA soldiers came to the river, and as it was common behavior among the forces at that time, wanted to take the fish by force from the villager. The villager resisted and was then shot dead by one of the SPLA soldiers. Villagers from a nearby village heard the gun shot, rushed to the scene and found their colleague dead. They immediately retaliated by killing a number of SPLA soldiers on the spot. The remnants of those soldiers ran for their lives back to Bilpam, which was the then SPLA General Headquarters on the Ethiopian border. They reported the incident at the Headquarters. The SPLM/A leadership was furious and decided that the whole sub-clan be disciplined by wiping them out of their villages. This was how the war against the Gaajaak sub-clan of the Jikany-Nuer started in 1985, resulting in untold massacres of human beings and their cattle.

Many people who used to hear late Garang’s ambitious comments on the territory occupied by the Gaajaak sub-clan before the war knew that the fish incident was used as a pretext for war against the Gaajaak. Dr. Garang used to tell his Bor intellectuals that the territory occupied by Gaajaak was in fact a Dinka Bor land. He used to explain that the Dinka Bor community was displaced from the land during the Nuer expansion from Bentiu in Western Upper Nile hundreds of years ago. Perhaps by wiping out the Gaajaak from the territory, he would have encouraged the Dinka Bor community to resettle in the land so that they border Ethiopia and resolve their current status of being landlocked in the Bor’s tiny territory in Jonglei. He was not happy also with the way the Nuer inhabit a huge territory without being isolated by other tribes – their land which extends from Western Upper Nile bordering the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan in the north across the River Nile in Upper Nile region up to the Ethiopian border in the East.

Dr. Garang dispatched both late Kerubino Kwanyin Bol and late William Nyuon Bany to personally command that war against the Gaajaak sub-clan. For those of you with short-lived memories, late Commander Kerubino Kwanyin Bol was the Deputy Chairman of the SPLM and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the SPLA forces. He was number two to Dr. John Garang. Late Commander William Nyuon Bany was the Chief of Staff of the SPLA forces; the post previously occupied by Comrade Salva Kiir Mayardit and currently occupied by Comrade Lt.. General Oyai Deng Ajak. You can imagine how Garang was determined to entirely wipe out the Gaajaak by letting loose those powerful military commanders to massacre the unarmed Gaajaak sub-clan. Both Kerubino and William went to the battle fields to personally command the fighting. The war resulted into untold losses where thousands of people were killed, several villages completely wiped out and burnt to ashes. However, the SPLA won some of the battles but lost the war against the community! Dr. Garang failed to get the territory back to Dinka Bor community. In that war against a sub-clan, the SPLM/A lost a highly educated son of Southern Sudan, Dr. Francis Ngor, a PhD holder after late Garang ordered him to command a force against the community and his forces were annihilated. He was captured and killed by the villagers on spot.

The two parties finally decided to stop the fighting and came back to the peace table and forgave themselves for the sin. That crime against humanity committed by Dr. Garang against the Gaajaak community might have been forgiven but not forgotten. Of course the Gaajaak community may not file criminal cases in The Hague against those three most powerful leaders of the SPLM/A at the time because they are no longer with us on this earth. I personally ask God to forgive late Garang and his colleagues.

Similar atrocities were also committed against other ethnic groups in the South such as the Toposa, Murle, etc. by Dr. Garang’s forces in the 1990s. All are documented!

The claim by the Dinka Bor community intellectuals that the 1991 SPLM/A split resulted in the massacre of Bor by the then Nasir faction leadership was and still a propaganda campaign against personalities like Dr. Riek Machar. Of course, there was a fight over Bor town which actually resulted in the lost of, maybe, thousands of lives. This cannot be disputed! But who can the Bor personally hold responsible? The fight over the control of Bor town to my best knowledge was not ordered by the leader of the then SPLM/A-Nasir faction, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon. These were some of Dr. Machar’s military officers who felt very angry after hearing the news that Garang’s forces were killing in cold blood Nuer officers who were on Garang’s side in Equatoria region. Dr. Garang’s forces, particularly from the Dinka ethnic group decided to kill in cold blood every Nuer officer on their side in Torit town simply because a Nuer leader has challenged Garang’s leadership in Nasir town.

These angry Nuer military officers from the SPLM/A Nasir faction mobilized some of the Nuer armed civilians who are neighbours to Dinka Bor and attacked Bor town. They had fierce battle with Garang’s forces stationed in the town. After several hours of fighting they overran the town, which resulted in lost of hundreds or thousands of lives and massive displacement of Dinka Bor population up to Equatoria region. I personally feel sad about the incident. But the Dinka Bor community members should not use it as a propaganda campaign against Dr. Riek Machar for reasons best known to them. This is a pointed finger at the wrong person. They should learn the truth about the incident, what provoked it and who organized the attacks.

The same was true with the attack on Malakal town in 1993 by the armed Nuer civilians organized by the late Wurnyang Garkek. Late Wurnyang claimed to have been possessed by God’s spirits and that the spirits directed him to help liberate the South. He successfully organized a force that was popularly known as the ‘White Army’ from the Nuer civil population and ordered them to capture the capital of Upper Nile region, Malakal. They attacked the town and captured about seventy-five percent (75%) of the town. The Sudan government forces held certain positions in the outskirts of the town. Because Wurnyang’s armed civilians were not trained soldiers and had no supplies of ammunitions, when they realized that they were running out of ammunitions, they started shouting in the town calling on their individual colleagues to supply them with some bullets if they had plenty. The government soldiers came to realize that these were just armed civilians and that they had run out of ammunitions. The government forces gave them a final full thrust and chased them out of the town. The town again fell under the full control of the government’s forces. The government forces first thought it was Dr. Riek Machar’s forces attacking the town, but this turned out to be somebody else organizing and ordering the attack on Malakal town.

To me, as a person who has been in the SPLM/A since its inception in 1983, I see the 28th August 1991, split as one of the most blessings the people of Southern Sudan have received from their creator. Of course, the split resulted into setbacks when it came to military activities against the Khartoum government, but has revolutionized the SPLM system and set a clear objective for the satisfaction and achievement of the aspirations of the people of Southern Sudan.

The 28th August 1991 Nasir Declaration, which was code-named ‘The Creeping Revolution’ under the then leadership of Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon, called for Self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan to determine their political destiny. This is to be determined in a referendum on vote for separation or unity and to be supervised internationally in Southern Sudan. This patriotic call by the people of Southern Sudan was resisted by late Dr. Garang until the year 2002. Garang was instead calling for a United New Socialist Sudan in the 1980s (a vision he copied from Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam’s New Socialist Ethiopia). After Mengistu was overthrown, he then changed the vision in 1990s to a United Secular Sudan (or New Sudan as he called it). The viability of this big dream or vision was in question as many people saw and still see it as just a beautiful dream but unrealistic in its achievement and was meant to confuse the cause of the people of Southern Sudan given the complexity of the problems in the Sudan and their deep rooted origins. Subsequent American administrations in Washington DC dream of a ‘New World Order’ which they now find unrealistic to achieve for the whole world. Every body can dream beautifully, but making the dream come true is the question. We need to be realistic in our visions!

The 28th August 1991 Declaration also called for democratization of the Movement by putting its structures in place, particularly the arm of the SPLM which was treated subordinate and incorporated into the arm of the SPLA by Garang’s leadership. This explains why in the old days of the Movement, Dr. Garang put the SPLA first by calling the Movement the ‘SPLA/SPLM’ instead of the ‘SPLM/SPLA’. This was corrected after the 1991 historic move for better change. The Movement was also lacking its legal institutions. Garang was every thing! After being challenged reasonably by the Nasir faction leadership on these issues, he reacted by organizing and calling for the First SPLM National Convention in Chukudum in 1995. Before the Convention, and in the months leading to the time the Convention was called for, Garang felt much pressure on his leadership from within his faction and began to understand the need to establish structures for the Movement. There were voices who called for change on how the Movement was being run by one man.

For fear that many more intellectuals and military Commanders would continue to defect to Dr. Riek Machar’s faction, Dr. Garang found himself toothless and could not resort to his old ways of either murdering his political and military opponents from within in cold blood or silencing them in prisons without trial. His leadership survival at that time after the split significantly depended on how Dr. Machar would handle his coup against him. If Dr. Machar were to choose to overthrow Garang militarily as the last resort by attacking his positions in Equatoria region, Garang’s leadership would have come to pass in those years. Machar instead chose to engage Garang in dialogue to resolve the issues that caused the split and would only fight in self-defense if Garang attacked his positions. This helped Garang to re-organize his forces that were in the state of panic. Luckily and by chance, Garang used Machar’s peace talks with the Khartoum government to accuse him of collaborating with Khartoum. This also helped him to regain support from those in the region and Western world who wanted the war to continue in Southern Sudan. Dr. Machar’s position not to escalate fighting by removing Garang using military might in Equatoria region, where he shifted his bases and fighting force, resulted in sharp disagreements with his colleagues which also resulted in further splits within the Nasir faction. Can you see this dilemma which was not completely taken note of by Garang’s faction?

The 28th August 1991 popular Declaration prompted its leadership to strategize on how the liberation struggle could be achieved. The leadership chose the path of peace as the way forward. They engaged themselves in a series of peace talks with the present government in Khartoum in Abuja One and Abuja Two and subsequently signed the Khartoum Peace Agreement in 1997. Dr. Riek Machar incorporated other factions which also defected from late Dr. Garang’s faction and became their overall leader. These factions included the Bahr El-Ghazal Group (BGG), led by late Kerubino Kwanyin Bol, the Bor Group (BG), led by late Arok Thon Arok, the Equatoria Defense Forces (EDF), led by Dr. Theophillus Ochang Lotti, and some other groups. Dr. Machar signed the famous Khartoum Peace Agreement (KPA) on behalf of all the factions that joined his Movement, the South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM) with its military wing, the South Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF). For the first time in the history of the Sudan, the Khartoum government conceded the right of self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan in the Agreement. This was also enshrined in the National Constitution of the Sudan in 1998, which clearly articulated that this right would be exercised in an internationally supervised referendum after four years from 1997. The referendum was to be exercised in Southern Sudan in the year 2001 about seven years ago.

Dr. Garang at the time vowed that he would not sign any agreement with the Khartoum government under President Omer Hassen El – Beshir. He used to say that the Khartoum government was too deformed to be reformed and that he wanted it removed by military force. He called the Khartoum Peace Agreement a sell out despite the inclusion of the clause ‘self-determination’ in it plus many more achievements including Southern Sudan retaining a separate army. The significant thing I personally feel was missing in the Khartoum Peace Agreement was the involvement of the international community, which distanced itself from the Khartoum Peace Agreement on a number of interests that I don’t want to write about here. The Khartoum Peace Agreement, like any other agreements signed in Sudan, was violated by the Khartoum government in the year 2000. Dr. Machar, after championing self-determination in the Agreement, decided to resort to other strategies back in the bush to bring late Dr. John Garang to the developing peace process and indirectly revive the Khartoum Peace Agreement in a comprehensive form based on self-determination!

On 6th January 2002, the two factions of Dr. Machar and Dr. Garang merged in Nairobi. This time with bold declaration that the two groups agreed to resolve the issues that led to the split within the SPLM/A on 28th August 1991.. The right of self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan as called for in the Nasir Declaration was officially accepted and became the official objective of the Movement to determine the future political status of the people of Southern Sudan. Democratization of the Movement and respect for human rights were re-affirmed because Garang had already adopted these principles after the 1991 split and before the merger in 2002. But the Merger Agreement recognized that more work needed to be done on these principles. The Nairobi Merger Agreement also called for a Second SPLM National Convention to be held within three months to elect the leadership of the ‘new’ SPLM. Dr. Garang delayed the convening of the Convention indefinitely for fear of being defeated in the election by Dr. Machar or any other candidate. The Merger Agreement also called for serious revival and resumption of peace talks with the Khartoum government.

As a result of the Merger Agreement between the two leaders with renewed spirit and quest for peace, just after six months from the merger, the first protocol of the CPA on self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan was signed in Machakos, Kenya in July 2002. Commander Salva Kiir Mayardit, the then Deputy Chairman for Military Affairs signed the Protocol on behalf of the SPLM/A. The road to peace became irreversible!

On 9th January 2005, the SPLM/A and the National Congress Party-led government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Dr. Garang signed on behalf of the Movement while the then First Vice President of the Sudan, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, signed on behalf of the Sudan government. If you read the CPA in comparison with the Khartoum Peace Agreement, you would be convinced that the CPA is not more than a revised text of the Khartoum Peace Agreement with the exception of the international support and the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces in the South. However, the effectiveness or not of the international support and the UN Peacekeeping forces in Southern Sudan is another thing one may evaluate.

The clear message I want to send to those who might have been blinded by tribal sentiments and cheap propaganda against leaders who have greatly contributed or actually revolutionized our way forward as the people of Southern Sudan is that they should get realistic and honour these great leaders like Dr. Machar with utmost respect.. 28th August 1991 Declaration should not be used for negative propaganda, but instead be remembered as a blessed birth day on which a clear path for the liberation and freedom of the people of Southern Sudan was set. The road to our freedom is still long and painful! We need to get united as one people with one objective that will lead us to our desired destiny. Propagating on the so-called Dinka Bor massacres with fabricated negative stories attributed to innocent and great leaders like Dr. Riek Machar will not help the cause the Dinka Bor want to achieve in Southern Sudan or in a united Sudan.

The author is based in southern Sudan.