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Garang ’69 led fight for South Sudan

By Nate Powell-Palm

Every admissions officer tells prospective students that Grinnellians change the world. Often, changing the world involves social activism, academia, teaching or work in the sciences. However, as the citizens of South Sudan celebrate the results of their recent election, one Grinnellian, John Garang ’69, stands out.

This month, after 19 years of conflict, South Sudan voted to secede from Sudan, Until his death in 2005, Garang led the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Garang spent 35 years of his life leading the SPLM in a war that lasted for over 22 years and ultimately resulted in the referendum for the primarily black, Christian South to split from the Arab, Muslim North.

Over 98 percent of the Sudanese people voted in favor of a two-state solution to the 20-year civil war that claimed the lives of more than 2 million people, according to the Southern Sudan Referendum 2011 website.

Dr. Jack Dawson, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Grinnell, started out as Garang’s advisor and later became a friend. In a recent interview at his home, Dawson recalled the student, activist, freedom fighter, Vice President and Grinnellian John Garang.

“He was a wonderful guy and a first-rate student,” Dawson said. “But more importantly he was a involved on campus and was a genuinely happy guy … we were always laughing.”

Garang’s activism started at Grinnell, where he matriculated with an economics scholarship in 1965. He joined the small community of black students at the College and became involved with the social protest movements of the 1960s. One of the biggest controversies during his time as a student here was the idea of a black library at Grinnell.

Dawson remembers attending a meeting with the black student organization shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He also described how Garang was on campus during the event and at a meeting on Park Street. Garang stood to speak about his perspective on the issues surrounding King’s death.

Like many youths in the ’60s, Garang denounced the assassination, but asked people to move on.

After he graduated in 1969, he spent a year in Uganda on a Watson Fellowship, turning down an offer to continue studying economics at Berkeley. Garang was the second Grinnellian to receive a Watson Fellowship. With the help of Dawson, who was also in Africa at the time, Garang reconnected with the people of southern Sudan.

“He had not been back in the Sudan for a long time and what he really wanted to do was go back and reacquaint himself with the situation in the southern Sudan,” Dawson said. “I was on leave in that year and I got a job at Makerere University in Uganda. I was living in Kampala when he was in Kampala doing his trips into the Sudan. He used our house in Kampala as a sort of base and then he would use a bus to the north [to enter Sudan].”
Garang knew he wanted to return to the United States after he left, according to Dawson.

“We were in Washington, DC right before this and he wanted to assure himself that he could get back into the United States,” Dawson said. “We worked out the legal details of that situation with our congressman,” he said.

In 1970, a group of southern Sudanese revolted against the central government in Khartoum. During this time, Garang came into contact with the rebels and joined them, becoming an officer in the rebel army.

After a 1972 peace treaty satisfied the demands of the revolutionaries, Garang found himself a soldier in the greater Sudanese army because the two forces merged. During this lull in what would be decades of civil war, Garang returned to Iowa to complete a Ph.D. in agro-economics at Iowa State University and wrote his thesis on the agricultural possibilities of southern Sudan.

“We saw a lot of him, his wife and children during those years,” said Edie Dawson, Dawson’s wife. “He was always around and in Grinnell. He was like a son to us.”

Once he completed his Ph.D., he signed on to become a lecturer at the University of Khartoum and the Sudanese army.

In 1980/1981 war broke out between Iran and Iraq. The Sudanese government decided to send some of the Southern troops that had participated in the Southern Sudanese revolt, to fight for Iran. Those troops mutinied and refused to fight.

In 1981 Garang had returned to lecture. The Sudanese military sent Garang, as an army officer, down south to settle the mutiny. He joined them. It was at that time that he joined up with Southern troops and they went to war again. Garang was named the head of the southern movement in the South Sudan and the leader of SPLM, a position he would hold for the next 19 years of his life.

One feature of the peace agreement declared that Garang was to be made first vice president in the new coalition government, as well as the first president of the South Sudan’s newly established sovereignty. He also demanded that the South Sudan military stay intact. The third major agreement was that there would be a scheduled vote for January 2011 to allow the citizens of Sudan to decide whether or not to break off from the north.

Garang died in a helicopter crash on July 30, 2005, three weeks after taking office and only six months after the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement.

Throughout his life and work in Sudan, Garang had his critics. The summer 2002 issue of The Grinnell Magazine featured a story on Garang, in which the author criticized Garang’s work in Sudan, and argued that his efforts would only perpetuate the conflict.

The referendum in Garang’s peace agreement eventually took place. Today, South Sudan is on the path to being officially recognized as an independent state, an event which will end the violence that has encapsulated the region for so long.

Garang lived in Gates Hall, frequented Burling Library, participated in civil rights movements on campus and led a war for 19 years. He was a brilliant mind and liked a good laugh.

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    NerddudeJan 28, 2011 at 3:50 am

    This is such a badass article. Good Job!