Juba — 'Mama Rebecca', widow of John Garang - the charismatic leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and commander of its army - welcomes the opportunity for southern Sudan to build a new future. Nearly 99% of voters chose independence in last month's referendum.
Rebecca Garang served as Southern Sudan's Roads and Transport Minister after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between north and south Sudan was signed in 2005. Now, as a private citizen, she is pushing for farm-to-market roads and other vital infrastructure, and she is eager to work on a range of issues she sees as central to development, including agriculture, education and women's rights.
At the same time, she laments the end of her husband's vision – one she came to share – for a unitary democracy in Africa's largest nation, the tenth largest in the world. Independence for the south was a "minimum objective", she said, in an interview with AllAfrica in Juba, the southern capital, shortly before the referendum. "The maximum objective was a total transformation and democratization of Sudan."
An Opportunity Lost
The 2005 accord - hammered out with intensive involvement from African and international governments, civil society and religious organizations - ended several decades of civil war between northern and southern Sudan. The CPA set a six-year time-table, leading to January's referendum.
The period was seen as a last chance to address festering issues between the mostly black African south, whose people practice Christianity or traditional religions, and the Arabist, Islamist regime of the National Congress Party that rules the north. A previous peace accord in 1972 brought regional autonomy and relative stability, but failed to address persistent poverty. The discovery of oil in the south fueled an economic boom among northern elites, exacerbating tensions.
Aggrieved southerners rebelled again in 1983, when the authoritarian government in Khartoum imposed a severe version of Sharia law nationwide – disregarding religious beliefs, including those of moderate Muslims. Two million people died and some four million were displaced.
Rebecca Garang, who joined the southern forces during the conflict, said that like most southerners, she was fighting for southern freedom. " I was a real southern separatist," she said, "because I felt that there was injustice, there was a lack of development. Women were being marginalized within the marginalization."
Her husband won her over, she said, not just in marriage but in politics. He preached pan-Africanism - a regional approach to Africa's problems.
The CPA was a hard-won achievement. After the signing, John Garang's call for a "New Sudan" seemed less far-fetched. Despite widespread opposition to unity, it was SPLM policy, and the idea gained ground alongside progress towards a settlement.
Traveling with her husband to parts of Sudan she had never seen, Rebecca Garang became a convert. "I am joining you in your vision," she says she told him.
Two months after the peace accord, Sudanese scholar, and southerner, Francis Deng, wrote that the idea of an inclusive Sudan that celebrated its diversity was spreading. Garang's vision, he said, "began to appeal to the non-Arab, marginalized regions of the north…Even among the so-called Arabs, there is an increasing number that sees a national merit in the New Sudan model."
Deng acknowledged that most people thought the south would opt for succession. "But given the unfolding situation throughout the country and the alliances that are forming across the North-South divide," he wrote, "the case for unity may be gaining ground."
Six months after the CPA was signed, John Garang's helicopter crashed in a storm, killing all aboard. "Afterwards," Rebecca Garang said, "the voice of the majority, the southern separatists, became louder."
At John Garang's funeral, SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum pledged continuing support for "transforming the Sudan and making it a free and prosperous country." He said the SPLM would work for peace among Sudanese and for "building schools instead of prisons and hospitals instead of training camps." The SPLM promised to guarantee the rights of every ethnicity and religion.
Rebecca Garang still believes that effective efforts by the north to develop the south and to treat southerners as equals could have dampened desires for independence. Such efforts, she thinks, would also have appealed to the millions of Sudanese of southern origin in the north, many of whom were born there.
"In the south, they would have voted for unity," she said. "In the north, people would not have come back. They would say, 'What would I do in the south, when everything I have is here?'"
After the accord, international diplomats and non-governmental organizations became increasingly critical of what they saw as the northern government's refusal to implement CPA provisions. But attention was diverted by growing violence in Darfur and by other global crises.
Timetables leading to the referendum kept slipping. There was little progress on difficult issues, such as division of future oil revenues, responsibility for the huge national debt and where the border should be drawn in the event of succession. In the end, a simultaneous referendum in Abyei – on the disputed north-south boundary – was postponed and remains a flashpoint.
In the months before the vote, the Congress party government warned that its harsh, physical-punishment interpretation of Sharia law would be applied to Christians as well as Muslims and made threats against northerners of southern heritage. People began to stream south by car, truck, Nile barge or on foot, further straining southern and international resources.
"The SPLM was saying, 'Let's give unity a chance,' but what did the National Congress do?" Rebecca Garang said. "Nothing!"
The Hard Road Ahead
"We have to tie our shoelaces," said Rebecca Garang. "Yes, we have shortcomings, as people who have been traumatized all along the way – first war, second war, the death of Dr. John." [John Garang had a PhD in agricultural economics from Iowa State University in the United States.]
Because of this long, long, long war trauma, we have little work ethic. We rely on relief. We have dependency syndrome. We fight among ourselves. There are so many things we need to be free of for development to follow. But we are working on those things."
A further challenge for the south will be to manage relations with its northern neighbor. Clashes this month in Abyei threaten to complicate already contentious negotiations about the disputed border region, as well as other unresolved matters.
Meanwhile, Garang advances a list of development essentials. "Agriculture is number one," she said. So people can eat. "We need connecting roads so surplus goods go to market. Mechanization, because we should not be those people using muscle and hoe in the 21st century! Private sector and civil society initiatives, because government services cannot reach the whole people; our land is big."
Investors have already knocked, she said. "We need to open the doors," by improving security, reducing corruption, providing power. "We can produce hydropower on the rapids in the Nile. We can even export power to neighboring countries."
Juba's population has expanded from around 250,000 in 2006 to as many as a million now. Less than ten per cent of people have access to waste services. The Overseas Development Institute in London estimated that over 2.2 million displaced people and refugees had arrived in the south by last November. Rural areas - already desperately poor and largely without schools, health services or the tools to develop agriculture – are also absorbing waves of returnees.
Garang takes a particular interest in equipping the next generation. "We lack education - especially for women," she said. She has built a school, but she wants to expand it and build more.
Government – and Personal - Accountability
Garang wants to build civic pride and a sense of responsibility. "Myself, I go out on the street and collect trash," she said. "People throw it on the street. There is litter everywhere. I go out because these things can stay for a million years, despoiling the earth."
She said she also will speak more forcefully about government responsibilities. "In five years, we should have achieved more than this," she said, while noting that the uncertainty of the pre-referendum period was a constraint. Fears of renewed war kept military expenditures high and dissuaded educated Sudanese from returning with their skills.
Now, she says, "there are a lot of things that the government of Southern Sudan will have to do," both before and after independence, scheduled for 9 June. Among them is to use oil revenues more effectively, while they last, and reduce the crime and corruption that has accompanied rapid growth.
Large numbers of destitute people, rising costs and readily available weapons threaten security. Women are particularly vulnerable, according to numerous assessments by international aid agencies, to rape and violent crime.
Rebecca Garang says the SPLM administration made a good start on countering the traditional culture's negative impact on women. "Dr. John made affirmative action" she said, and the movement trained women to be soldiers and officers. "I was one of them." Some women, she said, became senior commanders.
She says the current SPLM government, led by President Salva Kiir, is commendably gender conscious. But there are, she says, too few women making decisions. The establishment of a ministry of gender, social welfare and religious affairs was a good step, she says, "because the institutions of society, including churches, need to cooperate" to promote women's participation.
John Garang, she said, told women, "I can give you 25% as affirmative action, but if you don't struggle for it, the men will take it." Now, she says, "I tell women that you have to be a tortoise. You have to stick your neck out. It is you who make it more than lip service."
She exhorts parents to play a positive role. "Let your girls go to school. When your boys come home, if they want to eat, let them go to the kitchen and make food. If you want your clothes washed, you go and do it. My boys - and they're not boys anymore - are very good cooks!"
Is Rebecca Garang hopeful about the future of southern Sudan? Yes, she says; her strong Christian faith got her through the desperate days after her husband's death, and it enables her to be hopeful about the many challenges facing her country.
But she could have coined the phrase, 'God helps those who help themselves.' Everyone, she says, must "tie up their shoelaces." She says she plans to "be rough" on government, civil society and herself, because there is so much to be done.