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South Sudan VIPs Series (Part V): John Garang’s Philosophy of “The New Sudan”: A Guide to Fixing South Sudan


By Malith Kur, Montreal, Canada

Wednesday, May 27, 2020 (PW) — The war that began in 1983 was very complex. Religion, ideology, ethnicity, and oil contributed to its complexity. An essential part of this complicated situation was the exclusion of most indigenous Sudanese communities from the circle of political power, cultural development, and economic engines of the country. Such systematic exclusion generated unquenchable flames of resistance among the marginalized regions of Sudan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)emerged as a response to this intentional marginalization to bring about change. This change would lead to the building of an inclusive society in Sudan. John Garang and his colleagues called it “New Sudan.” But if social inclusion could not be achieved, then the peripheral regions would have the option of deciding their destiny.

John Garang gave the idea of New Sudan three crucialdimensions. He considered it a vision to guide the SPLM’sunderstanding of society, an objective to be achieved, and it was a political strategy to bring about social change to Sudan. We shall explore these three dimensions of New Sudan’s philosophy to see whether it has something to offer to fix the current lame political developments in South Sudan. 

New Sudan as a Political Vision

John Garang’s vision of New Sudan views Sudanese society through the lens of modern liberal ideas of freedom and social solidarity. Garang knew quite well that a rigid religious,ideological, or ethnic definition of society would not work in Sudan. It often provokes political violence. The modern concept of liberal society in the context of New Sudan has both Western and African indigenous components. It proclaims liberty for all by minimizing the patriarchal view of society, suggesting that men and women are equal in all aspects of modern Sudanesesociety. In this equality formula, individual rights are essential for the building of an inclusive national order. For John Garang, this formula removes religion from the public square and sends it to a private sphere. You are a Muslim, a Christian, an African Traditionalist, or anything else in your private sphere. In the public square, however, we are all Sudanese regardless of our beliefs and cultural practices. Here no one has the right to tell you what to do. But at the same time, no one has the right tobreak the accepted legal norms of society.

The African indigenous component of New Sudan views the Sudanese society as a collective house for all to use without restrictions. In this communal house, the community is theprotector of all because, according to African traditions, each person’s rights are better guaranteed by our collective responsibility. The community has the right to know and understand the needs of an individual and act accordingly. Since the community is the guarantor of individual needs or rights, it demands support from each member to promote the common good. This common good upholds the dignity and integrity of each person.

The vision of New Sudan was rightly ambitious. It continues to be the only way to eliminate social inequality that leads to social resistance and conflict in the Sudan (the whole region, North and South). People in the Sudan resist social exclusion, not the unity of the modern Sudanese society. The ground for the Sudanese unity should have rested on the hopes of building a culturally diverse and united Sudan. Garangperceived a diverse Sudanese nation as more vibrant and powerful than a monolithic Arab or Islamic society.  

New Sudan as a Political Objective

John Garang dreamt of making the vision of New Sudan a reality. He believed that New Sudan was the only way to reaffirm the post-colonial Sudanese identity based on the historical facts and roots of the Sudanese people. For him, the SPLM and its military wing were tools—not democratic institutions— at the disposal of the Sudanese people to use to achieve the objective of building a New Sudan. The SPLA was a nucleus of the new Sudanese people’s army that would functionwithin the framework of protecting people’s interests. The SPLM, on the other hand, would be a political forum in which citizens would ask questions about their government. It would also be a forum in which they could contribute to lay the foundations for a new social order that promotes democracy and the rule of law. Once these principles would be in place, New Sudan would flourish and play a part in global solidarity makingthe world a better place for all. But he was politically aware thatthe SPLM/A’s struggle would have little meaning unless it achieved these fundamental goals.  

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New Sudan as a Political Strategy

John Garang perceived the concept of New Sudan in many forms. The political agenda of New Sudan was to correct the distortion of Sudanese history. On many occasions, Mr. Garangmade it clear that Sudan belongs to all the people who live in it. Its cultural heritage stems from the diversity of the communities that inhabit the country. All these diverse cultures come under one umbrella called “Sudan,” where each cultural heritage contributes to Sudanese economic, social, cultural, and political development. Anything less than that would not work because it would be a distorted political view of Sudanese society.

Those warnings were written on the walls in capital lettersfor all Sudanese to see. They indicated that “should the political and cultural project of Sudanization fail, Sudan as we know itwould cease to exist.” But the Islamists holding power in Khartoum at that time never bothered to read the warning signs. In this context, the concept of New Sudan was not necessarily a political strategy for keeping Sudan united as such. It stood for the unity that upholds the dignity of all Sudanese people. It also functioned as a means for self-determination for the marginalized communities. We witnessed this in South Sudan in 2011. The Islamists in Khartoum discarded the interest of maintaining the unity of Sudan and chose the religious identity.

John Garang also had a clear political conception of how a government should look like in New Sudan. He perceived a government that would achieve “peace through development.’He knew that the main duty of any government is to facilitate production to build a strong national economic foundation. Garang understood that it is often essential for any government to strengthen its human resources to produce more. That is important because “poor and weak people have a poor and weak government.”

Garang also had a clear understanding of history as motivation to pursue constructive political goals. Furthermore, history is the source of identity and belonging. He once said, “it is sometimes necessary to look back in order to move forward.” That means that for anyone to promote the common good, they should not ignore historical lessons. John Garang drew his inspiration to lead from history. He looked retrospectively at historical figures and their enduring legacy in Sudanese societyas the basis of leadership that nurtured Sudanese cultural diversity in the past. 

​There was no doubt that Garang had an autocratic leadership style. Presumably, the authoritative commands of a legendry Kush, once a powerful king of Sudan, the leadership qualities of Gbudwe the Azande King (1870-1905), and wits of Jubek, the king of Bari people, were a textbook of Garang’sleadership style. Kush, Gbudwe, and Jubek wisely exercised their powers in the service of their people. They used their indigenous human and material resources effectively to defend their territories and subdue opponents. Hence, their subjects made them strong, suggesting that strong people build strong nations, not the other way around. 

New Sudan and Sudanese Indigeneity 

Garang understood that the Sudanese indigenous traditions were the solid foundation on which New Sudan should be built.He knew that the first South Sudanese indigenous leaders to resist European imperialism in South Sudan had dual roles in society. Some of them were both religious and political figures.For example, Ngun Deng (Deng Kur), Arianhdit (Bol Yol), and others cherished their indigenous roots. They mounted a stiff resistance against Anglo-Egyptian colonialism, for they did not appreciate someone telling them how to live their lives. They wanted to keep their communities’ indigeneity intact, considering it as a foundation for future generations. Garangadmired the political consistency of those indigenous figures.

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​On the other hand, following the resistant spirit of KonAnok, the leader of Aliab Uprising in 1919; Fr. SaturninoLohure, commander of Torit Mutiny in 1955; Deng Malual, the paramount chief of Bor, and other indigenous leaders, Garang lit the unquenchable flame of resistance against all forms of oppression in Sudan. For this resistance to produce results, he carried Deng Nhial’s courage, inspiration, and political wisdom. Out of Deng Nhial’s political wisdom, John Garang built a discipline of hard work and a commitment to constructive social change. It was a commitment that guided his daily activities, knowing that there were no shortcuts to anything. He encouraged his followers to adopt a culture of hard work and Sudanese indigenous pride as a foundation on which New Sudancould be built. The mechanic of building New Sudan would beanchored on the steady focus on a better cross-cultural understanding of Sudanese diversity. 

John Garang knew that the diversity of the Sudanese peoplecarries social and other cultural riches of great value. I think these social and cultural riches will continue to be the building blocks of New Sudan, whether in South Sudan or Sudan. They remain active in the conscience of the ordinary men and womenliving within the new political boundaries, who are always crucial for the success of any political project.

New Sudan Philosophy, a Guide to Fixing South Sudan

The concept of New Sudan was incredibly influential not only as Garang’s political philosophy but also as guiding principle behind the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Ithelped the negotiators to outline modalities of building a new political order in post-conflict Sudan. The CPA architects tried to accommodate each side’s political, cultural, and religious views in establishing the terms of the CPA. The Islamists could maintain Islamic laws during the interim period in the North while the South opted for a secular legal framework. Furthermore, within the modalities of the CPA, South Sudan reserved the right to decide its political future. These steps were an integral part of the New Sudan philosophy to address underlining historical injustices the Sudanese people had faced for centuries and continue to face now.

The spirit of New Sudan continues to precipitate the struggle for justice in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile regions. The same spirit inspired the revolution that brought down the autocratic National Islamic Front regime in Sudan last year. Now, Sudan will not be the same again since it has embarked on the road to peacebuilding and democratic transformation. These developments entail that each region in the post-CPA era, including an independent South Sudan, must use the ideals of New Sudan in its own ways. That would allow each part to build just societies out of the ruins of the post-colonial Sudan.

The question is whether we can find the right politicalformula within the New Sudan philosophical framework to set new directions for South Sudanese political dispensation. I believe we can find such a formula by doing two things. First, the New Sudan political principles encourage accountability and constitutional order. It follows that South Sudanese must first demand a just and stable constitutional order in the country. Just constitutional order is essential because it promotes a meritocratic society where an individual citizen seeks political position based on merit. Should such a system prevail in South Sudan, it would boost the fair political practice. It would reduce political dependence on regional support and ethnically motivated political violence to influence economic policies and decision-making processes.

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The second thing that South Sudanese should do is to define what it means to be a South Sudanese. The people of South Sudan should have a single rallying point, a national identity that unites them. The philosophical framework of New Sudan provides a clue here. It does not disregard the importance of ethnic belonging. It is a valuable part of our social identity. Still, we should not allow such a narrow view of society to define us. It comes with destruction, as we have already witnessed on many occasions. So, let us just become South Sudanese. Being a South Sudanese would not make anyone less a Shilluk, Nuer, Dinka, Bari, etc. It makes these ethnic communities even more powerful when they become activeparts of the whole.

If South Sudanese borrow and expand these two ideals from the concept of New Sudan, they will build a South Sudanthat they have been dreaming about for over half a century. They will enjoy the value of unity because unity comes with different benefits. It promotes good governance, peaceful coexistence, and economic prosperity. That is what New Sudan meant for Garang and his comrades. It should convey the same for South Sudanese in order to reap the benefits of a stable society. 

The Author, Malith Kur, is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His research focuses on the patterns of cooperation between the churches, African indigenous religious institutions, and the state for peacebuilding, reconciliation, and social reconstruction of South Sudan. Kur’s previous research examined the Christian contribution to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a possible model for peacebuilding in South Sudan. He can be reached @

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