Dr John Garang

Our authors Sophie and Max recount the trials and tribulations of South Sudan’s rebellious founding father.

Written by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare


John Garang de Mabior (23 June 1945–30 July 2005) was a Sudanese politician and rebel leader. He led the SPLA from 1983 to 2005, and following the signing of the CPA he served briefly as the first Vice President of Sudan.

Garang was born to a poor Dinka family in the village of Buk in Upper Nile. Orphaned by the age of ten, relatives paid his school fees and he was educated in Wau and then in Rumbek. He joined the rebel forces in the First Sudanese Civil War in 1962, but was encouraged to continue his education, first in Tanzania and then, after winning a scholarship, to study economics at Grinnell College in Iowa, USA. He returned to Tanzania to read East African Agricultural Economics as a Thomas J Watson Fellow at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), where he joined the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front. Garang did not complete his post-graduate studies, however, choosing instead to return to South Sudan and the rebels’ cause.

With the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, Garang was absorbed into the Sudanese military. He had a successful career as a soldier, rising to the rank of colonel, taking the Infantry Offi cers’ Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and instructing cadets at the military academy in Wadi Sayedna, close to Khartoum. Garang also took time out to return to his academic studies, obtaining a Masters degree and a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Iowa State University.

Garang was sent to Bor in 1983, ostensibly to mediate with the 500 troops mutinying at the garrison there. Garang defected to the rebels’ side, joining them at their stronghold in Ethiopia and bringing under his control the 3,000 troops of the newly formed SPLM/A. This action marked the start of the Second Sudanese Civil War.

Garang was a competent and inspirational leader. He was a strong advocate for national unity and initially hoped to overthrow Omar Bashir with a representative government made up from all of Sudan’s tribes and religions. Garang gained the support of the governments of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia and started to take control of territory across South Sudan through military incursions.

An attempted coup in August 1991 almost toppled Garang as the SPLA’s leader, but it was premature and failed. It did, however, expose the deep ethnic divides within the organisation, which many felt was unfairly dominated by Dinka such as Garang. When the CPA was finally signed in 2005, Garang was sworn in as Vice President of Sudan. He was the first non-Muslim in the role. Although there was great optimism that Garang would unite the south and usher in a more positive period of north–south relations, it was not to be: just six months after his inauguration Garang died when the Ugandan Mi-172 helicopter he was travelling in crashed. All on board were killed. The government in Khartoum and the leaders of the SPLA declared the accident the result of poor weather and reduced visibility, although inevitably there are those who believe more sinister powers may have been at play.

Back to the top