Honor the memory

August 04, 2005

THE SHOCK WAVES following Sudanese Vice President John Garang's death in a helicopter crash Saturday offer a poignant reminder of how vital one individual can be to a movement that affects millions.

Like so many gifted, driven and charismatic leaders, Mr. Garang was both the force behind the rebel coalition of Christian and animist peoples that battled for 20 years to share power with the Islamist regime in Khartoum -- and the glue that held this conglomeration of ethnic groups together.

There is no doubt his successors in the Sudan People's Liberation Movement as well as Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir want to preserve the shared government Mr. Garang worked so hard to negotiate. All had grown weary of the long civil war, which exacted a heavy toll and set off, in turn, a still-raging conflict in Darfur.

In question, though, is how well the southern forces Mr. Garang led can keep their internal rivalries in check without him. They will likely need all the help the world community can muster.

Uncertainty and confusion in the hours after the first sketchy reports of the helicopter crash led quickly to rioting in Khartoum as Mr. Garang's supporters suspected foul play. More than 50 people are now dead in the sectarian violence their protest set off.

Suspicions are not unreasonable. The 60-year-old rebel leader had been a cunning and often ruthless foe of the northern regime, which he called "the Taliban of Africa." Educated in the U.S., where he also had a year of military training, Mr. Garang was not only beloved by his followers but also viewed as a potential champion of the tribal villagers in Darfur, against whom the Islamist government is waging a genocidal campaign.

An international investigation will sort through the evidence, but so far none has emerged to challenge assumptions that Mr. Garang's helicopter crash was the result of bad weather. And he had in recent years not only formed a partnership for peace with former foes from the north but also resisted calls from supporters urging a split into two nations.

It falls now to Salva Kiir, Mr. Garang's second in command, to pick up his mantle as leader of the southern government and partner in the shared regime. The task was described as difficult when it belonged to Mr. Garang. For Mr. Kiir, a military man less schooled in politics, the challenge is expected to be even greater.

This moment is too important for anything less than full attention from Sudan's neighbors and the rest of the world. The United States responded quickly by dispatching high-level diplomats to Khartoum; other nations must also be involved.

Peace could finally be at hand in Sudan, but it will take many hands to preserve it.

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