By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 14, 2005
KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Salva Kiir Mayardit stared down at the grave of his longtime mentor and comrade in arms, the Sudanese guerrilla leader John Garang, who was killed in a helicopter crash. Long after the singing and prayers ended, even after rain began to fall, Kiir remained, silent and motionless, his eyes fixed on Garang's coffin.
"I told him, 'It's okay, we can go,' " Michael Lugar, an Episcopal bishop, recalled shortly after the funeral Aug. 6 in the southern town of Juba. "But he was so deep in thought. He said he was thinking about everything that was in front of him now that south Sudan's leader was really gone."
On Thursday, at a ceremony here in the capital, Kiir, 54, was sworn in as first vice president of Sudan, a post Garang had been given just weeks before his death as part of a peace agreement he helped negotiate to end 21 years of conflict between Sudan's Arab-led Islamic government and the mostly animist and Christian south.
What lies ahead for Kiir, known as an astute military commander but an inexperienced politician, is shouldering the heavy and complex burden of national leadership in a vast, long-suffering country with a decimated post-conflict south, an ongoing war in the western region of Darfur and uprisings in the east.
As Garang's successor, Kiir must both unite his own fractured rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, and begin to work with the Arab ruling establishment in Khartoum, against which he and Garang fought for two decades.
"He's the busiest man in Africa," said Cmdr. Daniel Awet, who fought alongside Kiir in the rebel movement. "He's not Garang, because no man is really his brother. Then again, when Moses died, Joshua had to take over."
Eager to allay fears that Garang's death would derail Sudan's fragile peace and leave a power vacuum, Khartoum leaders rushed to swear in the man whom southerners now call their Joshua and northerners say they want to get to know better.
At his swearing-in ceremony in Khartoum, under a beige tent on the lawn of the Republican Palace, Kiir placed his hand on a red Bible to take the oath of office. His erstwhile enemies, President Omar Hassan Bashir and Second Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, clasped and raised Kiir's hands as photos were snapped. On the outside of the tent hung a similar portrait of Bashir, Taha and Garang, clutching hands after signing the Jan. 9 peace deal.
Diplomats, rebel commanders and government officials clapped politely. In the streets outside, there was little of the chaotic jubilance that greeted Garang's triumphant return to Khartoum just over a month ago.
This time, security was tight. Garang's death late last month, when his helicopter crashed while returning from Uganda, was apparently an accident, but it sparked riots in Khartoum and Juba that left 130 dead and millions of dollars of property in charred ruins.
"This is one of our saddest days, because it means our leader and brother has left us," said Kiir, a tall man with a regal manner, who wore a black pin-striped suit and a neatly trimmed beard for the swearing-in ceremony.
But there was also a sense of optimism among Kiir's associates, officials and observers, who said he was well-prepared for the task.
"It's true that he's not as well known as Garang," said Kara Saleh, the government's vice minister of petroleum. "But there is also this sense that people don't want to erase all of the work that got us here. Kiir is already respected by his friends and former enemies for his time as a general no one would want to face in battle, and that's an important first step here in Khartoum."
Although known as a man of few words, he was popular with his troops in the rebel army and so adept on the battlefield that he was quickly promoted. Having spent much of his career in military intelligence, he often seems to be sizing people up from a distance. Yet he also has a dry sense of humor and is known to don a variety of cowboy hats. Like Garang, he is a Dinka, representing the largest ethnic population in Sudan.
"We know he didn't expect this," said Cmdr. Justin Aleu, another close friend. "But he's the sort of person who can rise to it. We all have seen him do that in battle and he will do it again because he has to."
International leaders rallied to Kiir's side in the past week, trying to prop up a political reconciliation process that they have worried could crumble without Garang's controlling and often autocratic leadership.
"Kiir is known for his inclination to teamwork in finishing projects, and we all know that was not one of the traits of the late Dr. Garang," said Roger Winter, the senior U.S. envoy to Sudan, after meeting with Taha and Kiir. "He's also no slouch intellectually."
Already on Kiir's agenda is a trip to Egypt, which is seen as a politically important step to securing support for the south. He has also spoken out against the violence in Darfur and the political tensions in the east, saying Thursday that comprehensive peace "requires the quick resolution of Darfur and eastern Sudan."
Other observers said that calling Kiir an unknown political quantity disregards his years in a complex rebel movement where factions often switched sides. As Kiir has pointed out, he is the only remaining founder of the movement, begun in 1983. Everyone else has died.
"In this country, you cannot trust anybody," said Fasial El Sheekh Aslilaik, the Khartoum correspondent for the independent Al-Hayat newspaper. "It's silly to think that Kiir didn't make it this far without being politically savvy."
Kiir has also been no stranger to controversy.
During the final months of talks that led to the peace agreement, Kiir described a widening gap between himself and Garang, who also seemed to be increasingly at odds with other rebel leaders. According to critics, in closed-door meetings with the government, the often-secretive Garang became the movement's sole negotiator, rarely seeking input from his deputies.
Kiir complained openly about Garang. A regional newspaper recently quoted him as telling other rebel officials in late 2004 that when Garang traveled, he seemed to carry the movement "in his briefcase."
Just days before the January peace deal was signed, rumors spread within the rebel movement that Garang was about to arrest Kiir, his close friend and longtime deputy. Kiir reportedly barricaded himself inside his headquarters until things cooled down.
There are concerns that Kiir won't be as charismatic as Garang, who courted conservative Christians and communists alike, and who made friends with presidents around the world. Garang's image, seen on T-shirts and flags all over the south, was symbolic of the peace deal and offered hope to people who had little.
For the women crying at his funeral, it was hard to imagine a peaceful Sudan without him.
"Please Mr. Kiir, don't forget us when you are in the halls of power," Mary Machoi, a 16-year-old orphan, sang as tears streamed over her face. "Don't forget your people of south Sudan."