The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 16-February 6, 2002.
The oversized man in the camouflage fatigues, the guerrilla leader with a big say in whether Sudanends a brutal war, interrupts a midnight interview to put a football question to an American journalist:
"So what's this about the Big Eight becoming the Big 12?"
John Garang is one of the best-known rebel fighters in Africa, the man who has sustained the SudanPeople's Liberation Army through nearly 19 years of civil war against the government of Sudan.
He also happens to hold a doctorate in agricultural economics from Iowa State University and an undergraduate degree from Grinnell College, class of '69.He is, by his own description, a child of the 1960s. He spent his vacations working in Minnesota -- one summer working at a bottling plant, another on a small family farm, several planting "a lot of trees in Minnesota," he adds, as a front-line soldier in Lady Bird Johnson's campaign to beautify America's highways.
He returned to his native Sudanin the early 1980s and joined the rebel movement, quickly becoming one of its top leaders.
Garang recalled his American experience last week in the bare-bones meeting room where he had just completed several hours of negotiations with a U.S. diplomatic team led by special envoy John C. Danforth, a former U.S. senator from Missouri. A bat swooped repeatedly through the room, part of a former school that is now an administrative building for the rebel group in Rumbeck, in the heart of rebel-held territory in southern Sudan.
His college days in the Midwest made for "an eventful period," he says. "It was the height of the civil rights movement, the hippie movement, and I went to a good liberal arts college."
Ever since, Garang, now 56, has been reaching out to different allies as each moment demanded - from a Marxist government in Ethiopia to conservative Christians in the United States and fundamentalists within Sudan'sMuslim-dominated government.
Now Danforth is prodding him into the role of a lifetime: making peace in a conflict that has claimed some 2 million lives while ripping apart what should be among the richest, most prosperous countries of Africa.
A critical test
The two met at one of the most critical moments in Garang's long career.
Negotiators for Garang's SPLA were completing talks in Switzerland on extending for six months the cease-fire Danforth had negotiated for the Nuba Mountains region - a test case, Danforth hopes, for peace countrywide. Just the week before, Garang had patched up a decade-long dispute with Riak Machar, his main southern rival in the long war against Sudan's Muslim-dominated government.
What remained unclear to members of the U.S. diplomatic team, and perhaps to Garang himself, is whether he is truly poised for peace - or only preparing for further war.
The unity pact he signed with Machar included an explicit threat to attack Sudan'scrown jewels, the newly developed oil facilities in central Sudanthat already account for some 40 percent of government revenues. And despite the surface cordiality - Garang hosted a barbecue dinner for Danforth in the back yard of the home he uses here - there was plenty of steel in his message to the U.S. negotiating team.
"Self-determination," Garang said, describing his bottom-line demand for the people he leads in southern Sudan,many of them Christians or practitioners of traditional African religion. The Islamic law now enshrined in Sudan'sconstitution has to go, he insists; the only alternative is splitting the country in two.
Danforth's aides were taken aback by Garang's blithe disregard for the fate of some 2 million non-Muslim southerners now living in and near Sudan's capital city of Khartoum, if the country is split. One described his message as "basically, if they don't like it, let them come home."
"The weapon of my tongue"
Danforth said that at times it felt as if Garang saw himself in charge
."Garang said he'd give us an 'A' on the Nuba Mountains cease-fire deal," Danforth recalled. "I said, 'I thought we were grading you, not you us.' "Among the U.S. delegation and regional observers, opinion is split - whether Garang is playing for position or playing for keeps.
It's clearly a time of adjustment. Garang got strong verbal backing from the administration of President Bill Clinton, including promises of direct aid. The aid never materialized.President George W. Bush was expected to take an even tougher line on Sudan,heeding the views of church groups outraged by Sudan'srepression of Christians - but that was before the terrorist attacks in September made fighting terrorism a higher priority for Bush's administration than standing up to Sudan.
So Garang adjusts, maneuvering for position with Danforth and his team. In the interview, Garang brushes off the charge that he's been an opportunistic chameleon.
He insists that he has merely deployed the strengths of a political leader. "As a freedom fighter I cannot give up my other weapon," he says - "the weapon of my tongue."
The very multiplicity of the political colorations with which he has been charged renders them unbelievable, he says.
"They say I'm a Christian, a Zionist, a Nazi or a communist," Garang says. "I cannot possibly be all these things.
"So who is he, then?"I'm John Garang," he says, with a booming laugh. "I already told you."