Article — From the November 2008 issue

The Activist

Alex de Waal among the war criminals

( 4 of 10 )

The night before we were to fly into Sudan, de Waal and I went to the spacious, dimly lit home of a Sudanese diplomat who was hosting yet another discreet meeting of southern Sudanese officers. De Waal wanted to talk to Lieutenant General Oyai Deng Ajak. If war breaks out again between Sudan’s north and south, it is General Ajak who will command the Southern People’s Liberation Army. To what end exactly, he himself may not know, since his party had recently withdrawn, and would soon after just as suddenly rejoin, the national government.

General Ajak had spent most of the previous day touring an Ethiopian munitions factory. De Waal likes to stay intimate with such interstate developments, which can decide wars. Intelligence on southern relations with Ethiopia—an indicator of southern strength—would also suggest, perhaps, how much of Khartoum’s attention might be focused on the south, as opposed to Darfur.

Ajak and a dozen associates, including his communications adviser, were gathered in the diplomat’s living room. Most of them focused their attention on an ancient console television set, which was showing an unfamiliar sitcom. They all stood up when we arrived. De Waal quickly launched into a discussion of Ethiopian politics with the general. Some of the men listened, but most returned to watching the show. When it was over, one of the officers stood up and changed the channel to a station showing an Ethiopian dance program, which the group watched almost as quietly, a few tapping their feet. Several of these men had bad scars. One was missing a leg; one, several fingers; one, an arm.

The matter of Ethiopian munitions was delicate. The southerners have drawn significant covert foreign aid from Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, and others, and they still need that aid to match Khartoum. These relationships are volatile and unavoidable. They should be pursued, de Waal counseled, but only with great tact. “You must not neglect your Ethiopian brothers,” he told the general.

This statement clearly was not neutral. The next day, I asked de Waal whether he supported the dream that many southerners have of toppling the regime in Khartoum. After a long pause, he offered that he had “always felt more comfortable around the SPLA,”but tempered that statement with a caution: “I have to be reflective about this and not fall into the trap,” he said. “People of my ‘class,’ if you will—from the leftist background—have a special sympathy for guerrilla liberation movements.” It makes sense that a British academic like de Waal might prefer the promised secular democracy of the southerners to the shari’ah law of the north. But he has become increasingly suspicious of anyone who would hold power in Sudan.

De Waal told me a story about John Garang, who led the SPLA from its inception in 1983 until 2005, when he died in a helicopter crash. Garang was considered by the international community, particularly the Bush Administration, to be a promising leader. He was charismatic, democratically minded, and, as a Christian, enjoyed the support of fellow believers at churches in, among many other places, George W. Bush’s hometown of Midland, Texas. But, de Waal said, Garang could have ended the war in 1992, thirteen years before the first peace agreement was signed, and he chose not to. His forces were on the verge of capturing Juba, the regional capital of southern Sudan, and Khartoum’s own troops there were dissatisfied and likely to join the rebellion. Garang himself was a day behind his forward troops, though, and he feared that if his lieutenants took Juba without him, they would take the mutinying soldiers into their own ranks, thereby creating a new, more powerful rebel army—with someone else at the head. So Garang radioed ahead for his troops to withdraw. Several of his officers, anticipating their own imminent demise and also the general slaughter that would follow their exit, committed suicide. De Waal emphasized to me that this story, like much of the SPLA’s intraparty history, is disputed. But he believes that some version of it probably is true. It is part of why he is afraid of “falling into the trap.” Ajak and his officers are some of the competing heirs to Garang’s mantle.

If the leadership in the south is as bad as in the north, I asked de Waal, and the available new leadership won’t improve anything, what can you do?

“You can make the process more humane,” he said.

This goal, presumably, governed his meeting with Ajak, who nodded seriously as de Waal talked to him, and who is far less likely to be overrun by Bashir’s forces if he receives a discount on light mortars from his Ethiopian brothers. Within de Waal’s construct of a more humane process lies the idea of a balance of power.

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content