The Mausoleum Of John Garang: A Space of Commemoration and Political Reification

An article about the roles played by martyrs in the creation of a South Sudanese national memory.

The geographical centre of Juba harbours the grave of John Garang de Mabior, the late leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and first Vice-President of post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) Sudan. On July 30, 2005, Garang dies in a helicopter crash in the mountains close to his military headquarters while returning from a meeting with Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda. Only weeks before this fatal incident, on July 9, Garang was sworn in as the First Vice-President of Sudan in an exuberant ceremony in Khartoum, marking the end of decades of war between the Northern and Southern parts of Sudan.


In the days before the grand state funeral at All Saint’s Cathedral in Juba, Garang’s body is moved around South Sudan to enable citizens to pay their last respects. Tens of thousands of black-clad mourners attend the final funeral ceremony in Juba and people line the streets leading from the airport to the cathedral and from the cathedral to the final burial place, where Garang’s body now rests in a mausoleum that forms the centre stage for political rallies and commemorations and is thus an important space of political activity in South Sudan.


John Garang’s grave in 2010


His sudden death, surrounded by speculations of an assassination, triggered much emotion and fury and caused violent and deadly outbursts between Northerners and Southerners in Khartoum and Juba that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds. Fear that his death and the rioting would bring an end to the CPA is cast by Salva Kiir, the successor of Garang and incumbent president of South Sudan. On August 11, 2005 Salva Kiir is sworn in as the First Vice-President of Sudan and will lead the Government of Southern Sudan through the CPA’s “interim period”, marked by the 2010 election and the 2011 referendum on secession, during which 98,83% of South Sudanese chose to separate from the Northern part of Sudan.


‘Martyr of Martyrs’


In the years after his death, the late Garang popularly emerged as ‘Father of the Nation’ and ‘Martyr of martyrs’ and his legacy took up a significant role in the national public space. Every government office, school, business and hotel shows his portrait next to that of President Salva Kiir and life-sized portraits of the late John Garang decorate the streets of Juba. On July 9, 2011, when South Sudan became independent from Sudan, a giant statue of the late Garang was revealed under roaring applause and ululations. Dressed in a suit, under his left arm Garang holds a book that symbolizes the CPA and with his raised right hand he points a stick into the sky. Garang’s memory is invoked during public occasions and in his independence speech Salva Kiir pays tribute to his presidential predecessor and former guerilla leader:


“(…) [M]ay we rise up to observe a minute of silence in honor of our fallen heroes and heroines who paid the ultimate price for our freedom and dignity. (…) This day would not have been possible without their sacrifices. Let me once again state clearly the sacrifice made by the founder of our nation, Dr. John Garang de Mabior. This great day is testimony that our martyrs did not die in vain!”1


Martyrs occupy a central and symbolic position in the process of nation-building and on several occasions the independent nation of South Sudan has been called a “befitting tribute” to the martyrs. The tributary vocabulary employed in commemorations in the post-Garang era varies little from the salutations and homages expressed by Garang himself during the war:


“Let us pay homage to all those martyrs who gave their lives to save our Mother Land and its people. I ask you all to stand up and bow our heads in a minute of solemn silence in honor and sacred memory of them and all our immortal heroes who have fallen in this great struggle for restoration of our dignity, freedom and liberation of our land and people.”2


The contributory rhetoric has also been incorporated in the new national anthem, written and composed before the country’s independence in 2011, and the last stanza is dedicated to the “undying martyrs”:


Oh great patriots!
Let us stand up in silence and respect
Saluting our martyrs whose blood
Cemented our national foundation
We vow to protect our nation


These speeches and lyrics are part of an active but exclusive myth-making process that produces and reproduces particular versions of history and sanctions the meanings and values attached to historical events that are considered commendable of mass celebration.


A Calendar of National Commemorations


In 2007, two years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Government of the then-Southern Sudan composed a national calendar and three of the main celebrations are intimately connected to the narrative of struggle and liberation: SPLA Day, Martyrs Day, War Veterans Day.


In a speech delivered at the celebration of the 24th Anniversary of the SPLM/A, on May 16, 2007 in Malakal, Salva Kiir declares May 16 to be annually celebrated as the foundational day of the SPLM/A. Kiir utters that SPLA Day is the day to “celebrate the selfless sacrifices of the heroes and heroines of liberation who paid the ultimate price for the liberation of the country (…) because without their ultimate sacrifice this day would have been in the dustbin of history”.3


A billboard near the University of Juba announces the celebration of Martyr’s Day in July 2013.


On May 16, 1983, Lieutenant John Garang is tasked to diffuse a mutiny in the army unit stationed in the southern town of Bor. The mutineers were former Anya Nya forces, the first South Sudanese guerilla movement which had fought the Sudanese government from 1962 to 1972 and that had been absorbed into the national army after the signing of the Addis Ababa peace agreement. The angered soldiers were opposing their disarmament and transfer to the North. Instead of ending the mutiny, John Garang, an absorbed Anya Nya himself, takes the lead of what will soon be called the SPLM/A, once the newly born rebel group will be officially founded in its camps and bases across the border with neighboring Ethiopia. The initial rebel troops will be joined by thousands of students, workers, farmers, intellectuals and government officials from Southern Sudan, disappointed and unhappy with the socio-economic policies of Sudan president Jafaar Nimeiri towards the region and the imposition of Sharia law and Arabic language shortly after the creation of the SPLM/A.


In 2007, two years after the death of John Garang on July 30, 2005, the anniversary of his death is formally renamed Martyrs Day. On the occasion of Martyrs Day a tribute is paid to commemorate “our fallen heroes and heroines, martyrs who ultimately paid the price for our freedom during the last twenty-two years of our struggle for justice, dignity and equality. On top of this golden list is the Martyr of all Martyrs; our late leader, the icon of peace, the freedom fighter and founder of our heroic Movement, the SPLM, and Commander in Chief of the gallant SPLA forces, Dr. John Garang de Mabior.”4


Although Garang clearly emerges as the most significant and celebrated martyr, Martyrs Day does not only commemorate his legacy. Ahead of each Martyrs Day Juba city is clad in posters with pictures of late military leaders from the different wars and from different revolutionary movements.


Historical Subsumption


A few months later, on August 18, 2007, Salva Kiir declares August 18 as the ‘Day of War Veterans’, thus adding the so called “Torit Mutiny”, which took place on August 18, 1955, to the list of historical events officially commemorated.


On August 18, 1955, amidst preparations for British departure and Sudan independence,, the Equatorial Corps of the Sudan Defense Force, headquartered in the southern town of Torit, revolted and was joined by southern pockets of the army in Kapoeta, Juba, Terekeka, Yei, Maridi, Yambio, Nzara and Malakal and eventually also by civilians, police and prison guards. Northern Sudanese, both military and civilian, residing in the southern half of the country were targeted; many fled northwards and more than two-hundred and fifty people were killed. British Royal Air Force Planes assisted in the airlifting of Sudanese military forces to suppress the mutiny, but upon arrival most soldiers of the Equatorial Corps had retreated into the bush, or across national borders.


The ‘Torit Mutiny’, under which name the uprisings became known, was triggered by the refusal of Southern troops to be disarmed and transferred to Khartoum, in the increasingly tense context of the “Sudanization” process, whereby British officials were replaced by Sudanese in preparation for Sudan’s independence. In this process, Northern Sudanese occupied most administrative positions including in the Southern part of Sudan, leaving Southerners frustrated and bitter. Despite their endorsement of the independence process, Southerners feared being subordinated to the North and it is in this atmosphere that the Torit Mutiny occurred. The period following the revolt saw only incidental attacks and it is only in 1962-1963 that the rebellion organized itself through a political party, the Sudan African National Union (SANU), and a rebel army baptized the “Anya Nya” under the command of Joseph Lagu. However, it is popularly consented that the ‘Torit Mutiny’ marks the beginning of the First Sudanese Civil War in what is now known as South Sudan and the period from 1955 to 1972 is commonly referred to as “Anya Nya”. The conflict ended with the signing of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreements on February 27, 1972, negotiated between the South Sudan Liberation Movement headed by Joseph Lagu and Nimeiri, the then-president of the Sudanese government.


A billboard placed near John Garang’s Mausoleum in 2010 shows John Garang in military clothes, in the early years of the SPLM/A rebellion. The caption reads: “If we know where we are going, then we better prepare for the journey”.


The Torit Mutiny marks the beginning of violent opposition in the South, and its inclusion in the calendar of national commemorations confirms attempts of the SPLM to absorb previous revolutionary movements in a singular narrative of struggle and liberation. Garang, in a speech delivered during the signing ceremony of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, states that the agreement signifies the ending of a war that began in Torit on August 18, 1955. The period, and therefore the events, from the Torit Mutiny to the foundation of the SPLM/A on May 16, 1983 are absorbed into the discourse of the SPLM/A. The absorption of past revolutionary movements is necessary to prove the length of the fight, but also to safeguard a discursive hegemony and maintain the discursive control to occupy a position of exceptionality. Preceding revolutionary movements are not ignored but subsumed.


The annual reification of the memory of martyrs keeps alive the narrative of struggle and liberation and these celebrations “impose a silence upon the events that they ignore, and fill that silence with narratives of power about the events they celebrate” (Trouillot 1995, 118)5. In the narrative of struggle and liberation, civil war is disconnected from, and obliterates internal fractions, defeat, non-martyrs death and non-military casualties. The singular narrative of struggle and liberation does not provide room to narrate different experiences of war.


“Liberation has Ended”


In the run-up to the referendum for self-determination the exclusive resistance-liberation-freedom narrative made place for a more inclusive narrative that asked all citizens of South Sudan to demand for separation from Sudan. After South Sudan gained her independence, a banner on the University-roundabout stated: “We fought through bullets and ballots to gain our total independence”. The narrative of struggle and liberation coexisted with democratic transformation and temporarily opened up the space to speak: the referendum on self-determination literally demanded the voice/vote of every individual – soldier and civilian. A popular response to the continuous presence of the narrative of struggle and liberation was the argument that ‘liberation has ended’.


South Sudan Independence celebration at John Garang’s Mausoleum on July 9, 2014.


In the years after the declaration of independence, and increasingly more so with the ongoing fighting, people question whether the martyrs’ sacrifice is being honored and there is more and more popular opposition to this exclusive version of the national past. Simultaneously, the current conflict is connected to the long history of war and displacement and it is sometimes argued that the military-leaders-turned-politicians know only ‘the language of the gun’. However, in connection to the ongoing conflict the SPLM still actively invokes the legacy of the martyrs and ahead of martyr’s day in 2015, billboards were erected that read: “Reward our martyrs with a just peace”.


With the outbreak of renewed conflict in South Sudan since December 2013, the public sphere has again been invaded by a divisive military language of government and rebellion/opposition; of with or against. Another observation is that with renewed conflict, the SPLM has actively sidelined the late John Garang from the political stage and although his portrait still adorns many offices and street corners, his memory is no longer prominently evoked during independence celebrations. During the tenth anniversary of his death, in 2015, Martyrs Day was not marked by public celebrations and in his speech during the independence celebration that same year, Salva Kiir made little mention of the late Garang. In his struggle for political legitimacy, Salva Kiir no longer accepts to stand in the long shadow of his predecessor.


Loes Lijnders

Images by Florence Miettaux


1 Kiir, Salva Mayardit. “President Kiir’s Independence Speech In Full”, Gurtong, July 14, 2011.

2 Garang de Mabior, John. “This Convention is Sovereign: Opening and Closing Speeches by Dr. John Garang de Mabior to the First SPLM/SPLA National Convention. SPLM Secretariat of Information and Culture, April 2, 1994.
3 “Salva Kiir Declares 16 May National Day in South Sudan.” Sudan Tribune, May 17, 2007.
4 The full text of the speech of Salva Kiir on Martyrs’ Day in Juba, South Sudan on July 30, 2008 is available on the website of the Embassy of South Sudan to Brussels and the European Union:
5Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

    Garang Mausoleum