Guerrilla Government: Political Changes in the Southern Sudan during the 1990s

By Sharkey, Heather J. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Guerrilla Government: Political Changes in the Southern Sudan during the 1990s


Sharkey, Heather J., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Guerrilla Government: Political Changes in the Southern Sudan during the 1990s. By Øystein H. Rolandsen. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2005. Pp. 201; 2 maps; 3 tables. £15.95/euro 20/SEK 200 paper.

After 1983, when Sudan descended into civil war, the major force representing the south was the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A), led by John Garang. In Guerrilla Government, Øystein H. Rolandsen (Horn of Africa advisor for Norwegian People's Aid) considers the SPLM/A in the 1990s and scrutinizes an event that many SPLM/A supporters have regarded as a watershed, namely, the National Convention of 1994, which called for the construction of a "New Sudan." Noting that this convention was unique for trying to establish "a liberal civil government in a war-zone" (p. 14), Rolandsen sets out to understand why the convention took place, who influenced it, and what practical effects it had on governance within SPLM/A-controlled regions.

The National Convention came out of a reform process that started within the SPLM/A in 1991, when Garang-a highly autocratic but pragmatic leaderrealized that change was imperative. Two critical events of 1991 prompted this realization. First, the Soviet-backed Mengistu regime of Ethiopia collapsed, thereby removing a major source of logistical and military assistance for the SPLM/A. The SPLM/A was forced to shift its cross-border centers to Kenya and Uganda and to cultivate ties with Western donors and foreign NGOs, particularly those associated with Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). second, officers within the SPLM/A attempted to overthrow Garang, citing objections to his dictatorial style and to his refusal to support southern secession. They also resented what they perceived as ethnic Dinka hegemony within the movement. The coup failed but led to factional splintering and to some heavy internal fighting. With the SPLM/A thus weakened and divided, Garang began to promote reform as a tactical move to consolidate support among southern Sudanese and potential foreign supporters.

The National Convention occurred in 1994 after a year's planning, and involved 516 delegates who took what one SPLM/A supporter called the "first step towards democratic rule" in the South. "Compared to the existing state of affairs," Rolandsen writes, "the legal reforms adopted at the National Convention were, if not radical, at least extensive. Some fourteen laws or collections of laws were to be drafted-everything from "The New Sudan Penal Code" to "The New Sudan Traffic Act" (p. 116)." Proposed reforms also called for the organization of a National Liberation Council that could function as a legislative assembly and for a judiciary combining lower "traditional" chiefs courts and higher "modern" SPLM-directed courts. At the convention Garang stressed the idea of "New Sudan," but left the political status of this entity purposely vague. The term was capable of suggesting a reformed but territorially intact Sudan (the scenario favored by foreign observers) or an independent southern Sudan, separated from the Khartoum-dominated north (the scenario favored by many war-weary, rankand-file supporters of the SPLM/A).

For historians of Africa, one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is its commentary on the continuities of indirect rule as established by the British colonial regime during the Anglo-Egyptian period. …

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