DAKAR, Senegal, Aug 12, 2005 (PANA) — In comparison to the late charismatic John Garang, whom he succeeded Thursday as Sudan’s First Vice-President, Salva Kiir Mayardit is an unknown political quantity, that struggled for more than two decades under the giant shadow of his former boss, in the leadership of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
In one of his few photographs that have made the international media, heavily bearded Kiir sports an almost oversized bowler hat that betrays a lanky figure that is in sharp contrast to Garang’s commanding appearance.
Both men are dark and Dinka, the largest tribe in southern Sudan, although from different clans, but that is as far as their similarities go in terms of international visibility.
Garang was an intellectual, who combined politics with military profession, unlike soft-spoken Kiir, whom associates called a soldier’s soldier, who is more comfortable among troops than among politicians.
Indeed, much of the military campaign successes of the SPLM/A in its separatist struggle to emancipate Sudan’s Christian and traditional religion adherents-dominated South, from the Muslim-dominated North is credited to Kiir.
This military prowess and popularity in the South is evidenced by the fact that on several occasions that Garang had attempted to replace Kiir as his number-two man, the moves had always failed.
Such moves were reported in 2004 and even as late as the first week of July, before Garang made his triumphant return to Khartoum after 20 years in the South.
But following Garang’s sudden death 30 July in a helicopter crash just three weeks as Sudan’s First Vice-President, fate has changed political fortunes of Kiir, who had joined the southern rebels in the 1960s in the First Sudanese Civil War.
By the time of the peace deal of 1972, he had become an officer in the rebel forces and found a position in the regular army.
When Garang joined an army mutiny that he had been sent to quell in 1983 the South, Kiir joined with him to set up the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and rose to head its military wing - the SPLA.
Kiir has also distinguished himself in the history of negotiating with the Khartoum government and was very much involved in the early stages of negotiating the peace agreement that ended the civil war in the south, if under Garang’s towering shadow.
Kiir’s selection by the SPLM/A leadership to succeed Garang was seen by analysts as a clear signal that they intended to keep the peace process on course, despite Garang’s sudden death.
Speaking at Garang’s funeral in Juba, southern Sudan 6 August, he called on all Sudanese to unite and remain focused on the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Accord.
According to him, of all the surviving founding leadership of the SPLM, "nobody is more pained and chagrined by the loss of De Mabior (Garang) than myself."
Kiir has also rejected suggestions that he was more inclined to independence for the south above a united Sudan. "It is a dangerous sport to second-guess what Salva Kiir stands for," he protested.
History is replete with character transformation of political actors.
It remains to be seen whether Kiir the soldier can transform into an effective politician, that would not only hold the SPLM/A together like his mentor, but also move the Sudan peace process forward even beyond the south to the east and western region of Darfur.
As Sudan’s new First Vice-President and President of the South, under the January accord that ended the war in the South, he must now shed his recluse inclination and military garb to embrace politics in his restive multi-ethnic and culturally diverse country where separatist wars have claimed more than two million lives and displaced millions more.