In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al Awsat, Sudanese Foreign Minister, Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, spoke of the death of former rebel leader and vice president John Garang, describing him as an intellectual and a statesman. He also revealed that he was the last Sudanese official to speak to Garang before his doomed trip to Uganda. Based on all the evidence he had seen, Ismail ruled out a conspiracy and said the helicopter, which was carrying the vice president, was not shot down. He added that Khartoum had provided the independent committee that is investigating the crash headed by
former Sudanese leader Sayyed Abel Alier. The Foriegn Minister stated that Grang”s successor, Salva Kiir was "the best man for the job" and a natural leader.
Ismail said his recent visit to Chad to contain the tension between
N”Djamena and neighboring Libya was successful and announced a three-way summit would take place in the near future to tackle remaining issues between the three countries and enhance cooperation.
As for the conflict in Darfur, the Foreign Minister expected to see the crisis settled by the end of the year and hailed the efforts of Mohamed Osman al Mirghani head of the National Democratic Alliance to normalize relations between Sudan and Eritrea.
He also explained the reasons for his intention to step down as Foreign Minister noting, "This is in the interest of peace" but indicated he did not intend to withdraw from politics entirely.
Following is the interview between Dr. Ismail and Asharq Al-Awsat, which took place in the Sudanese capital.
Q: Were you really the last person to meet with vice president John Garang before he left Khartoum on his last trip?
A: Yes. We met before he traveled to Uganda via Rumbek, the administrative capital of South Sudan. His wife Rebecca was also present. We discussed foreign policy matters and I presented him with an overview of all the latest developments on the bilateral, regional and international levels and in particular about relations with the United States and Eritrea.
Garang spoke about the foreign relations of Southern Liberation People”s Movement (SPLM) of which he was the leader and the need to exploit them to serve Sudan. He expressed his intention of visiting neighboring countries, beginning with Uganda, after his visit to the South. I reminded him that foreign leaders were visiting Khartoum to hold meetings with him later in the month, such as the French Foreign Minister and Ethiopia”s Prime Minister who was meant to arrive on 4 August. Garang assured me he would have returned from his travels by then.
Q: How would you describe Garang?
A: I was struck by how cultured the late vice president was. He was a true intellectual and a good listener who knew when best to speak. In our four meetings, I noticed Garang was a scholar and a charismatic leader as well as a military commander. He enjoyed extensive relations with individuals and groups around the world. His remarks always showed a fierce intelligence and wit.
As Foreign Minister, I held meetings with Garang before the scheduled visits of foreign dignitaries where I would present him with a report on our relations with the country in question and topics to be discussed.
Garang”s caring personality was evident in all his actions. Undoubtedly, the people of Sudan were greatly affected by his statements such as "Dreams of peace are not dreams but reality" and "I stand with President Omar al Bashir". During his short spell in power, almost three weeks, he won over many Sudanese. The country lost an intellectual and a statesman. We had hoped he would use his many gifts to solve a number of regional problems.
Q: Can you elaborate further about Garang as a statesman?
A: He was a man of intellect and a charismatic leader who could convince others of his views and take the correct decisions at appropriate times.
Q: Are reports claiming Garang fostered national unity during the time he spent in Khartoum at the presidential palace true?
A: Most definitely! His work alongside President al Bashir and vice
president Ali Osman Taha enhanced national unity. He would always mention the millions who warmly greeted his return to the capital and ended a number of meetings by saying, "There is no longer a government in the North and another in the South. The SPLM offices abroad need to cooperate with Sudanese embassies and overseas communities should no longer be divided."
Q: What can you tell us about Garang”s deputy, Salva Kiir, succeeding him as vice president?
A: I believe the consensus amongst SPLM leaders to elect Salva Kiir has ensured a smooth succession. The new vice president will need time to gill the vacuum left by the death of Garang.
Q: Do you believe Kiir”s methods and commitments will be similar to
A: I have known Salva Kiir from my time as a peace negotiator in Addis Ababa and Nairobi. I remember him taking his time and choosing his words carefully before speaking. He always spoke about ending the war and establishing peace in Sudan. He is a suitable successor and a good person.
It is normal for leaders to have their own style and tactics. Whilst Kiir might adopt a slightly different approach to Garang, I expect his leadership of the SPLM to be as committed and forceful if a bit different.
Q: On the subject of the helicopter crash that killed Garang, is there any truth in reports that mention a sabotage operation or an assassination attempt on the Ugandan presidential aircraft?
A: Based on information and reports obtained by the government, we believe the crash was an accident. The helicopter crashed against a mountain in bad weather in a notoriously dangerous area. The investigation is still ongoing and is being conducted with great care and detail. It might help shed light on the cause of the collision and the death of Garang, for example if the aircraft was speeding or low on fuel or suffered from a sudden technical failure. Only experts can determine these issues.
The black box might also give clues about the last words between the pilot and the control tower. I reject the conspiracy theories on the matter.
Q: What about unanswered questions raised by experts, as to why the aircraft was flying at sunset, and why the recovery team was late to arrive at the site?
A: A committee has been set up to investigate the causes of the crash. It includes three aviation experts from the government and the SPLM respectively. It is chaired by a former vice president Abel Alier, known for his honesty, accuracy, and legal knowledge, and has the power to question any official.
Other countries such as Uganda and the United States, as well as the United Nations, have indicated their readiness to support the probe. The Sudanese government welcomes any assistance to establish the truth. All the information in our possession will be handed over to the committee to be analyzed.
Q: What is the situation regarding the armed conflict in Darfur in Western Sudan?
A: The problem of Darfur has, at last, become clearly defined. In the past, the roots of the problem were disregarded in favor of the consequences. The recent calm has helped the international community understand the economic and political causes of the conflict. I am hopeful a permanent solution will be in place by the end of the year.
Q: Did you recently visit Chad to discuss mounting political tensions
between its government and that of Libya?
A: Yes, one of the main objectives of my trip was to confer with officials in Chad on deteriorating bilateral relations between Tripoli and N”Djamena, especially as they play an important role in the Darfur conflict. The visit was successful and a summit between Sudan, Libya, and Chad will soon take place to increase cooperation and understanding between the countries and develop neighborly relations.
Q: What about relations between Sudan and Eritrea?
A: Despite the disagreements between Khartoum and Asmara, we continue to hope for good neighborly relations. The government welcomes the latest steps taken by Mohamed Osman al Mirghani in his capacity as a leader who has a say in both countries, particularly in Eastern Sudan and in Eritrea. We trust him and hope he succeeds in his mission. We consider his involvement as a model for the government and opposition working together in the future.
Q: Why did you hand in your resignation, despite so many achievements during your time as Foreign Minister?
A: From a political point of view, it is far better for a politician to end his tenure on a high, and step down at the appropriate moment. The government and the opposition are satisfied with recent foreign policy decisions and I am leaving the Ministry in the interest of peace that all Sudanese people agree on.
Q: Could you not have waited until a government of national unity was formed as set in the constitution of the transitional period?
A: The new Sudan is based on pluralism, general elections, and the peaceful transition of power. If the National Congress Party of which I am member, is able to show that politicians are willing to give up a position or ministerial post in spite of their achievements, then this will serve as an example for others to follow.
Q: Does this mean you intend to leave politics?
A: Certainly not! I am not ready to give up my political work in the
interest of my country. I will remain close to the president who I have collaborated with throughout the years. I have close relations with a number of prominent Sudanese figures inside the country and overseas. I hope to use these relations to the benefit of my country.