9th April 2000
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Guerrilla turned roving ambassador

By Hiranthi Fernando
A guerrilla leader, army commander, Vice President of his country and finally roving ambassador, Lt. Gen. Joseph Lagu has led an eventful life. 

"I started as a regular Sudanese army officer and was trained at the Sudan Military Academy. Later, I defected and joined the South Sudan Liberation Movement," said Lt. Gen. Lagu, who was in Sri Lanka recently to participate in the sessions of the Worldwide Consultative Association of Retired Generals and Admirals (WCARGA).

He explained that the people of the South are indigenous Africans. The educated Sudanese are mainly Christians. In the North, the people are a mixture of Arab immigrants and indigenous Africans. Their religion is Islam and their language Arabic. "In the South, we speak different African languages and pidgin Arabic. English has been taken as the language for official work."

Sudan was a joint British/Egyptian colony, although Egypt played a nominal role. Britain ruled North and South separately until 1947. Then, they decided to merge. The merger was not acceptable to the South. "However, we said we could agree to live side by side in a federal union," the General said. "We believed this could be achieved through Parliament."

He said, "In 1958, the army staged a coup and Gen. Ibrahim Abboud of the North took over power. Parliamentarians were chased back home. It was forbidden to talk about federation. It was at this stage that our Parliamentarians in the South, invited me, a young officer, to raise a military force to face the Northern Army. I responded to the call and defected. I then organised a guerrilla army called Anya-nya.

"By 1971, our force became strong, challenging the North Sudanese Army almost on a conventional basis. I also increased my knowledge by training in friendly countries. And so, I assumed the rank of Major General. I felt I knew enough to qualify for it and had a strong force of 18,000 men. I always taught my men to concentrate on military targets and avoid civilian targets.

"I read much about guerrilla armies. According to the teaching of Chairman Mao, the guerrilla should be friendly to the people so he can move freely like fish swimming in the water. I have based my teaching on that. We have tried to win the people over. We were fighting the government and not the people. I demonstrated this to the government."

"On December 6, 1971, a Fokker Friendship airliner took off from Khartoum," the General recalled. "It lost its way and crash-landed in territory controlled by us. This was an opportunity to send a gesture of goodwill to the people of the North. I told my men, if these people arrived in Khartoum unharmed, they will become our ambassadors. Their relatives will be our friends."

"Indeed, it became so. We released them and back in Khartoum they told the people we were freedom fighters with a cause and not robbers and terrorists as the government labelled us. They shared with us the limited supplies of food and medicines they had. They befriended us. This embarrassed the government. They took the initiative to call for peace talks. We responded positively," the General said.

"Knowing our movement had a Christian flavour, they contacted the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) to mediate and later act as moderators at peace talks," Lt. Gen Lagu said. "Emperor Helisalasis of Ethiopia offered his capital, Addis Ababa as a venue. Early in 1972, they assembled there for peace talks. Within a month, a peace accord was concluded. A peace agreement signed between North and South Sudan recognised South Sudan as a distinct region with self-government within the Republic of Sudan. It was agreed that the south should be represented in proportion to its population. The Police Force and other auxiliary forces in the South were to be manned by Southern Sudanese. The terms were accepted and it ended a 17-year conflict.

"Six thousand of my guerrillas were integrated into the Sudanese national Army. Three thousand formed the Southern Police Force and 2,000 went for the prison services. I chose to remain in the army to help maintain peace. I was reintegrated with the rank I assumed in the bush. After four years, I was promoted Lt. General.

"Goafar Mohamed Nimeiri came to power through a military coup after a brief civilian government. In 1983, he proclaimed himself an Imam and proclaimed the Islam law Sharia over the country. This caused another conflict. Nimeiri tried to transfer Southern soldiers to the North. They refused, believing it was a political move. Nimeiri then tried to use force. Trouble flared up and is continuing even today."

Lt. Gen. Lagu was then Vice President to Nimeiri in Khartoum. "After two years trouble escalated," he said. 

"The war made living conditions difficult. A civilian uprising overthrew the government. The mob went on the streets. The army sided with them and declared the government dismissed. Nimeiri was in the US at that time. Myself and all in the government were put into prison."

Lt. Gen. Lagu was rescued from prison by the people, who remembered what he did in the bush as a fighter. Two months after his release, he went to the United Kingdom and in 1985 decided to remain there.

After a brief interim civilian and military government, General Elections were held in Sudan. A civilian government headed by Sadiq El Mahdi came into power. "He invited me to join his government," Lt. Gen. Lagu said. "I politely declined but told him I would be willing to accept a diplomatic assignment. And so I became a Roving Ambassador. Another military coup overthrew the government in 1989 and Gen. Beshir took over. He confirmed my appointment and later on asked me to go to the United Nations as Chief of the Sudan Mission. After 18 months, I reverted to being Roving Ambassador which I enjoyed." He held this post until he retired in 1998.

"Although I was asked to return to Khartoum as Presidential Advisor, I declined," he said. "Eenough is enough. I now want to be an independent voice, available to all."

Gen. Lagu now lives in London and has thrown his weight behind WCARGA, which he joined a few years ago. 

"I felt enriched by meeting all the retired officers who, having seen action, now work towards peace and the betterment of the living conditions of humankind. I believe that the military has a lot to contribute to the society they live in. Their discipline and administrative experience can be transferred to civilian life. Being in the military is not just wearing uniform, carrying arms and fighting battles. They come from the people and go back to the people to serve them better. I have seen action in a guerrilla war. As you grow older and more responsible, you value peace."

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