RUMBEK, Sudan Few graduates of Grinnell College in Iowa spend their middle years planning to blow up an oil well. Even fewer speak wistfully about “windfalls” of small arms in the African black market. Then again, hardly any African revolutionaries have a doctoral degree in agricultural economics and inquire about Big 12 American college athletics from rare American guests.
But this is John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, who has fought the Islamic government in Khartoum since 1983. In 1969, he graduated from Grinnell College, a private school ranked as one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the United States.
From his compound in Rumbek in southern Sudan last week, he said in an interview that “attending a good liberal arts college was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
The former Sudanese colonel is a tall, thick man with a wide, youthful smile and a closely shaved beard flecked with white.
Dressed in camouflage fatigues, Mr. Garang sat with guards on either side of him at a picnic table in a ranch-style building. Young men, many in their teens, stood watch with mounted machine guns in the tall grass behind the compound.
Two hours earlier, Mr. Garang and his aides met with a U.S. delegation led by former Sen. John Danforth, a special envoy sent by President Bush to seek a solution to Sudan’s long-running war.
The Americans sought a signal from Mr. Garang that he was at least contemplating the endgame to the conflict he has been fighting against the northern government of Omar Hassan Bashir since 1983. But U.S. officials said he still sounded like a revolutionary.
“There is a point in any peace negotiation where the rebel stops to consider the political options,” one U.S. official said. “We’re not there yet.”
Mr. Garang sounded surprised when told that Mr. Danforth has rejected the idea of independence for southern Sudan. “He never said that to me,” the rebel leader said.
Mr. Garang, who received his doctoral degree from Iowa State University in 1981, has focused his revolutionary strategy on the country’s oil fields since 1999. The Sudanese government, with the help Canadian, Chinese and Malaysian oil money and expertise, completed a pipeline that year between the middle of the country and Port Sudan, the nation’s crucial Red Sea port.
“We are targeting oil installations, we are giving advanced warning and we are not going to allow these oil fields to stay,” he said.
His commanders have raided pumping stations, captured construction vehicles and ambushed soldiers protecting the oil interests.
But despite his tough talk, Mr. Garang’s group has yet to strike an oil well. While insurance costs have gone up, according to sources with the Greater Nile Petroleum and Oil Corp., a direct hit on a well would cause the insurance premiums on the wells to skyrocket and in turn disrupt the flow of oil and the profits the government uses to upgrade its military.
Mr. Garang said his group is not against oil exploration, but “the fact that this oil is being used to fight the war against us.”
Mr. Garang’s force is dwarfed by the government’s resources, making it difficult for him to sabotage the wells.
The northern government has bought Antanov bombers and Eastern European helicopter gunships with its new riches. A recent International Monetary Fund report said the Bashir government doubled its military spending between 1999 and 2000, the year the pipeline became operational.
The government has also bought off SPLA commanders in the regions surrounding the oil fields. But on Jan. 6, one of them, Riak Machar, switched sides again and signed a unity pact with Mr. Garang.
Mr. Garang said the new alliance will produce “results on the ground” in terms of new attacks on the oil fields.
The rebel leader is famous for his unlikely alliances and the internal factions within his own movement. He once complained that he fought his war on 17 fronts. Despite the majority Christian and animist constituencies that he purports to represent, he has joined forces with hard-line Islamists out of favor with the government.
In February last year, Mr. Garang pledged to cooperate with Hassan al-Turabi, the one-time speaker of Sudan’s parliament who is believed to be the ideological godfather of the Islamic government.