South Sudan's late liberation hero Garang in focus during pope's visit

By Waakhe Simon Wudu and Duncan Miriri

JUBA (Reuters) - Pope Francis will lead prayers at the mausoleum of South Sudanese liberation hero John Garang on Saturday, an acknowledgement of the importance for the world's youngest nation of perhaps the one leader who could ensure unity.

Garang was killed in a helicopter crash in July 2005, less than a month after becoming president of the autonomous Southern Sudan region, which he had led in a rebellion against Sudan's central government for two decades.

The mostly Christian and animist south voted in a referendum six years later to secede from the mostly Muslim north.

When South Sudan became independent on July 9, 2011, tens of thousands flocked to Garang's mausoleum in the new capital of Juba to celebrate.

But his charisma and political acumen would be sorely missed in the ensuing years, as the country descended into civil war.

"We did not vote for separation to fight among ourselves. I don't think this was what Garang was fighting for," said John Manja, 33, a motorbike taxi driver in Juba.

Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the war, which was fought largely along ethnic lines, and resulting hunger and disease from 2013-2018.

The pope's visit is aimed in part at shoring up a 2018 peace deal that has reduced violence but seen crucial provisions delayed or ignored altogether, fanning fears of a return to full-scale war.

In the latest indication of the precarious state of the peace, 27 people were killed in Central Equatoria state on Thursday, the day before the pope arrived in the country, in tit-for-tat violence between herders and members of a militia, a county official said.

INSPIRED BY LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Garang, a U.S.-trained economics graduate whose garrulous personality matched his more than 6-foot, 200-pound frame, did not champion secession. He advocated a unified, secular Sudan in which the south enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Despite being baptised at an early age in the Anglican church, Garang embraced diverse Christian teachings, his son, Mabior, told Reuters.

"He was inspired by a liberation theology similar to that of the Catholic priests and bishops of Latin America," Mabior said.

Garang began his career as a fighter with separatist rebels in the south before being conscripted into the Sudanese army after a 1972 peace deal.

He rose his way up to colonel but left to lead the rebellion that spread when President Jaafar Nimeiri tried to impose sharia law across Sudan in 1982.

Garang rallied South Sudan's disparate ethnic groups behind a common cause. The fighting ended with a 2005 peace deal in which the south won significant autonomy and the right to decide its future in a referendum six years later.

Although some critics accused Garang of spending too much in foreign capitals or complained that his genial demeanour masked a ruthless streak, his death might have robbed the country of its greatest force for unity.

Conflict broke out in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir, whom Garang had appointed as his deputy two weeks before his death, fell out with First Vice President Riek Machar.

Garang's widow, Rebecca, is one of South Sudan's five vice presidents, along with Machar, in a unity government formed after the 2018 peace deal.

Today's leaders have to build on his legacy, she said in an interview this week.

"He has brought us freedom and he told us that I have delivered this (on) the golden plate," she said.

"It is for us who are alive to see what to do with it."

(Reporting by Waakhe Simon Wudu in Juba and Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; Editing by Aaron Ross, Robert Birsel)