By Francis Mading Deng
OPINION, FEBRUARY 9th 2023 (SUDANS POST) – The news of the passing of Roger Winter came to me as a shock wave. Yes, he had been ill and bedridden for a rather long time. The end might therefore be a relief for him. It is however a grave loss for those he has left behind in this world. With his death, the world has lost a discreet, understated great defender of humanitarian ideals of human dignity for all. South Sudan, in particular, has lost a great friend and a staunch supporter of their liberation struggle against the systemic domination and denigration by oppressive regimes.
It is a fact that what a man accomplishes is mostly possible with the support of his spouse. And here, credit must go to Delores, Roger’s widow. Delores always impressed me for her quiet behind the scenes unwavering support for Roger’s demanding responsibilities. Patience, tolerance, and reinforcement are among the unsung contributions of a devoted spouse of a person with a daunting mission. Our profound gratitude must therefore go to Delores and the other members of the family.
I first met Roger Winter in the late 1980s, when I was a senior research associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which I joined after leaving diplomatic service. I was working on African issues, with a focus on the liberation struggle of South Sudan against the oppression of the Arab Muslim North. A man with long hair tied into a tail hanging over the back of his neck, came to see me in my office. He told me that he wanted to help the cause of the people of South Sudan. I was of course delighted as I thought that he belonged to the philanthropic hippie generation with wealth, driven by the idealistic aspiration to support the needy people of the world. I quickly proceeded to outline the material needs of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and its Army (SPLM/A) that was championing the struggle of our people. I expected a generous check to come out of our conversation.
In his discreet and dignified manner, Roger explained to me that the only way he could support the struggle was by gathering and disseminating information to advocate the cause of South Sudan. I saw his point and, indeed, that manner of support would prove to be far more effective than any amount of money he could have donated.
I immediately arranged for Roger to meet with the leader of the Liberation Movement, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, on his forthcoming trip to the region. My cousin, Deng Alor, was the manager of Dr. Garang’s office in Addis Ababa, where the Movement had its headquarters. And Dr. Garang was an old friend and a political ally to me. It was therefore easy to arrange the meeting. Roger’s meeting with Garang initiated a relationship that would soon develop into a deep friendship and a source of invaluable support for the South Sudanese struggle.
South Sudan liberation movement indeed needed support in virtually every respect. Roger Winter was to tell me later that he had known many liberation movements around the world and that he had never come across a movement as poor and in as desperate need of support as the SPLM. By then, we had become friends and partners in promoting the cause of South Sudan in Washington. Although I realized that Roger’s objective in stressing the poverty of the SPLM was to generate sympathy for the movement, I advised him against spotlighting the poverty of the movement as I believed no one would want to be associated with such a destitute movement.
Shortly after my encounter with Roger, I joined the Brookings Institution as a Senior Fellow charged with establishing the African studies branch of the Foreign Policy Studies Program. I soon chanced to come across a talented young Ethiopian American, Theodore (better known as Ted) Dagne, who was with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and whom I wanted to persuade to join me in establishing the Brookings Africa program. I am glad I failed, as we agreed instead to partner and complement each other from our different vantage points.
Ted then joined the Congressional Staff as a member of the Professional Staff and a close Advisor to the Chairman of the House Sub-Committee on Africa, Harry Johnson, who was later succeeded by Donald Payne. Both men trusted Ted and relied on him heavily, which gave us considerable leverage in Congress.
Ted Dagne, whose sympathy for the cause of South Sudan was deeply rooted in his family background, also met John Garang and establish with him a close friendship. Together with Roger, their relationship with Garang grew into a deep functional and productive partnership in support of the Movement and its charismatic leader. We soon formed a group that became known as ‘The Council’, which included Eric Reeves, Professor at Smith College, Brian de Silva, a close friend of John Garang from their days at Iowa University, and who was then with USAID, and John Prendergast, with an NGO group known as the Interaction Council. We maintained discreet contact with influential personalities, like Susan Rice, in the government.
We chose Ted as our Chairman and building on his Greek-sounding first name, Theodore, and his roots in Imperial Ethiopia, I gave him the teasing title of Emperor. That soon caught on and became a well-established identity label by which he has since become widely known beyond our circle, especially in South Sudan.
Under Ted’s chairmanship, we met periodically over lunch at Otello Restaurant near DuPont Circle. We soon created a bond of friendship and solidarity that was surprisingly effective in shifting U.S. policy toward the SPLM. The Movement was initially perceived antagonistically in Washington for its association with Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Communist leader of Ethiopia, who was ideologically allied to the Soviet Union. Mengistu was, however, the principal supporter of the cause of South Sudan, the SPLM, and of John Garang personally. It was therefore a pragmatic alliance of convenience and necessity.
As a result of the sustained efforts of the Council, the Movement gradually gained the strategic and powerful backing of the United States. In fact, the stress which was initially placed on the Movement’s relationship with Mengistu was exaggerated, as it misconstrued its pragmatism and underestimated Ethiopia’s principled support for South Sudan. This was demonstrated by the Emperor before Mengistu and by Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which overthrew Mengistu. The effectiveness of the Council was in significant part grounded in explaining the non-ideological nature of the historic struggle of South Sudan against Northern domination.
Rebecca Hamilton, an eminent journalist legal scholar, later wrote a Special Report about the Council for Reuters, July 11, 2012, under the title The Wonks who sold Washington on South Sudan‘.
Hamilton wrote, “After ordering beers, they would get down to business: how to win independence for southern Sudan … They called themselves the Council …The Council is little known in Washington or in Africa itself. But its quiet cajoling over nearly three decades helped South Sudan win its independence one year ago this week across successive U.S. administrations, they smoothed the path of southern Sudanese rebels in Washington, influenced legislation in Congress, and used their positions to shape foreign policy in favor of Sudan’s southern rebels, often with scant regard for U.S. government protocol” She quotes Roger Winter saying, “We never controlled anything, but we always did try to influence things in the way we thought most benefited the people of South Sudan.” Roger concluded, “I actually think it was a miracle we got something.”
Council members played complementary roles. Brian gave us insight into the official philanthropic world of the US government. JP, as we called John Prendergast, was our extension arm into the activist NGO network. Eric, who gained the status of Deputy Emperor, was our prolific activist scholar advocate. I was dubbed the diplomat, not so much because of my ambassadorial status but because of what the group saw as my tendency to bridge differences.
Ted, as the Emperor, and Roger, hailed as The Spear Carrier, exercised the operational leadership of wheelers and dealers, each in his own distinctive way. We were an inseparable team, fully united by our unflinching commitment to the pursuit of Justice, Equality and Dignity for the marginalized peoples of Sudan, particularly in the South.
When the United States eventually decided to champion the cause of peace in the Sudan and President George W. Bush appointed John Danforth as his Special Envoy who mediated the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, Roger became his right-hand man and the principal resource person with deep insight into the Sudanese crisis. In the process of negotiations, Roger staunchly resisted the attempt to defer the issue of Abyei to be revisited later after the conclusion of the peace agreement between Sudan Government and the SPLM. As he once explained to me, he disabused those who thought that Abyei was just a small area which should not hold the peace between the North and the South hostage. He impressed upon the mediators that Abyei was pivotal to peace in the Sudan.
As is well known, Abyei Protocol was the outcome of the unwavering support of the US mediators for the SPLM position, for which much of the credit must go to Roger. Eliza Grinwold, in a New York Times Magazine article of June 15, 2008, titled The Man For A New Sudan, wrote, “The U.S. drafted the protocol, pushed both sides to sign it and, according to Winter, then walked away” Griswold quotes Roger Winter as saying, “We did a good thing and a bad thing …The good thing is the Abyei Protocol. The bad thing is we went home.” The implication was that Abyei was rescued and then abandoned, where it still tragically remains.
Roger’s dedicated advocacy for the cause of the marginalized groups in the Sudan did not only focus on South Sudan, but also covered Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. His engagement with humanitarian crises went back to his twenties, when he joined Salvation Army, and extended to resettling in the United States refugees from South East Asia, including Vietnam. In Africa, Rwanda, where he went in the midst of the 1994 genocide, was one of the countries on which he placed his focal attention. His commitment to humanitarian causes was therefore global.
When I first met Roger, he was the Executive Director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. I was then serving as the UN Secretary General’s Representative for Internally Displaced Persons, a mandate I carried out simultaneously with my Brookings responsibilities.
In our respective capacities, Roger and I cooperated closely, as the Internally Displaced and Refugees represented kindred spectrums of forced displacement. When Roger later joined the U.S. Government as Humanitarian Assistant Administrator of USAID, we continued our collaboration.
One of the momentous events in our collaboration was when we together flew to my home area Abyei on a UN plane as part of my UN field mission. We were so warmly received by such huge celebrating crowds that Roger would later remark to me, “That was not a reception, but a coronation”. And our UN pilot commented, “I have never seen so many people in one place celebrating so happily”. As U.S. special representative to the Sudan, Roger returned to Abyei several times and always received the warm public welcome he so well deserved. He also witnessed tragic incidents of atrocities and destruction which Abyei suffered from Northern Arab militia attacks and invasion twice by Sudan armed forces, which Griswold graphically described in her article.
Roger was a truly exceptional humanist who did a great deal in a quiet discreet and understated manner and with impressive, dignified modesty. I only observed what he did for our region, but his service was truly global. Even in South Sudan, where his contribution was monumental, I believe that only a handful know how much this unassuming man did in support of their country’s independence under formidable odds.
When John Garang suddenly died in a helicopter crash shortly after assuming his role under the CPA as President of South Sudan and First Vice President of the Sudan, four of us, Congressman Donald Payne, Roger, Ted and myself, flew to South Sudan and accompanied the body to several towns for the people to pay their respects, up to the burial in Juba.
The friendship and collaboration which Roger and Ted had established with John Garang in support of South Sudan passed on to Garang’s successor, President Salva Kiir Mayardit, and has been sustained by Ted to this day. Despite the limited awareness of most South Sudanese about the contribution Roger made to the independence of their country, it is noteworthy and applaudable that President Salva Kiir granted Roger Winter honorable citizenship in 2021.
Perhaps the best way to end this tribute is to recall the words of John Danforth, with whom Roger cooperated very closely in mediating the CPA, as reported by Eliza Grinwold in the already cited New York Times article. Griswold wrote, “Senator Jack Danforth, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Sudan from 2001 to 2004, calls him (Roger) ‘a saint,’ an ‘excellent, excellent human being,’ whose ‘soulfulness’ inspires trust in those he serves. According to Danforth, Winter’s intense attachment to the southern side was an asset in the context of a larger diplomatic offensive”.
Immortality has Heavenly and Worldly dimensions. Those whose virtues in this life qualify them to join their Heavenly Father in eternal life; but they also retain permanent identity and influence in this world through the memory of the living. On both counts, Roger is assured a place in Heaven and in the lasting memory of all those he has left behind, his family, his friends, his professional associates, and the multitudes of those he touched in various ways in his life of devoted service to humanity.
It is with profound gratitude for Roger’s legacy of devoted support for our people and country and with a sense of solidarity that we convey our heartfelt condolences to Delores and the family for their loss, which we deeply share. And to you Roger Winter, our dear brother, friend, and partner, may The Almighty God grant you the rewards you so abundantly deserve for your noble service to humanity and place you in eternal Rest In Peace and Tranquility. Amen.
Francis Mading Deng, a scholar and diplomat, served as newly independent South Sudan’s first ambassador to the United Nations (2012 – 2016), following two decades at the United Nations, including as Under-Secretary General for Prevention of Genocide.
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