South Sudan’s oil sector needs to become more transparent

Alan Boswell
By Alan Boswell

Deputy Director of the Horn of Africa Project at the International Crisis Group and host of its podcast, The Horn

Posted on Friday, 4 February 2022 10:00

Workers are seen at an oil well at the Toma South oil field to Heglig, in Ruweng State
Workers are seen at an oil well at the Toma South oil field to Heglig, in Ruweng State, South Sudan August 25, 2018. Picture taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jok Solomun

South Sudan’s fortunes have always been tied to its oil. The discovery of oil in the late 1970s deepened tensions between the South Sudanese and the regime in Khartoum and fueled violence after the outbreak of Africa’s longest-running civil war as both sides vied to control the region’s oil fields.

Oil then laid the groundwork for South Sudan’s secession. A landmark 2005 peace deal granted Juba half of the South’s oil revenues, pumping billions into the new semi-autonomous government.

But the sudden wealth gravely compromised the country’s stability. By 2013, only two years after independence, the elite scramble for South Sudan’s oil riches helped trigger a fresh war that may have killed 400,000 people while displacing millions.

Nowadays, despite a 2018 peace agreement and a government of national unity, Juba’s monopoly on oil revenue obstructs a broader political settlement the country desperately needs.

South Sudan’s leaders siphon off the bulk of the petrodollars, leaving much of the population starved of basic services and, in some parts of the country, on the brink of famine.

Pervasive corruption has become a huge source of frustration for donors, including the US, which allocates a billion dollars a year primarily to sustain humanitarian relief. South Sudan produces roughly 150,000 to 170,000 barrels a day. But because of the share owed to oil companies and fees paid to Sudan, it earns income from 45,000 barrels at most, according to the best estimates available. Little of that income reaches the national budget due to off-budget expenditures, undisclosed debt payments, and allocations to its opaque state oil company Nile Petroleum.

Those who still support South Sudan cannot ignore its rotten finances. Since oil underwrites the entire South Sudanese state, addressing the country’s deep troubles is impossible without a focus on its vanishing petrodollars. A first step in this direction is making the oil economy more transparent, not only in South Sudan, but also in Europe, host to many of the country’s commercial financiers.

Oil fuels tensions

Despite staggering poverty and underdevelopment, South Sudan qualified as a middle-income country at its birth thanks to its oil wealth. But instead of serving as a foundation for state-building, oil poisoned South Sudan’s politics. Before independence, rebel commanders enriched themselves through a mix of taxation, aid diversion, artisanal gold mining, deforestation, and outright looting. This culture of illicit self-dealing quickly came to resemble a free-for-all when the 2005 peace agreement unlocked billions of petrodollars.

After independence, oil money papered over the South’s ethno-political divisions until President Salva Kiir moved to consolidate power, tightening his grip on oil funds in the process. Only two years after secession, a leadership struggle between Kiir and internal challengers, led by his main opponent Riek Machar, burst into a civil war that drained state coffers, with oil production decreasing because of the conflict.

To stay afloat, South Sudan turned to a handful of commodity traders to purchase future deliveries of oil, including Swiss-Singaporean Trafigura, which bought South Sudan’s oil through secretive pre-payment arrangements. These high-interest cash advances worked like the petrostate equivalent of a payday loan scheme, piling up debt while hiding South Sudan’s finances ever further from sight.

Back to the books

South Sudan’s future would appear less bleak if the countries that foot the bill to alleviate the country’s humanitarian disaster focused on making sure Juba accounts for its oil revenue.

Donors should make a concerted effort to push Juba to comply with existing laws and provisions in the 2018 peace agreement to ensure that oil proceeds are paid into a single public oil revenue account. One source of leverage is through the IMF, which has given South Sudan $550m in the past year but with few strings attached. The IMF should condition future disbursements on the exclusive use of the public oil account.

Outside pressure on Juba should be supplemented with pressure on South Sudan’s financiers. European governments should urge trading companies with a strong corporate presence in Europe to disclose their payments to South Sudan and demand the funds be deposited into the official oil account.

They should also consider drafting regulations requiring commodity firms under their jurisdiction to certify compliance with South Sudan’s law. This could work. Following engagement by the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan, Glencore has disclosed purchasing $950m of South Sudanese oil since 2018. Additional leverage could come from widening the regulatory net to the commodity firms’ insurers and bankers, many of which are also in Europe.

Declining output and global decarbonisation mean that South Sudan will not be in the oil business forever, and given the trouble it has caused there, the transition may provide as much opportunity as risk. Still, bringing the oil money back onto the books of the national budget could at least give the South Sudanese a chance to reset their bloody politics now, not when the oil pumps stop.

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