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Corrupt networks slow the return to peace in South Sudan

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 30 September 2019 19:36

South Sudan Council of Churhes chair Reverend Peter Gai stands with President Salva Kiir Mayardit and ex-vice president and former rebel leader Riek Machar before their meeting in Juba, South Sudan, 11 September 2019. REUTERS/Samir Bol

As the world’s youngest country prepares to form a government of national unity in November that will end a six-year conflict, a new report by a US-based organisation has laid out how regional and international bureaucrats have worked with South Sudan’s leaders to aid corruption, state capture and civil war.

The 64-page report, titled “The Taking of South Sudan”, was published in September 2019 by The Sentry, an investigative organisation co-founded by Hollywood star George Clooney and human rights activist John Prendergast. Other than South Sudan, The Sentry also covers Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

Nebulous networks

  • The report outlines, for instance, how seven members of President Salva Kiir’s immediate family have built business relationships with 25 individuals from 13 countries on the continent and beyond.
  • It also contains recommendations for eight countries, including the US, Kenya and Uganda, and the two Bretton Woods institutions on how they can help fight corruption in South Sudan. These include, among others, imposing sanctions on human rights violators, blocking corrupt officials’ access to luxury goods and property abroad, and requesting the US government to investigate the illicit money flows that are financing atrocities.

Civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013 after Salva accused his sacked vice-president, Riek Machar, of plotting against him. The conflict led to four million people fleeing their homes and the deaths of more than 400,000 people.

Financing friction

Among the most damning things in the report is a trove of emails detailing how Dar Petroleum — the largest oil consortium in South Sudan — provided material support in the form of fuel to a pro-government militia “that went on to commit atrocities, including burning of entire villages, targeting civilians and an attack on a UN protection-of-civilians site”. Dar Petroleum is part-owned by the China National Petroleum Corporation and Petronas, a Malaysian state-owned oil company.

  • The emails show several requests to the company to supply the militia with fuel on at least two occasions, in September 2014 and April/May 2015.
  • The first requests in September 2014 coincided with increased violence in the towns of Renk and Melut, which led to the deaths of at least 168 opposition fighters and 11 Sudan People’s Liberation Army –  the government’s – soldiers.

Tangled webs

Another part of the report details the complicated business relationships between regional and international businesspeople with South Sudan’s intelligence service, military leaders and Salva’s own family. “Nearly every instance of confirmed or alleged corruption or financial crime in South Sudan examined by The Sentry has involved links to an international corporation, a multinational bank, a foreign government or high-end real estate abroad,” the report’s authors wrote.

  • Vukani Aviation, a South African aviation firm, formed joint ventures with South Sudan’s National Security Service, which has been accused of committing multiple atrocities.
  • Two British citizens formed an oil services company with Lieutenant General David Yau Yau, while Sudanese tycoon Ashraf Seed Ahmed Hussein Ali received two procurement contracts under favourable terms that sidestepped the country’s procurement laws.
  • Others accused of opaque deals include Eritrean businessman Ghebremeskel Tesfamariam Ghidey, whose 12 companies received $57m worth of contracts between 2013 and 2015. The ‘cross-border cash grab’ was occasioned by shortfalls in foreign currency, triggered by a 2012 dispute with Khartoum that saw Juba halt oil production.

Neighbourhood problems

Neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya and Uganda – where many South Sudanese leaders have second and third homes and considerable wealth – have also come into focus for their roles in facilitating the six-year conflict.

  • In 2018, for example, Ara Dolarian, a US arms dealer currently under indictment in the US, attempted to sell $43.2m worth of weapons to General Paul Malong, the former military chief of staff. At the time, Malong was preparing to launch his own rebel outfit, the South Sudan United Front, which he did in April 2018.
  • Dolarian’s weapons were to be sold and delivered to a Kenyan company. Malong also lived in his palatial Nairobi home after fleeing Juba in 2017. It is not the first time that Kenya and Uganda have been accused of being conduits for arms to South Sudan’s many warring sides in contravention of a United Nations arms embargo.

Among the people mentioned in the report as having business relationships with Kiir’s family is Gideon Moi, the son of Kenya’s former president Daniel Arap Moi, who was heavily involved in the Sudan peace process and has maintained close ties with leaders.

The younger Moi, who now serves in the Kenyan Senate, has denied he has such links and called the report “fictitious”.

“I am not a shareholder of the company and I have never and I am not profiting from the proceeds of war as alleged in the fictitious report,” Moi said in a statement through his aide. “I have neither received any single cent from the government of South Sudan nor am I doing any business with the South Sudan government.”

Struggling for stability

Despite a 2018 deal between the two main warring sides – the government and Machar’s rebel outfit – conflict has been ongoing, especially as new splinter groups emerge.

The Sentry’s report outlines the way regional and international players have continued to profit from close relationship with South Sudan’s leaders and even contributed to the war effort.

  • Although there have been some measures to stop such embezzlement and collusion, the report notes: “Much more is needed to further incentivise peace over war, but results are finally emerging from measures taken against those orchestrating and benefiting from genocide, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, child soldier recruitment and other crimes against humanity.”
  • It follows an October 2018 report by Mark Ferullo, also published by The Sentry. The report, “Banking on War”, explored how South Sudan’s elite and their allies “exploit privileged access to bank services or control banks outright”.

Why it matters

The new report comes at a time when there is renewed hope that Kiir and his former vice-president will finally follow through on their peace deal, which would be the most important step towards a peaceful South Sudan.

Riek visited Juba in early September for talks with Salva, which marked his first visit to South Sudan in a year.

  • Although the deal was signed a year ago and was scheduled to take effect in May, it was delayed as both sides disagreed on certain terms, particularly the integration of former rebels into the main army.

The peace deal between Salva and Riek to end the six-year conflict has taken considerable international intervention, including a visit to the Vatican in April 2019. With just more than a month to go before the new deadline for a joint government, The Sentry’s report raises concerns that without dismantling the networks that have helped fuel the conflict, South Sudan’s road to peace will not end in November.

  • “By disrupting the cost-benefit calculations of those who hijack governments — and the international actors that provide them with support — the international community can counter the main drivers of conflict and create new leverage for peace, human rights and good governance,” says the report.
  • Last month, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, expressed fear of a possible return to full-scale war. The conflict has already created Africa’s largest refugee crisis.
  • One real risk is that a failure to honour the deal in November will reignite conflict, especially as the UN arms embargo is set to end in May 2020.

The bottom line: While regional and international powers have worked with, and at times forced, Kiir and his main rival to make and honour the peace deal, the lack of proper response on the many threads that have fuelled the crisis raises a real risk of a return to war. Beyond the political solution, the international financial crimes, corruption and arms embargo contraventions need to be properly and quickly addressed as well.

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