Foreign governments and outside business interests prop up crooked regimes like South Sudan's for their own benefit.
The corrupt military commanders and politicians responsible for directing mass atrocities on both sides of South Sudan’s bloody civil war have managed to amass huge fortunes, despite only receiving modest government salaries, according to the new “War Crimes Shouldn’t Pay” investigative report backed by actor George Clooney and former State Department official John Prendergast. Their Sentry initiative, a collaboration by the NGOs Enough Project and Not On Our Watch, claims the country’s leaders have plundered millions of dollars that should have been used to prop up the nation’s crumbling economy. Those leaders used the stolen money to invest in overseas property, stashing their funds in countries ranging from Kenya and Uganda to Australia.
The report alleges that President Salva Kiir, a group of senior military lieutenants, and opposition leader (and former Vice President) Riek Machar have all been busy profiteering while more than five million people in the country face the imminent threat of starvation. The independent country of South Sudan, of course, is in the large part the result of a midwifing effort by the last three U.S. presidents, who began covertly funneling military aid to rebels in southern Sudan while Bill Clinton was in office. George W. Bush brokered the peace deal between Sudan’s warring northern and southern factions in 2005, while Barack Obama ensured the 2011 independence referendum would go forward and dumped hundreds of millions in development funds into the newly-minted South Sudan once it had.
For most of the period since in 2011, Kiir and Machar have sat at the heads of competing kleptocratic networks fighting each other for control of the country and its natural resources. Most damningly, the report contends that South Sudanese leaders have been able to pilfer the young nation’s wealth thanks to the complicity of Western banks, lawyers, real estate firms, and other companies and institutions that have been happy to turn a blind eye to the rampant corruption in exchange for a coveted share of the new market. Like Iraq before it, this lauded American nation-building experiment appears to have gone horribly wrong.
Even though the South Sudanese government has dismissed the claims as “rubbish” and slammed a press conference held by Clooney to launch the report as “misleading,” Clooney contends the evidence produced by the document’s authors, who spent two years following a trail of money linked to Kiir and Machar, is “irrefutable.” In one case, the investigators found that General Paul Malong Awan, the chief of general staff in the South Sudanese military and a commander directly implicated in atrocities against civilians, owns at least two luxurious villas in Uganda, as well as a $2 million mansion in a gated community in Nairobi. He has managed to acquire all of these properties all while earning an official salary of only $45,000 a year.
As well as foreign real estate, South Sudan’s corrupt elites have apparently spent misappropriated funds on large stakes in oil firms, private education for their children, and expensive cars. At the same time, they have ensured a steady flow of corruptly-obtained cash is available to fund their militias, which routinely slaughter innocent civilians. Predatory soldiers also use rape as a psychological weapon against rival ethnic groups, with Salva Kiir’s government forces the primary culprits.
The results of the investigation come as the United Nations is considering imposing an arms embargo against the government and is now deploying 4,000 additional peacekeepers, even though the 14,000 already in the country have accomplished little. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese have already died since the war began. In perpetuating their war, South Sudan’s political and military leaders still enjoy easy access to Western aid and funds from outside business interests looking to buy influence in the oil-rich country.
This kind of corruption will come as little surprise to Africa watchers. Responding to the publication of the report, the U.S. Department of State said that, while it does not provide aid to the South Sudanese government, it was aware of extensive corruption in the country. While the U.S. government might not be funding Salva Kiir’s forces directly, it has no problem doing business and greasing wheels with equally violent and underhanded regimes. Throughout Africa, corrupt and authoritarian leaders have exploited American and other outside interests for their own gain—even in the continent’s smallest countries.
Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, to take one of several examples, has turned his tiny nation into a military hub for foreign nations looking to secure their interests in the heart of one of the most unstable regions on the planet. Casting himself as a key ally to the United States and the other Western powers in their interminable War on Terror, he has allowed seven different nations to build military facilities and base troops on his country’s soil—with all the profits going to his inner circle. As in South Sudan, most people in Djibouti see nothing but poverty while the country’s elite siphon off funds that could be used for development. While nearly half of the rural population languishes in extreme poverty, Guelleh had himself re-elected for a fourth presidential term earlier this year. Those who opposed him were met with deadly force.
Many, but not all, of these corrupt relationships can be traced back to the colonial era. Even though France might have the most notorious (and enduring) system of military, political, and economic influence in its former colonies, U.S. aid is doing just as much to prop up dictatorships and buy influence in the region.
The Sentry report puts forward a number of proposals for curbing corruption in South Sudan, including taking proactive steps to stop money laundering, introducing smarter sanctions that target the country’s elite, and setting up a financial system that prevents kleptocrats from looting public resources. While all of these look in the right direction, none of them address the insidious influence of foreign governments and outside business interests who prop up crooked regimes for their own benefit.