Five years after gaining its independence, South Sudan is a basket case. It is wracked by civil war. Its leaders have looted the treasury. Many of its people are on the brink of starvation.
Now some of the most high-profile champions of the young nation’s independence are calling on the U.S. government and international banks to treat its leaders the same way Washington treats terror networks and drug cartels.
The recommendation is found in a devastating report released today from the Sentry, a new organization founded by the actor George Clooney and a human rights advocate, John Prendergast, to track the illicit financing of African wars.
Clooney and Prendergast were some of the most persistent advocates for the 2011 referendum that resulted in South Sudan gaining independence from Sudan. Today both men are advocating for the exposure of that country’s government. In a forward to the report, the two write: “South Sudan’s top officials have benefited both financially and politically from the continuing war and atrocities committed within their country.”
The details uncovered by the Sentry’s researchers are damning. While their armies rip the country apart, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former vice president Riek Machar Teny have set their families up in lavish estates in Nairobi, Kenya and Kampala, Uganda. The president’s 12-year old son owns a 25 percent stake in a profitable holding company, while Kiir’s other children and wife own pieces of several major businesses in the country.
This corruption, which is standard for many third-world nations, also contributes directly to the suffering of South Sudan’s people. One striking example is the case of General Paul Malong Awan, who recruited a militia responsible for mass killings in Juba, the capital, in 2013. In 2015, the U.S. drafted a U.N. resolution to place Malong on a list of sanctioned individuals who had violated the cease-fire in South Sudan, but that measure was blocked by Russia and Angola.
The report says Malong has taken more than 80 wives and has fathered more than 100 children. Many of those children have been entrusted with stakes in major businesses, particularly in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal province, where he is governor. The report found that Malong or his family owned two palatial estates in Uganda and a mansion valued at $2 million in a gated Nairobi community.
Given the misery of South Sudan’s people since independence, some critics have concluded that, in retrospect, the push for the referendum that created the country was not worth it. But that’s the wrong lesson.
Before independence, when the South Sudan region was ruled by the regime of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, the largely Christian and animist peoples were treated as second-class citizens. The north and south fought horrific civil wars between 1955 and 1972, and then again between 1983 and 2005. The second Sudanese civil war, which claimed at least 2 million lives, was ended only after the Sudan People’s Liberation Army was promised the 2011 referendum on independence.
In an interview Sunday, Prendergast told me the mistake the U.S., the World Bank and other Western institutions made in South Sudan was not the push for independence, but rather the failure to check the rampant corruption of South Sudan’s political and military leaders.
“The U.S. invested tremendously in the capacity-building of the state, without dealing with the root cause of the conflict,” he said. “This horrific corruption.”
He has a point. Between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. Agency for International Development poured nearly $3 billion into South Sudan. Since 2011, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has granted more than $6 billion in aid. Prendergast said all of this money was supposed to build the institutions that would make for good government and stamp out graft. But instead, it was like “spending money on a house being eaten by state-sponsored termites.”
Indeed, Prendergast said, from the very outset, the courts, police and other checks on power that foreign aid was supposed to be building up were “deliberately disempowered” by the political and military leaders.
The roots of this problem go back a decade. South Sudan saw its fortunes rise exponentially after the 2005 peace deal that gave the area semi-autonomy and promised the referendum. Overnight, a proto-state that had had just a six-figure annual budget gained control over valuable oil resources. By 2006, the government’s budget was at $1.7 billion and growing. This windfall was largely divided between the warlords. For a while, Kiir and Machar were able to share the wealth. But after South Sudan briefly cut off oil to the north and then the global price of oil dropped in 2013, the alliance between the two rivals fell apart, and that December civil war broke out.
It’s a conflict that continues to destroy the country. The Sentry recommends that for now, the U.S. should lead an effort to make the ill-gotten money the country’s warlords are fighting over as toxic as possible. This means pushing for multinational targeted sanctions on these kleptocrats and tracking their wealth the way the U.S. government and banks in the past have hunted down the terror leaders and drug kingpins.
It’s a bold proposal, particularly coming from Clooney and Prendergast, who did so much to awaken the world to the cause of South Sudan’s independence. Now they now must rally the world again — to the cause of saving South Sudan from the men who liberated it.