Kleptocracy Watch
How to Succeed in Conflict Without Really Trying

We’ve suspected for some time now that the conflict entrepreneurs who dominate politics in South Sudan—President Salva Kiir and his erstwhile Vice President Riek Machar—have been amassing wealth at the expense of their people. As we wrote back in July, South Sudan’s independence from the North has not meant superior governance for the people of the South: “Instead of South Sudan’s oil wealth being funneled to a small elite in Khartoum, some of it is now going to a small elite in Juba.” But now, thanks to a watchdog report, the extent of kleptocracy in South Sudan is finally coming into full view. The NYT:

Leaders of the two sides responsible for mass killings and rapes in the South Sudan conflict have amassed enormous wealth inside and outside the country, at least some of it illegally, according to an investigative report released on Monday by a Washington advocacy group.

The families and top associates of the principal opponents in the conflict, President Salva Kiir and his rival and former vice president, Riek Machar, own multimillion-dollar properties, drive luxury cars and stay at expensive hotels, “all while much of their country’s population suffers from the consequences of a brutal civil war and, in many places, experiences near-famine conditions,” according to the report.

Kudos to actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast for continuing to pay attention to South Sudan at a time when American diplomats have disengaged from the country they midwifed into being in 2011, and UN blue helmets on the ground in South Sudan are turning a blind eye to mass rape. Amid all the depressing news out of South Sudan, at least someone is investigating what Clooney and Prendergast call a “violent kleptocracy” that only continues to enrich itself over the course of the country’s on-again-off-again civil war.

The response from South Sudan is not encouraging. Again, the NYT:

In a statement, Mr. Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, questioned the motives of the report’s authors, suggesting that the anonymity they provided to the sources in the report called into question whether “those sources really exist.”

Mr. Ateny said he was “shocked by the irresponsibility shown by the so-called investigators of this report.” He said the report would aggravate the mutual distrust that had punctuated the conflict, which erupted nearly three years ago.

“Would any Western leader accept to be accused in such a groundless way?” Mr. Ateny said in the statement. “We will make sure that each of those allegations are challenged with a counter forensic and legal analysis of the shortcomings of this report.”

Representatives of Mr. Machar, whose whereabouts is unknown, have not responded to requests for comment about the report.

Mr. Ateny’s response came after the government took steps to limit access to the report’s findings in South Sudan. On Wednesday, a South Sudanese newspaper, The Nation Mirror, which had published some of the findings of the Sentry report, was ordered closed indefinitely, Reuters reported.

As “groundless” accusations go, these allegations must have been pretty believable to warrant the shuttering of a newspaper. It seems like the report really struck a nerve in Juba.

A word of warning about that Sentry report: its proposed solutions leave much to be desired. The final section, entitled “Counter Violent Kleptocracy,” deliberately echoes the language of the Obama administration’s anti-terrorist Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative. It proposes using the same tools the U.S. employed against Iran—such as targeted sanctions and anti-money laundering measures—but with a less clear end goal in mind. Presumably it’s either behavior change or regime change. The former is less likely without some kind of global consensus emerging, that would have to include China; getting Beijing on board would not necessarily be an easy lift. And the latter presents the problem of “and what then”—it’s not like an excellent alternative is just waiting in the wings.

Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets investment management at Morgan Stanley, writes in The Rise and Fall of Nations: “Since corruption is typically most severe among the poorest countries and tends to decline as countries grow richer, the best way to judge the level of corruption in a country is by comparing it to nations with similar average income.” South Sudan ranks 163/168 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Its per capita income ranks 163/185 according to the IMF. Kleptocracy in South Sudan is about as rampant as one would expect for a petro-state on the bottom rungs of the development ladder.

But while South Sudan’s kleptocracy levels may actually be pretty normal compared to its peers, the conflict there is a world outlier, probably second only to Syria and Afghanistan in its severity. This much is clear: Business as usual in South Sudan will mean an ongoing humanitarian nightmare that could draw in neighboring powers, cut oil exports, and destabilize the East African region. American policymakers should consider how to reorient our South Sudan policy. Even though the Sentry report’s policy recommendations have their flaws, at least they spur a much-needed discussion. Chester Crocker’s provocative TAI piece on South Sudan provides more food for thought. Over the next few months, we’ll keep following the news out of South Sudan and try to highlight any good ideas that surface as the policy debate rages on.

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