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How Obama Can Stop South Sudan’s War

A savage civil war has engulfed the world’s newest country, but President Obama, landing in neighboring Kenya, can help end the bloodshed.

In the weeks leading up to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, two sounds were inescapable in Malakal's market. Loudspeakers alternated between blasting the country's newly composed national anthem and President Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech. For many South Sudanese, the speech, with its references to slaves and abolitionists, resonated at a visceral level.

Now, nineteen months into a new civil war, as President Obama lands in neighboring Kenya, that marketplace and the dream of a peaceful future for the world’s newest country lies in ruin.

Malakal, which sits at the gateway of South Sudan’s remaining productive oil fields, has become the most visible prize of a war that cannot be won through armed combat, yet continues to be fought with increasing ferocity. South Sudan’s warring sides have exchanged control of the town at least 10 times. Malakal’s diverse population has been forced to flee, leaving its market a charred and empty shell.

Over 20,000 people who speak five different languages live huddled together in a little over a half square mile at a UN peacekeeping base. South Sudan’s national anthem, with its pledge to “uphold us in peace and harmony,” has been discarded. The clarion call that “yes we can” represented to so many is being ignored by leaders who used their power to accumulate wealth instead of building a nation.

President Obama will not be far from refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia housing tens of thousands of women and children displaced by South Sudan’s war. He is meeting with two of the heads of state currently mediating South Sudan’s peace efforts and is addressing the African Union on issues of regional security.  

To maximize impact, President Obama should work with South Sudan’s neighbors to dismantle the complex system of corruption and illicit financial flows that are funding and profiting from the conflict in South Sudan. In addition, by making a public commitment to a hybrid court, with international judges, an investigative wing and jurisdiction over economic crimes, President Obama will help combat what has become an accountability-free zone.

This week, Human Rights Watch published evidence of brutal gang rapes, unlawful killings of civilians, and the deliberate destruction of seeds intended for planting as a part of the South Sudanese government’s recent scorched earth campaign. Previous reports from the UN peacekeeping mission’s human rights division have implicated the armed opposition in cold-blooded massacres at hospitals and mosques. Without clear financial and legal consequences for those directing and fueling atrocities, abuses like these will continue.

President Obama can also bring new energy to the UN's multilateral asset freeze and travel ban regime for South Sudan, which recently added six military commanders from the government and opposition to its sanctions list. To build on this momentum, President Obama should encourage his counterparts in the region to ensure asset freezes and travel bans are enforced in their countries and urge them to support a new round of high-level designations against politically influential individuals and their enablers.

In South Sudan, targeting field commanders alone is ineffective. The country’s political elites who are responsible for the looting of South Sudan’s natural resource wealth, however, are much more vulnerable to international financial pressure. President Obama should also urge regional leaders to support an arms embargo to limit the warring parties’ access to military hardware used to attack civilians.

Beyond this, billions in oil revenues have been stolen from the country’s treasury and stashed abroad. The real leverage over South Sudan's elites will come through a transnational effort to trace, seize, and return these ill-gotten gains to the people of South Sudan. President Obama can jumpstart this effort by urging Kenya and Ethiopia to share intelligence about stolen money. At the same time, he should prioritize support to the Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative as it seeks to identify actionable cases of grand corruption from South Sudan with a strong connection to the United States. 

Finally, President Obama should use his trip to pressure Kenya and Uganda to adjust their laws to increase transparency about the real owners of corporate assets and trusts. In his public remarks, he could connect the proliferation of shell companies and tax havens in Africa with the broader problem the continent faces with the massive illicit financial outflows, now more than double what Africa receives in foreign aid. A global push for greater ownership transparency, including a strong final rule from the Department of the Treasury in August to implement greater customer due diligence transparency in the United States, will help ensure that sanctions enforcement and asset recovery efforts are not stymied by anonymous companies and opaque business records. 

The hope that filled the South Sudanese at the cusp of independence has been replaced with utter despair at their leaders’ shameless corruption, tit-for-tat scorched earth campaigns, and the looming threat of famine. South Sudan’s citizens are still waiting for their chance to say “yes we can” to the opportunity and prosperity that independence promised. U.S. leadership on anti-corruption efforts and financial consequences targeting those most responsible for the escalating violence can help make that dream less of a distant reality. 

John Prendergast and Akshaya Kumar are Founding Director and Policy Analyst at the Enough Project.  They have collaborated with George Clooney to launch The Sentry (thesentry.org) this week to track the assets of those perpetrating, funding or profiting from war crimes like those in South Sudan.