Note: This article is excerpted from a new report from the Enough Project: “How The World’s Newest Country Went Awry: South Sudan’s war, famine and potential genocide.”
A legacy of corruption and violence has finally caught up to South Sudan, the world’s newest country, as the United Nations has declared a full-blown famine, a rare designation not made for any part of the world since 2011. Multiple UN officials have additionally warned that the country, riven by armed conflict, stands on the brink of genocide.
A brief review of that nation’s history can offer insight into how things got so bad—and what, in concert with the urgent need for a surge in humanitarian aid, can be done to dismantle seemingly endless cycles of violence and suffering.
The underlying sources of conflict and human suffering in South Sudan today have not really changed much since Sudan’s independence in 1956, at which time South Sudan was still part of the larger nation of Sudan—South Sudan only became an independent state in 2011. This is a history of unchecked greed, manifesting itself primarily in the accumulation of wealth and power by corrupt leaders.
South Sudan may be one of the poorest countries in the world per capita, but it is fabulously wealthy resource-wise: oil, gold, livestock (which are sources of wealth, savings, status, and social standing), the Nile River, and land. The ultimate prize is control of a kleptocratic, winner-take-all state with institutions that have been hijacked by government officials and their commercial collaborators for the purposes of self-enrichment and brutal repression of dissent.
When a peace deal was struck in 2005 ending the North-South war, the southerners were given authority over an interim administration in the southern third of the country, the part that would vote in an independence referendum six years later. During that interim period, two competing kleptocratic factions, led by Salva Kiir and Riek Machar—who would later become, respectively, South Sudan’s president and vice-president—had their own ethnic militias, corruption schemes, and patronage networks. Neither side was genuinely interested in building democratic institutions, good governance, transparency, service delivery, women’s empowerment, or economic development. Instead, the focus was on looting.
The loyalties of different armed leaders and their fighters in different regions had to be purchased—or temporarily leased—to build a consolidated southern army and ensure a decisive vote for independence in 2011. As the interim southern administration established its system of managing finances, leaders went from managing a budget of about $100,000 to managing a budget of more than $1.5 billion when the oil-sharing provisions of the peace deal were enacted. An oil-fueled gravy train (PDF) was created, and grew as the budget expanded in the years that followed. Beyond funding for the army and a few other government functions, nearly everything else appears to have been stolen, as there was no transparency with the oil income and where it went. When the independent state of South Sudan was established in 2011, the looting only increased. Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks South Sudan 175 out of 176 countries.
A den of thieves had been created. The thieves had a falling out, first politically, then with open war in 2013, a scant two years after independence. These competing armed factions have committed horrible atrocities over the past couple of years as they violently pursue the spoils of a hijacked and perverted state. The horrors of war, however, have not deterred the leaders from continuing to milk the country’s system, as demonstrated in the 2016 investigative report by The Sentry.
The favored tactic for imposing will and exploiting resources throughout this history has been the recruitment and use of ethnic-based militias conducting scorched-earth operations. Ethnicity has been used as the main mobilizer for organized violence, which resulted in genocidal violence in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, and in parts of South Sudan even during the North-South War that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence.
In most genocides or other mass atrocities, leaders figure out a way to use identities to mobilize citizen sentiment and drive wedges between communities. This is an essential element of a divide-and-conquer war strategy. In South Sudan, ethnic-based militias are recruited and armed to attack the communities perceived to be opponents. This practice goes back to the British colonial era, when identities were politicized, just as the Belgians did in colonial Rwanda, establishing “tribal authorities.” Even religion was politicized along ethnic lines in South Sudan by the British in the way missionary societies were deployed.
When militias are recruited and mobilized on an ethnic basis, a classic “drain the water to catch the fish” approach ensues, in which the population is targeted and cleared from the area, thus depriving opposition elements of a civilian base from which to recruit, resupply, and find sanctuary. War tactics include village burning, sexual slavery, burning of food stocks, denial of aid access, mass rape, forced conscription of children, and killing of civilians. Mass atrocities become routinized.
In 2013, the two main competing kleptocratic factions of South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that had unified for the purposes of securing the independence of the country in 2011 had another falling-out, plunging the country back into war, mass hunger, and the brink of state collapse. There has been total impunity for the resource theft, child soldier recruitment, abductions, mass rape, bombing of civilian targets, and the obstruction of humanitarian aid.
In South Sudan today, war crimes pay. There is no accountability for the atrocities and looting of state resources, or for the famine that has resulted. But it would be a mistake to see the trajectory of South Sudan as hopeless, its future fixed in the devastating status quo.
Many African countries became independent states in the past 50 to 60 years. South Sudan is five years old as an independent state. Sudan, the country from which it split five years ago, is 60. At the age of 60, the United States had a transatlantic slave trade fueling an economic boom, was ethnically clearing and cleansing its Native American populations, and had not yet fought its own civil war, one of the deadliest in per capita terms in the history of the world. Europe has an even deadlier history of state formation, marked by five centuries of border-defining conflict and genocide.
Thus, South Sudan and more broadly Africa are not so wildly different from the United States and Europe. Wars of state formation are just occurring later in Africa (because of colonialism) and with deadlier and more plentiful weapons, many of which are produced in countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. Well over half of the countries that emerge from wars eventually go back to war, especially when root causes remain unaddressed, so again South Sudan is not exceptional.
Many countries that were written off as hopelessly stuck in conflict and crisis over the last few decades have emerged and built new futures. Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Mozambique, Rwanda, and many others have emerged from deep crisis. Yes, they all have ongoing issues related to either corruption or restricting political space, but they are light years ahead of where they were just decades ago. More than half of the continent of Africa is at peace and growing economically. Many African countries are building democratic institutions and holding credible elections. Patience and the proper investments can lead to a turnaround in South Sudan, too.
Huge resources have been thrown at the problem for decades. Billions of dollars have supported peacekeeping forces, further billions have underwritten humanitarian assistance, and one peace process after another has tried to break the cycle of violence. But none of these efforts focus on the driving force of the mayhem. In South Sudan, corruption isn’t an anomaly within the system; it is the system itself, the very purpose of the state. There is no attempt to dismantle or counter the kleptocratic networks that benefit more from instability than peace.
The missing ingredient in the international response is the creation of sufficient leverage or influence to shift the calculations of these violent kleptocrats from war to peace, from atrocities to human rights, from mass corruption to good governance. The surest way for the international community to build influence is to hit these “thieves of state” in their wallets.
There are a number of internal conflicts within the broader war in South Sudan that will have to be resolved. External and internal change agents can work together to reform the kleptocratic system, build institutions of accountability, and create new incentives for better governance. Ultimately, South Sudanese people will drive reform and determine their future. From the outside, the United States, Europe, the United Nations, the African Union, and other concerned actors around the world can provide support and solidarity to the efforts of South Sudanese people who are on the front lines of efforts to build peace, good governance, and accountability.
However, in many cases it is the policies of external actors (countries, companies, banks, arms providers) that help provide a great deal of the fuel for the fires that burn in South Sudan and other war-torn African states. Therefore, some of the most meaningful actions that can be taken are focused on countering negative policies and commercial arrangements that originate from outside South Sudan and dramatically disadvantage South Sudan’s civilian population.
What is needed is a hard-target search for the dirty money, the ill-gotten gains from the last decade of looting. Choking the illicit financial flows of the kleptocrats is the key point of leverage available to the international community, given the vulnerability of stolen assets that are offshored in neighboring countries or around the world in the form of houses, cars, buildings, businesses, and bank accounts. The kleptocrats are not hiding their money under their mattresses. The points of convergence where illicit financial schemes rely on legitimate global financial infrastructure are where policy, enforcement, and regulatory efforts should be focused. Dismantling the financial networks that enable and benefit from atrocities will give peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts a real chance of success.
Tying accountability and consequences to credible peace efforts aimed at root causes represents the most promising route to peace. The international community needs to help make war costlier than peace for the leaders and their networks of collaborators, and change their cost-benefit analysis, creating targeted and personal consequences for corrupt war-mongers. The perverse incentives that reward violence and theft must be reoriented.
The most promising policy approach would combine creative anti-money laundering measures with targeted sanctions aimed at kleptocratic networks, the combination of which would be robustly enforced with the objective of not just freezing a few assets, but rather freezing those willing to commit mass atrocities out of the international financial system altogether.
This is revolutionary, because it would suddenly give international policymakers and diplomats a major point of leverage to impact the calculations of those willing to commit mass atrocities to maintain or gain power.
Given the dominant position of the United States in the international financial system, and the extreme vulnerability to which the assets of South Sudan’s kleptocrats are exposed within that system, the United States is uniquely positioned to help alter the incentives for South Sudan’s leaders away from grand corruption and war, and to give peace a chance in that embattled and long-suffering land.
War criminals and their international collaborators should pay a price for destroying so much of the hope that accompanied South Sudan’s birth as an independent nation a mere five years ago, and for their role in creating a full-blown, UN-declared famine. Despite the shadow of a corrupt and brutal history, it’s not too late for that hope to be restored.