Saving South Sudan From Kleptocracy

The peace deal in South Sudan won’t bring real peace or stability until the larcenous leadership can be compelled to change its ways.

South Sudan’s belligerents have signed a peace deal, but it is far from certain that the brutal 20-month civil war is over. If the next steps the parties take are simply to restore the status quo that existed before the war’s eruption, the odds are wildly in favor of a return to deadly conflict. However, if the implementation of the agreement is seen as a chance to restart the construction of a viable state in the world’s newest country, dismantling the violent kleptocracy that it’s become since independence in 2011, then South Sudan has a chance for peace.

There are monumental obstacles at multiple levels to peace in South Sudan. But the biggest challenge is the nature of the state itself. In its short life as a nation, governing institutions have been hijacked for personal enrichment and advancement by rival factions of military and civilian officials.

When one clique threw the other out of government, it laid the groundwork for war. Those in power don’t want to compromise because they lose the spoils of absolute authority and the immunity from prosecution for their many human rights and economic crimes. The political system has become a winner-take-all battleground, a showdown between rival kleptocrats who use ethnicity as a mobilizer, thus deepening divisions within society.

At the regional level, the biggest obstacle to peace has been the proxy war between Sudan and Uganda that is playing itself out on South Sudanese soil.

Uganda has thousands of its own troops deployed to South Sudan in support of the Juba government. For its part, Sudan continues to provide safe haven and support to South Sudanese rebels, including a breakaway faction of the armed opposition now based in Khartoum that hasn’t signed the peace deal. These regional divisions will continue to haunt South Sudan unless they are countered firmly by other states with influence over Kampala and Khartoum.

To support the implementation of the peace agreement, a huge investment must be made by the international community in supporting the creation of real transparency in the way the government conducts its business.

Billions of dollars have gone missing in the last decade in a looting free-for-all. Meaningful anti-corruption measures such as oversight for oil revenues and accountability for economic crimes must be established. And assistance to civil society and independent media should increase in order to support their ongoing efforts at whistle-blowing and investigating sources of grand corruption and human-rights abuses. Space for civil society participation during the transition and protections for journalists should be made preconditions for the resumption of normal donor activities.

A major issue will be restraining the spoilers within government and rebel camps who are benefiting politically and financially from instability. The gravy train that resulted from the absence of the rule of law and transparent institutions must be dismantled.

Nothing less than a hard-target transnational search for the assets that have been stolen over the last decade is required, aiming to seize, freeze, and return the proceeds of corruption to the South Sudanese people.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Initiative should be deployed chasing the ill-gotten gains that have fueled the destruction of South Sudan by its own elites. Finally, the hybrid court established by the peace deal must have the technical, legal, and investigative resources necessary to prosecute economic crimes as well, including pillage and grand corruption. Serious targeted sanctions should be directed at spoilers who undermine the implementation of the agreement.

During President Obama’s late July trip to the region, he spelled out the need for the international community to “raise the costs of intransigence” should the warring parties fail to reach an agreement. This certainly helped catalyze the momentum towards a deal. The U.S. can help in implementing the deal it helped foster by doubling down on pressure for implementation and making a major investment to counter the corrosive corruption that helped lead to war in the first place.