photo by jon nicholson

feature story - The Key to Making Peace in Africa: Fighting Corruption Can Help End Conflict

march 14th, 2018

Note: This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs, and was written by George Clooney and John Prendergast.

In December 2013, competing factions of South Sudan’s ruling party plunged the country into a horrific civil war as they fought over the spoils of the world’s newest state. Now in its fourth year, the conflict has ravaged the economy, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, brought hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine, and displaced more than four million people, making this Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. And yet, amid all the suffering, a small clique of government elites and their cronies inside and outside South Sudan have benefited financially from the fighting, siphoning off the country’s oil wealth and storing the money in their private bank accounts and in luxury real estate in neighboring countries.

South Sudan’s top officials and their families and associates serve as the main beneficiaries to lucrative contracts, and they steal an astonishing amount from state coffers. As a new Sentry investigation reveals, between 2014 and 2015, top politicians, military leaders, government agencies, and companies owned by politicians and their family members have plundered more than $80 million. To name but one example, Mary Ayen Mayardit, the wife of President Salva Kiir, partially owns an air cargo company that received half a dozen payments from the state oil company, Nilepet. The funds were then used toward military and national security operations, including three payments during an intense period of fighting between April and May 2015. This opaque military procurement process enables the first family to benefit financially from the war—a massive conflict of interest.

Other documents obtained by the Sentry show how Stephen Dhieu Dau, the petroleum minister at the time, used oil revenue to support a militia that had allegedly committed atrocities. A company partly owned by Ajok Wol Atak, the wife of then military chief of staff Paul Malong Awan; Bol Aguer Dok, the nephew of Dau; and Garwec Nyok Kekui, a business associate of the petroleum minister, also received payments from Nilepet for war-related operations at the height of the conflict in early 2015. Each of these same officials also owns high-end properties in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. Their fortunes are tucked away, safely outside of South Sudan’s borders, while a war they created rages on, making life hell for the rest of the country’s population.

The scenario inSouth Sudanis hardly unique. Something similar plays out across many African countries torn by conflict, including the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. Oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, and a variety of other mineral deposits and trafficked wildlife provide immense opportunity for those in power to line their own pockets. Brutally repressing all forms of opposition is seen as the only way to maintain control of the spoils.

Remarkably, there is currently no coordinated strategy to disrupt the illicit siphoning of money by leaders and their foreign business partners. For leaders, giving up power almost certainly means losing access to their spoils, and it might even mean facing prosecution. Every year, billions of aid dollars pour into Africa: taxpayers and donors around the world fund peacekeeping forces, state-building programs, humanitarian assistance, elections, and peace processes. But none of this support has been able to keep corrupt leaders and their network of beneficiaries from stealing billions of dollars.

This is the fatal flaw of peacemaking in Africa: those supporting mediation lack the leverage necessary to stop corrupt figures from using their forces to bomb, burn, imprison, silence, torture, starve, impoverish, kill, and rape to maintain or gain power. South Sudanese peace talks, for example, are currently stuck because Kiir and his allies have rejected any notion of sharing power with the rebels, since such an arrangement would require giving up their exclusive grip on the crudely-constructed looting machine masquerading as a government.

Click here to read the full article in Foreign Affairs.

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