Anecdotes abound of corrupt, war-torn African dictatorships. South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is usually Exhibit A in those tales.
But in the shadows of this narrative is another part of the story, usually untold. It is the story of transnational war profiteers who have come from all over the world to enrich themselves from South Sudan’s natural resources, government contracts and demand for weapons.
South Sudan’s leaders have done their part to roll out the red carpet for willing international accomplices, ensuring a complete absence of the rule of law and total impunity for extreme violence in the service of resource extraction. Many international investors — regardless of their initial intentions — have adapted to this reality, some simply benefiting from the violence, others partnering with the perpetrators of violence and still others at times actively contributing to the violence.
The fourth largest company in the world — China National Petroleum Corp. — was an early investor in South Sudan. It is the largest shareholder in a consortium called Dar Petroleum, which is by far the largest exporter of oil from South Sudan. Oil accounts for more than 95% of the government’s revenue.
The Sentry’s new investigation into international profiteering in South Sudan reveals that beyond shadowy deals, this consortium is an active contributor to the destruction of the country.
Overt connections to violence
We found that Dar Petroleum has provided direct support to deadly militias that have committed mass atrocities.
These war crimes include an attack on a United Nations protection site in Malakal, a place we visited together when hope for a newly independent country was building.
In the regions where Dar works, large-scale armed rebellions have challenged government control, and the regime’s army uses the loosely affiliated militias to fight the rebels.
The militias have since gone on to terrorize the local population. The militias have helped the government — and Dar Petroleum — maintain access to some of the oil fields, even at the height of the war.
Dar has negligently dumped hazardous waste around the oil fields, threatening the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people. With no rule of law, there is no state oversight for meeting even the most basic of environmental standards. Known public health consequences of exposure to chemicals identified at Dar’s facilities mirror the complaints of citizens involving lung damage, cancer and birth defects.
And Dar has paid for government officials to live lavishly while the rest of the population suffers, in one case paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover bills racked up by South Sudan’s former oil minister at a five-star hotel.
In The Sentry’s report, “The Taking of South Sudan,” we profile a number of other international investors and companies that have benefited from South Sudan’s chaos, including American, British, South African and Kenyan businessmen. Illustratively, a group of Chinese investors formed a mining company called Fortune Minerals with the daughter of South Sudan’s president. Six weeks after the company received a license in the southwest part of the country, government troops carried out military operations in that same area, destroying health care centers, committing mass rapes and displacing tens of thousands of people, becoming the epicenter of sexual violence in the country. Regardless of whether the attacks had any links to the licenses, the conflict of interest is appalling.
World leaders have ability to take action
What is happening in South Sudan is not a total aberration. In many crisis zones around the world, corruption is the basic operating system of governance, as seen in Afghanistan, Syria and Venezuela. Our team’s investigative research in Africa has revealed an even deeper reality: that the governing institutions in war-torn countries like South Sudan’s are hijacked purely for the personal enrichment of those in control and their commercial partners.
In South Sudan, the state has been captured by a small group of politicians and generals. Every single revenue stream in the country, led by its rich natural resource base, has been carved up by this ruling network. Extreme violence is used to maintain this system, from mass rape to village burnings to child soldier recruitment to the blocking of food aid deliveries. Public reporting, including our own investigations at The Sentry, has helped expose this system.
The problem with a captured state is that the looters have no fear or expectation of consequences. Policymakers around the world focus on sending peacekeepers, cajoling the conflicting parties to compromise, and providing emergency humanitarian Band-Aids over gaping human rights wounds. The systemic rot remains untouched.
The good news, however, is that banks and governments around the world can in fact create consequences for those inside and outside South Sudan contributing to the looting and violence. The United States has enhanced the effectiveness of sanctions policy in recent years by imposing them on networks, rather than just sanctioning one official at a time. Around the world, the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the U.S. assets and dollar-denominated transactions of entire networks of people and companies complicit in terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and other illicit activity.
Building on that experience, we urge the United States and other governments to investigate and, if appropriate, impose network sanctions on Dar Petroleum and others named in our report, along with their business associates, enablers and connected companies. Last year, under pressure from new sanctions and anti-money laundering measures, South Sudan’s warring parties signed a peace deal that is tenuously holding but desperately needs a boost.
For this peace deal and future hopes of democracy ever to have a chance in a hijacked nation like South Sudan, those complicit in its capture and those spoiling potential peace must face steep consequences so that the rule of law replaces a business model dependent on looting and extreme violence.
George Clooney and John Prendergast are co-founders of The Sentry. Follow their organization on Twitter: @TheSentry_Org