A new report from a group co-founded by actor George Clooney exposes high levels of theft and corruption in South Sudan.
Whether the findings are news is up for debate.
To most of the world media, it is another sensational story showing African leader wrongdoing. To scholars and South Sudanese, it is a well-known problem. And Clooney and his fellow advocates who campaigned for the creation of South Sudan could be said to share some of the blame.
“None of this is news, George! We have known for a long time and we did not need your two-year-long investigation to learn that the South Sudanese political elite is a corrupt, self-interested war machine,” blogged Rita Abrahamsen, a professor at the University of Ottawa. “The international headlines may laud you for ‘revealing’ and ‘exposing’ the corruption and venality of South Sudan’s leaders, but what I want to know is why did you not speak up before?”
The two-year investigation by The Sentry, a group co-founded by Clooney and activist John Prendergast of the Enough Project, found that South Sudanese leaders are making massive profits as the country is beset by civil war. President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Reik Machar own multimillion-dollar mansions and luxury cars bought with stolen money. The now-warring leaders happen to own homes a short drive from each other in Nairobi, Kenya.
South Sudan’s “violent kleptocracy” stands in sharp contrast against the current fighting. The country is fraying at the seams, yet the people in power are building up their own wealth. An estimated $4 billion is gone since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which allowed for the creation of South Sudan as a country six years later. The money, stolen largely from oil profits, could have helped stabilize the country, according to the report.
“The simple fact is they’re stealing the money to fund their militias to attack and kill one another,” said Clooney at a news conference marking the release of the report. “The evidence is thorough, it is detailed and it is irrefutable. It involves arms dealers, international lawyers, international banks, international real estate, and it is because of these international actors that we are also able to provide solutions to help end this criminal behavior to protect innocent civilians.”
The report paints a picture of self-interested elites enriching themselves to the detriment of a country in crisis, but critics like Abrahamsen point out that the underlying problems behind the theft and civil war stem from the way many outsiders supported creating the new nation – something Clooney and Prendergast also sought.
A group of activists and politicians had pushed the idea of an independent South Sudan since the Clinton Administration. Prendergast was among the early advocates who supported the idea. The Sudan Caucus, as it was called, succeeded by getting the issue on the agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations.
When it came together, groups fighting against the Sudanese government with varying interests were lumped together. Politics play a major role in the current fighting, according to researcher Mahmood Mamdani. He was a member of the initial independent team that assessed the reasons behind the onset of the civil war in December 2013.
The rush to create a country as the war on terror raged on solidified a problematic system where major leaders continued to operate as warlords while occupying high governmental posts.
The current situation in South Sudan is the result of the inability of the government to organize itself and the countries and activists, including the U.S., Clooney and Prendergast, who pushed forward a plan for independence. People like Kiir and Machar, who were celebrated as the shining hope for a new country, turned out to be the exact opposite.
“The craving for media publicity was satisfied by simple stories. For a humanitarian activist in a hurry, there was no time for hard thinking and detailed analysis,” said Abrahamsen. “Now you turn around to find that the warnings have come true, that real-life politics is anything but a morality tale: The heroes have turned villains; the morally good and oppressed have become the oppressors, the thieves, the murders and the rapists.”