South Sudan: Actor George Clooney vs the Kleptocrats

On Monday, September 12, The Sentry, an organisation set up by US actor George Clooney and rights activist John Prendergast, published a report detailing the extent of corruption by South Sudan’s political elite.

President Salva Kiir’s supporters were quick to denounce the allegations as “rubbish”, but the protestations will fall on deaf ears: few doubt that corruption is endemic among the country’s elite. In 2015,

Transparency International ranked South Sudan 163rd out of 167 in terms of cleanliness – a bit better than northern neighbour Sudan in 165th place.

As early as 2005, when the region was given some autonomy from Khartoum under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, corruption was observable among the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leadership, according to expert on the region Alex De Waal.

De Waal has outlined a number of early scandals that rocked the world’s newest country. In 2011, hundreds of millions of dollars meant for grain procurement and infrastructure went missing from government coffers. In 2012, Kiir himself acknowledged that more than $4bn had been diverted by senior government officials and taken abroad – 75 members of government were named.

Writing in 2014, De Waal stated: “Donors and international financial institutions worked under the misapprehension that corruption was an abuse of the system, and that the SPLM leadership genuinely intended to build working institutions. In fact, corruption is the system. Kiir’s main instrument of governance was permitting members of the elite to join the kleptocratic club. He was at the top of the system but not in control of it, and, as he later noted, ‘once there is corruption, there is insecurity”. 

The Sentry’s report makes the extent of corruption clear and publicises the fact to those that may not have been following the country very closely. Mr Clooney’s involvement means a whole new segment of the US public will now be aware of mismanagement in South Sudan and will likely support the sanctions and asset freezes its authors propose as a solution.

With oil revenues still offline and little left to plunder, targeted sanctions on the political elite could have an impact and help drive reform. However, they could also just drive the country closer to its Chinese, Indian and regional allies.

Building State capacity, institutions for oversight and a political culture that holds leaders to account takes decades, and it is unlikely that the ‘revelations’ this week will make a difference one way or another.

If they lead to the firming of alliances with countries that do not offer conditions on their economic relations, sanctions may in fact have unconsidered consequences and actually retard the process. The US may find the threat of sanctions more useful than their actual imposition.

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