On the night of February 17, a United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan, sheltering about 47,000 displaced persons, was engulfed in violence that left at least 30 people dead and much of the camp in ashes. Of the deaths, almost half were women and children.
Around the same time, 200 kilometres away in Juba, President Salva Kiir was forming a company, in which his 12-year-old son was handed a 25 per cent stake in a holding company worth millions of dollars.
And as the South Sudan conflict raged on after December 2013, social media accounts of President Kiir’s children were awash with images and tales of their riding jet skis, driving in luxury vehicles, partying on boats, clubbing and drinking in the Villa Rosa Kempinski —one of Nairobi’s fanciest and most expensive hotels.
This is just a peek into a damning new report of pillage and plunder of South Sudan — “The nexus of corruption and conflict in South Sudan” — prepared by the Sentry — a watchdog body co-founded by Hollywood actor George Clooney. The report offers a stark contrast between the lavish lifestyles of South Sudan’s leading political and military leaders, and the almost half of the population of country who rely on food assistance for survival.
“Four of the president’s grandchildren attend a private school on the outskirts of Nairobi that costs roughly $10,000 per year. Several of President Kiir’s other children have attended high school and college in Australia, Malaysia, and Uganda. And President Kiir’s children appear to travel internationally for more than just their education. One of his children posted photos and videos on social media showing a vacation throughout Europe with stops in Paris, Munich, Oslo, and Milan,” the report says.
It further lists elites — several high-ranking government and military officials — who it claims have plundered state coffers to accumulate an array of luxury homes and cars, and enrich themselves and their family members through stakes in oil and other state-linked business ventures.
Among the officials are South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, his former deputy Riek Machar, the Chief of Staff of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) Gen Paul Malong Awan, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the SPLA for Logistics in charge of Military Procurement, Gen Malek Reuben Riak, and Gen Gabriel Jok Riak, a field commander.
Even before the dust settled on the allegations, the denials have been fast and furious.
“The president doesn’t have any property in Nairobi or anywhere. The president does not even have a bank account, so how do these people arrive at all these?” South Sudan presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said.
James Gatdet Dak, spokesman for Machar, also denies the claims in the report.
“It is a lie. Dr Riek Machar’s family does not own a house in Nairobi or in Addis Ababa as alleged. They are renting a house in Nairobi, while the one in Addis Ababa was a temporary guest house provided by the Ethiopian authorities during the peace negotiations,” Mr Dak said.
This does little to dim the irony of the two protagonists not seeing eye to eye in Juba yet almost sharing the same street in a posh suburb in Nairobi, going by the Sentry report.
“The Machar family’s new home in Lavington, which has a large backyard with a large stone patio and a teardrop-shaped, in-ground swimming pool, is located a short drive from the Kiir home. A source within South Sudan’s government confirmed to The Sentry that the Kiir and Machar homes in Nairobi were close to one another in Lavington,” the report says.
According to the report, Dr Machar owns a palatial home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while President Kiir’s top military commanders have homes spread across Nairobi and Kampala in exclusive neighbourhoods, owned through proxies.
“The Malong family paid $1.5 million in cash for the Nyari home several years ago. Gen Malong also has two large and luxurious homes in an upscale neighbourhood in Kampala.
According to the report, the country’s revenues end up in individuals’ pocket through four “vectors”: The extractive sector, the military state, state spending and money laundering hub. Then, using over 140 published sources, the report details the mismanagement, corruption, and pilferage that eat away at the country’s resources for the benefit of a closed group of elites, making the country, “a kleptocracy where political power is leveraged to secure wealth.”
And secure wealth they have, sucking in reputable firms like the KCB Group, which is accused of allowing $3 million to move through the personal account of Gen Malek Reuben Riak, between 2012 and this year, even though Mr Riak’s legal income is way below that figure.
“Mr Riak is in charge of military procurement, and earns an annual salary of about $32,000 yet the transactions recorded include more than $700,000 in cash deposits and large payments from several international construction companies operating in South Sudan. Additionally, over this four-year period, $1.16 million in cash was withdrawn from the account,” the report said.
Another military field commander, Gen Gabriel Jok Riak, subject to United Nations financial sanctions, received transfers of at least $367,000 to his personal account at KCB in 2014 even though he is paid a government salary of about $35,000 a year.
A large share of the transfers to Gen Jok Riak came from Dalbit International, a Kenyan multinational petroleum corporation operating in South Sudan, the report says.
Dalbit explained the transfer of $308,524 as being reimbursement for a fuel supply deal with the South Sudan army that had fallen through, and that there was neither a business transaction nor relationship between Dalbit and the general. According to the reports, KCB processed some transactions for Gen Jok Riak even after he became subject to a United Nations-imposed asset freeze in March 2015.
KCB Group chief executive Joshua Oigara defended the bank, saying it deploys global standards applicable to anti-money laundering guidelines and know-your-customer requirements provided by the regulators in all the countries of its operations.
“KCB South Sudan continues to work closely with the Government of South Sudan and the Bank of South Sudan with regard to resolutions on UN Security Council Sanction List 2206. The bank remains committed to safeguarding the confidentiality of customer information as required in the respective banking laws of our markets,” Mr Oigara said, without explaining why the transactions were allowed through the bank’s systems.
The president and his former deputy have also been fingered in the report for owning stakes in petroleum, mining, banks and luxurious properties within the East African region, including top-of-the-range vehicles, while their children or relatives attended top flight schools and holidayed in pristine destinations across the globe.
Despite earning under $20,000 per year, the First Lady’s brother, Gen Gregory Vasili Dimitry, sits at the centre of a sprawling business empire operated jointly with the First Lady Mary Ayen Vasili that was paid to supply foodstuffs — including sorghum worth $1.2 million to the government — which were never delivered. His firm is also a fuel supplier to the South Sudanese military.
Earning $45,000 a year, South Sudan’s Army Chief Paul Malong is said to own at least two luxury villas in Uganda in addition to a $2 million mansion in the posh Nyari estate in Nairobi.
Riek Machar has also been accused of benefiting from arms sales in exchange for selling oil to Russia-based businessmen.
Documents obtained by the Sentry indicate that in mid-2014, a Russian broker identifying himself as “Mark Goldmann” and heading a company called MGA Capital, offered to negotiate the sale of military equipment to Dr Machar in return for the country’s most lucrative asset: Oil. He acted as an intermediary between Dr Machar and a Kiev-based defence firm called Nebo Ukrainy.
Other documents purport to afford Goldmann power of attorney for both Machar and Nebo Ukrainy.
On President Kiir’s side, there are questions around the Chinese arms deal despite an arm sales embargo on the Juba administration.
Documents obtained by the Sentry show that Gen Reuben Riak was involved in the procurement of 45 VT-2 battle tanks from China North Industries Group Corp. (Norinco) —one of China’s largest state-owned arms manufacturer—less than two weeks after the outbreak of the civil war on December 15, 2013.
“It appears unlikely these tanks were ever delivered. However, two shipments worth $38 million of arms and ammunition were delivered but according to a report by Bloomberg, the SPLA received two shipments from Norinco that included 24,760 cases of automatic rifles, grenade launchers, anti-personnel grenades, RPG rockets, as well as a shipment of Chinese HJ-73D Red Arrow anti-tank weapons systems, with their associated missiles, batteries, training simulators, and spare parts,” the report says.
The report, cognisant of the unique situation of South Sudan — a country “controlled by a small, rotating set of elites who move seamlessly between positions in government and the frontlines of the rebellion, as political situations change” — calls for international pressure to be put on key beneficiaries of South Sudan’s kleptocratic system and for choking off their illicit financial flows.
Others to be targeted are government officials, military officers, businessmen, investors, money transfer organisations, shippers, and others who are necessarily more connected to international systems of finance, trade, and investment.
In the meantime, the conflict in South Sudan remains a means to renegotiate the country’s political power balance and the economic profits that it ensures.