The series of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations on individuals accused of corruption and promotion of war in South Sudan over the past few years, especially the most recent (October 2019), have caused conflicting views among South Sudanese.
There are those who applaud them on the basis of their face value, seeing them as the only way to deal with the frustrating lack of traction with regards to the peace process and return to stability.
Their support justified by the reality that there is indeed rampant corruption in the country, with no visible effort in the government to stop it. But there are many who see these sanctions as a blunt instrument that further exacerbates the suffering of the ordinary people, already distressed by conflict-induced collapse of the economy while it does not bring about any positive changes in political behaviour.
US-based activist groups, the Enough Project and the Sentry, have released reports accusing top political and military leaders in some African countries, including South Sudan, of state capture.
Unfortunately, the reports and the sanctions Bills are made more visible on the global stage by the celebrity power of Hollywood actor George Clooney (founder of Sentry) than by the strength of the evidentiary material contained in the reports.
But Sentry and Enough Project have succeeded in getting the US and the UN Security Council to impose a series of sanctions targeting individuals they believe have profited from war and have therefore prolonged that war to the detriment of South Sudanese civilians.
The sanctions on South Sudanese individuals and other Africans are meant to pressure officials to deal with corruption as a prominent factor in the causation and perpetuation of conflict.
They are also a means to exacting punitive measures on these officials and their associates, insisting on the distinction between sanctions targeting individuals and sanctions against the state, undoubtedly a very important distinction but one that is meaningless in terms of the implementation of sanctions.
It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to make that distinction a reality. These sanctions are not as surgical as they are claimed to be.
The responsibility for enforcement of all the sanctions from 2015 to 2107 that targeted senior officials and military generals, rested with the banks. But the banks opted for “de-risking” measures, choosing not to do business with South Sudan.
Instead of scrutinising all transaction, the banks simply blocked the country out entirely. The result is that sanctions were applied to all transactions as the cheapest way to avoid the risk of being found in sanctions violations.
Consequently, this made hard for the diaspora population to send remittances home, which families or entire communities rely on for most of their basic needs.
The sanctions also make it much harder for small businesses to operate across the border within the region, yet the country is nearly a 100 per cent import economy, with a populace that relies on imports for even basic commodities.
The sanctions have also the unique dual mistake of being based on unverified allegations of corruption and having ended up being impossible to implement, given that asset freezes and travels bans were particularly hard to enforce on people whose assets were in the form of cattle, property within the country and who rarely travelled outside the country. But the whole country suffered the economic consequences.
They have therefore neither effected political change nor prevented the movement of monies. The most recent sanctions are particularly expected to both impose the most punishing circumstances on the whole country and yet easier to escape by the sanctioned individuals.
Many of the entities listed in the Sentry report as part of the networks of corruption do not actually exist, bringing the whole report into disrepute.
But where evidence is strong, such as the indictment of two prominent businesspeople, Kur Ajing Ater and Ashraf Seed Ahmed Hussein Ali al-Kardinal, who are both allegedly implicated in procurement fraud, opaque government payments, arms sales to the government and other illicit deals, no South Sudanese would decry their sanctioning.
So the question is, depending on what the real intention behind the Sentry “evidence,” local activists could use it to contribute toward the development of the South Sudanese oversight and accountability institutions so that enforcement of transparency requirements can become a local affair in the future.
As currently applied, the Sentry’s allegations of corruption assume that there are no South Sudanese in the government who are against corruption. But there are people working hard to make anti-corruption, transparency and accountability become foundations of governance.
What chance is there for such South Sudanese to add their voices to the policy recommendations contained in the Sentry report and for them to use the report to push for local judicial measures against corrupt individuals?
This is possible if the people behind the report and local activists within South Sudan can work together, with a view to strengthening the report and strategising together on the best uses of the remaining and stronger evidence. Otherwise, how long will South Sudan continue to relegate responsibility for change to global activists or on US sanctions?
As things stand, sanctions regimes have become a weapon in the hands of global northern hemisphere activists and governments, who have the option of applying them selectively for purposes more related to painting in a bad light the governments they do not like than for purposes of fixing the root problems, which in the case of South Sudan include fundamental problems of state establishment and not necessarily a question of heartless government officials hijacking the state.
To what extend do activists from the “developed world” hold themselves or are held to the principle of ''do no harm'' when they engage on issues happening in the global south with seemingly very little appreciation for negative unintended consequences?
In short, a purely external sanctions-heavy response to corruption is isolating of the whole country and counter-productive. Better to respond by engaging and strengthening the domestic institutions which are ultimately best placed to address corruption in the long-term in South Sudan, as part of a broader project of nation-building and statecraft.
Jok Madut Jok is the director of the Juba-based Sudd Institute, an independent research organisation on public policy and practice in South Sudan. E-mail: [email protected]