The world’s newest country, South Sudan, could have been holding its first free elections in 2017. Instead, it faces another year of strife. In the latest phase of the cyclical conflict that has plagued its people for decades, tens of thousands have died, 5m people face hunger or starvation and 1m have become refugees. Yet cleverer global action—especially involving Western banks—can stop the rot.
The local context is important: control of the state is the grand prize in the deadly contest for power. Factions based primarily on ethnic and historical allegiance compete violently for power and the massive opportunities for self-enrichment available through looting national budgets, exploiting natural resources and manipulating state contracts.
This winner-take-all competition for the spoils is the main source of war. Witness how, when President Salva Kiir removed Vice-President Riek Machar from office in 2013, it took only a few months before their two competing factions went to war. After a peace deal allowed Mr Machar to return to Juba in 2016, the groups soon fell out again, plunging the country deeper into conflict. A combination of grievance and greed, connected by extreme corruption, powers the ongoing violence
South Sudan could be fabulously wealthy; it has abundant natural resources, including oil and gold. But that dream, felt acutely by most South Sudanese on independence in 2011, has become a nightmare. Billions of dollars in oil money have gone missing.
If this rot—the competitive looting of the state—is not stopped there is little chance of ending the violence, as documented in a report by our new investigative initiative, The Sentry. But the task in 2017 is to identify the financial drivers of war and begin to dismantle the violent kleptocratic system. Mistaken for a call for regime change, it is actually about system change. This reform agenda is a prerequisite for lasting peace, in South Sudan and in other states around the world where illicit financial flows fuel bloody conflict.
Hit them where it hurts
Responses to South Sudan’s chaos are currently ineffectual. The sound and fury of international indignation signify nothing to the orchestrators of atrocity because there is no enforcement. We counted 65 times in which senior officials around the world have threatened South Sudan’s leaders with consequences, but failed to take any meaningful action, since the latest war began in 2013. Its generals and politicians are largely unmoved by damning human-rights reports or press releases, UN Security Council protests, the deployment of peacekeeping troops, threats of arms embargoes and the unenforced sanctioning of mid-ranking officials. None of these responses affects the calculations of the warring parties because they do not target their pressure points and vulnerabilities.
A more effective approach requires going after the ill-gotten assets of warlords and their foreign facilitators, including businesses and arms dealers, because that is where they are most vulnerable. Experience from efforts in countering terrorism, nuclear proliferation and organised crime is instructive. The lessons include combining measures against money laundering with targeted asset freezes on war leaders and their accomplices. All this requires robust enforcement by banks. In the most successful cases, targeted officials are locked out from the financial system, creating real international leverage.
It’s simple: go after the warlords’ wallets, bankrupt those who choose the bullet over the ballot, and suddenly the incentives are for peace, not war; transparency, not corruption. This is a lesson that policymakers could apply far beyond South Sudan, particularly in the effort to prevent mass atrocities.
Countless South Sudanese journalists, human-rights investigators, anti-corruption activists, government reformers and humanitarians are risking their lives to change the system. Highlighting their work globally is crucial, as we do in supporting the Aurora Prize, a global humanitarian award. Bringing international pressure to bear on war leaders would further level the playing field for these champions of civil society.
The coming year will provide multiple opportunities to translate talk into action. The G20 will launch its latest anti-corruption plan. A UN fact-finding mission on South Sudan’s conflict will report in March. Mr Kiir and Mr Machar, long-time rivals, will have a final chance to drag their country back from the abyss, or step aside for others with less of an interest in disorder.
The world must undermine the pillars of the war economy and disrupt the financial flows that fuel conflict. Western taxpayers and charitable donors have contributed billions of dollars for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, but policymakers have rarely focused on the key driver of the carnage. Unless the links between conflict and corruption are confronted, peace will remain a distant dream.