How South Sudan Elites use country’s oil money to empower militia groups
South Sudan’s elite is using the country’s oil wealth to get rich and terrorize civilians, according to documents reviewed in an ongoing investigation by The Sentry, an investigative initiative co-founded by George Clooney and John Prendergast.
Little has been known about the financial machinery that makes South Sudan’s continuing war possible, but documents obtained by The Sentry appear to shed new light on how the country’s main revenue source–oil–is used to fuel militias and ongoing atrocities, and how a small clique continues to get richer while the majority of South Sudanese suffer or flee their homeland because of the ongoing, devastating conflict.
The war in South Sudan, which has featured the use of child soldiers, rape as a weapon of war, and mass atrocities, has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and has left more than 4 million people displaced.
J.R. Mailey, Special Investigations Director at The Sentry, said: “South Sudan’s leaders should be using South Sudan’s natural resources to benefit the population–but the documents we have obtained indicate that they have used the country’s oil to buy weapons, fund deadly militias, and hire companies owned by political insiders to support military operations that have resulted in horrific atrocities and war crimes.”
John Prendergast, Co-founder of The Sentry and Founding Director of the Enough Project, said: “Our investigation indicates that members of South Sudan’s ruling clique appear to be profiting from the war itself. In order to build the leverage needed for peace, the international community should target the assets of those responsible for continued violence and deny them from accessing the international banking system.
The long-term, ongoing investigation by The Sentry will continue to reveal and detail further findings in coming months.
The documents reviewed by The Sentry purport to describe how funds from South Sudan’s state oil company, Nile Petroleum Corporation (Nilepet), helped fund militias responsible for horrific acts of violence.
One key document, part of a collection of material provided to The Sentry by an anonymous source, appears to be an internal log kept by South Sudan’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mining detailing security-related payments made by Nilepet. The document titled, “Security Expenses Summary from Nilepet as from March 2014 to Date” (“the Summary”) lists a total of 84 transactions spanning a 15-month period beginning in March 2014 and ending in June 2015.
Key Information Contained in the Documents:
More than $80 million was recorded as paid to South Sudanese politicians, military officials, government agencies, and companies owned by politicians and members of their families who were, according to the Summary, paid for services such as military transport and logistics to forces implicated in atrocities.
South Sudan’s petroleum ministry assisted in the provision of food, fuel, satellite phone airtime and money to a group of militias in Upper Nile state, according to the Summary. The militias are reportedly responsible for destroying villages and attacks against civilians, including a February 2016 attack against civilians at a U.N. site in Malakal that left dozens dead.
Interstate Airways, partially owned by South Sudan First Lady Mary Ayen Mayardit, reportedly received six payments beginning in April 2014 for army logistics and transportation of military hardware.
Nile Basin for Aviation, a little-known airline owned by family members of top military and government officials–including the wife of former military chief of staff Paul Malong and a nephew of then-petroleum minister and current Minister of Finance and Planning Stephen Dhieu Dau–is identified in the Summary as receiving payments from Nilepet in early 2015 for military logistics operations.
According to the Summary, Crown Auto Trade, a Toyota dealership with a majority owner–Obac William Olawo–who is a prominent South Sudanese businessman, received over $8 million in payments from Nilepet in 2014 alone for activities ranging from supplying vehicles to importing armored personnel carriers and transporting tanks and supplies. A report by Control Arms, a research and advocacy group, stated that the type of armored personnel carriers described in the Summary were “observed in different locations within South Sudan between May and December 2014, including in areas of Unity State where the conflict has been intense.” In an interview with The Sentry, Olawo denied that any of his companies have ever been involved in transporting troops, weapons, or equipment for the military. He said that the documents and reports suggesting as much may be confusing his company with “Sierra” an operation connected to Erik Prince, who he said is one of his business partners.
There are indeed two payments recorded in the Summary that mention Prince’s company, Frontier Services Group, in connection with “Project Sierra.” Two $16.4 million payments were recorded as paid in July and October 2014, labeled “Air Logistics & Support Services… (Project Sierra, Frontier Services Group).” Olawo described Sierra as an air cargo operation for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the National Security Service. In April 2016, The Intercept reported that FSG had attempted to provide attack aircraft to the Government of South Sudan in addition to other defense-related services. Representatives from FSG have previously denied doing business with South Sudan’s military but did not respond to questions about the payments described in the Nilepet security expenses summary.
The Summary also lists Golden Wings Aviation–another company owned by Olawo–alongside several other companies in connection with a $4,250,802 payment dated June 1, 2015, labeled “payment for army logistics operation.” The company is also mentioned by the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan as having transported weapons to Unity state on several occasions during a period of particularly horrific violence in 2014 and 2015.
The Sentry recommends the following steps in order to expand financial pressure to hold companies and individuals to account:
Target the Networks Behind Violence: The United States, European Union, and others in the international community should investigate the top officials who have played a role in military operations that have resulted in atrocities and, where appropriate, impose network-focused sanctions on them, their business associates and facilitators, and the companies they own or control.
Impose Sectoral Sanctions: The use of sanctions related to the oil sector should also expand beyond designations of key officials and their companies. Given the ubiquitous use of the U.S. dollar in the oil sector, such a measure could have a strong impact.
Banks and Financial Regulators Have a Key Role: Banks and financial regulators should step up efforts to halt the flow of illicit funds out of South Sudan. Banks found to be connected to be money laundering may incur heavy penalties and be subject to other law enforcement measures. The Sentry will continue to investigate these issues and raise appropriate findings to relevant authorities.
South Sudan’s Neighbors Must Escalate Financial Pressure, or Risk Damage to Their Own Financial Systems: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda have been reluctant to enforce and escalate international political and financial pressures. There are numerous opportunities for the international community–including U.S. and European governments and financial institutions–to encourage South Sudan’s neighbors to increase pressure on those responsible for South Sudan’s civil war.
About THE SENTRY
The Sentry is composed of best-in-class financial forensic investigators, policy analysts, and regional experts who follow the dirty money and build investigative cases focusing on the corrupt transnational networks most responsible for Africa’s deadliest conflicts. By creating a significant financial cost to these kleptocrats through network sanctions, anti-money laundering measures, prosecutions, and other tools, The Sentry aims to disrupt the profit incentives for mass atrocities and oppression, and creates new leverage in support of peace efforts and African frontline human rights defenders. The Sentry’s partner, the Enough Project, undertakes high-level advocacy with policy-makers around the world as well as wide-reaching education campaigns by mobilizing students, faith-based groups, celebrities, and others. Co-founded by George Clooney and John Prendergast, The Sentry is an initiative of Not On Our Watch (NOOW) and the Enough Project. The Sentry currently focuses its work in South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.
In less than two years, The Sentry has created hard-hitting reports and converted extensive research into a large volume of dossiers on individuals and entities connected to grand corruption, violence, or serious human rights abuses. The investigative team has turned those dossiers over to government regulatory and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and around the world, as well as to compliance officers at the world’s largest banks.