Special investigation: President Kiir linked to multi-million dollar roads contracts
South Sudan’s government paid at least $161 million to a private construction company linked to President Salva Kiir, Radio Tamazuj reports exclusively today. It is unclear whether Kiir ever declared his involvement with the company to the Anti-Corruption Commission as required by law.
The company, ABMC Thai-South Sudan Construction Company Limited, has built major roads in the national capital Juba under contract by the national Ministry of Roads and Bridges.
President Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek, denied outright any relationship between Kiir and ABMC, claiming the president does not even have a personal bank account, let alone shares in a company.
However, government and company sources revealed that Kiir, his son Manut and his former secretary Akot Lual were all linked to ABMC in spite of constitutional prohibitions that make it illegal for top officials to “transact commercial business” or earn income from outside the government.
During an investigation carried out by Radio Tamazuj over more than a month, insider sources confirmed links between Kiir and ABMC. Although they were unable to provide documentary evidence about the precise nature of Kiir’s involvement, multiple corroborating sources confirmed the existence of a beneficial relationship.
According to a contact close to the company’s leadership, ABMC runs an agriculture project at the president’s private farm at Luri in Central Equatoria State. This initiative is run by ABMC through a subsidiary, Garden of Eden, which is described in ABMC promotional materials as both a “a sister company” and “a project launched by ABMC.”
“He now has a farm in Luri which is run for him by the ABMC,” the source said.
The source defended the initiative saying the project at the president’s farm was “a modest contribution to nation-building,” which would help reduce the country’s dependence on food imports.
Kiir’s spokesman denied the link, however, saying the president had only kept cattle at Luri. “The president does not own any project in Luri. The president had cows in Luri, but… those cows were taken back to Bahr al Ghazal. So there is nothing else,” said Ateny Wek.
Ownership of the company
Other sources said that Kiir’s involvement with ABMC extended to beyond just the farm. They said Kiir is a majority shareholder in ABMC. The sources indicated that his shares are not held directly but ‘by proxy’, meaning that his ownership stake may be concealed in the name of a close associate.
Ateny Wek said the company “belongs to a person called Benjamin Bol Mel” – the president of the company – “and President [Kiir] has no relation with ABMC.” Ateny was responding to a question about whether Kiir or any of his relatives has shares in the company.
Asked about Kiir’s role, a former ABMC official said he had never seen any document linking the president formally to the company but the president’s actions on contractual matters were a clear sign of his involvement. He was referring to his conduct regarding government contracts awarded to the company. The official said he believes Salva Kiir is the majority shareholder.
Multiple sources including former senior company officials and government sources also pointed to a role played by the president’s former secretary Akot Lual and the president’s son, Manut Salva Kiir, saying they were involved in securing government contracts on behalf of the company.
They further reported that ABMC built a house for Akot Lual in the Jebel neighborhood of Juba and for other senior government officials. Reached by phone, Akot Lual denied any connection with ABMC.
Boom and bust
South Sudan paid millions to ABMC for road works in Juba. Although the total value of government contracts awarded to the company is not known, promotional materials published by ABMC in 2012 disclosed that the company developed 55 miles of urban roads in Juba worth over $60 million, as well as roads to Bilpam, Gudele and Munuki, for a total value of at least $161 million.
ABMC has offices and facilities in Juba and Luri in Central Equatoria. It works with both South Sudanese and Thai staff. The company was founded several years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in either 2007 or 2008, according to statements published by the company itself.
During ABMC’s early years, the government was earning billions in oil revenue and spending large amounts of money on roads-building. In a report on South Sudan’s infrastucture, the Africa Development Bank estimated that the government spent about $165 million per year for roads-building during 2009-2011, while annual donor funding for roads programs was about $85 million.
Between about 2010 and 2012 the company “experienced tremendous growth,” said ABMC President Benjamin Bol Mel, as quoted in a company promotional document. He explained that the company had its sights set on a joint project worth $3.3 billion for construction of a highway to the Ethiopian border.
“Now we are gaining momentum,” he said. “Our goal is to get out of Juba and build highways.”
This goal was not to be realized. South Sudan shut down its oil production in January 2012 during a dispute with neighboring Sudan over pipeline fees. The government continued to spend on ‘priority’ roads projects throughout 2012, borrowing heavily.
But eventually the government revenue losses affected public sector spending and ABMC. The company even struggled to pay its employees in South Sudan in mid to late 2013.
According to social media posts on the company’s Facebook page, employees went several months without pay and were finally given their salaries in September 2013. The administrator of the page wrote in October 2013 that the company was experiencing hardship but was “recovering.”
The outbreak of war in December further crippled funding for public sector projects as oil revenues declined and defense spending soared.
Failure to declare assets and income
The Anti-Corruption Commission Act of 2009 and the Transitional Constitution of 2011 require that senior public officials including the president make confidential declarations of their income, assets and liabilities including those of their spouses and children.
This law has several purposes including to discourage public officials from practicing favouritism toward companies that they or their families own.
According to the 2009 law, senior civil servants are required to make these formal wealth declarations annually. The forms must be “conveyed to the [Anti-Corruption] Commission by the end of February each calendar year.”
South Sudan’s constitution further prohibits the president from transacting commercial business or accepting income from any source other than the national government during his time in office.
In an interview with Radio Tamazuj, Presidential Press Secretary Ateny Wek said that the president last declared his assets and income to the Anti-Corruption Commission in 2012. If true, this would mean that the president had failed to declare his assets and income to the Commission in the last three years.
But Ateny insisted that nothing significant had changed since 2012 and the president had nothing else to declare. “The president doesn’t involve himself in contracts and shares,” said Ateny. He added that Kiir does not even have a bank account either inside South Sudan or outside the country.
Asked to respond to information that the president’s son Manut Salva Kiir and his former secretary Akot Lual had been involved in securing contracts on behalf of the company, Ateny rubbished this as just “rumours” meant to smear the reputation of the president.
Ateny declined to comment further about Akot Lual’s reported ties to ABMC, saying, “I don’t know about Akot Lual and I am not in a position to talk on his behalf.”
“I am a spokesman at the presidency and Akot is a citizen, so it is not my business and it is also not your business as journalists.”