“Independent South Sudan: A Failure of Leadership”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Testimony of John Prendergast, Founding Director, Enough Project
December 10, 2015
Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Cardin, and members of the committee, I’m grateful for the opportunity to testify about South Sudan at such a critical fork in the road for the youngest nation in the world. Working with the executive branch and through your actions, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has the opportunity to help this new country change course and make progress on implementing the hard-won peace agreement that was signed back in August. If these efforts fail, South Sudan will likely be plunged back into a full-scale civil war that surely would be – based on past experience – one of the world’s deadliest.
This war has been hell for the people of South Sudan, but it has also been very lucrative for their leaders. “War crimes pay” has been the message. And therein lies the crux of the problem with U.S. and broader international efforts to support peace in South Sudan and other war torn states in Africa: we are not frontally addressing the violent kleptocracies1 that are at the core of wars and extreme violence in South Sudan, Sudan, Congo, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Burundi, etc.
1 The Enough Project uses the term “violent kleptocracy” to refer to a system in which a country’s wealth is captured and controlled almost exclusively by a small group of powerful elites within the government. These officials rely on state structures and institutions, including the state security apparatus, for their own protection and personal economic gain. Kleptocracy exceeds corruption as a state-based system of economic exploitation, and violence is the primary means by which the government seeks to stay in power. Patronage networks also play an important role in the system and tend to reinforce existing power dynamics. Nevertheless, these systems can also be deeply unstable, and competing kleptocratic networks within the government may become rivals for control over the state. Such competition can lead to an increase in violence and state repression, and potentially civil war, as in the case of South Sudan.
South Sudan and the other countries listed above are not simply failed states, as they are commonly referred to. They are hijacked states. In South Sudan, competing factions of the ruling party have used state institutions and deadly force to finance and fortify networks aimed at self-enrichment and brutal repression of dissent. South Sudan’s leaders never seriously invested in building credible state institutions because they wanted to ensure the absence of accountability. Rather than protecting their populations, these competing factions used elements of the military and police to protect the spoils of their corrupt networks and their exploitation of the countries’ rich natural resources. Then the two factions turned on each other due to long-running financial and political rivalries in the zero sum game that is South Sudan’s politics, and they mobilized communities along ethnic lines, with predictably horrific consequences.
As Sarah Chayes has observed in other settings, Afghanistan most prominently, corruption is not an anomaly; it is the foundation of the intended system. 2
The hijacking of the state by corrupt leaders willing to use mass violence and harsh repression to maintain or gain power is the deepest root cause of South Sudan’s war, as it is in a number of other endemic conflicts in Africa. But the outlook is not hopeless. The African states that have begun to overcome this cycle are beginning to thrive, offering rays of hope for the future of those still caught in conflict. And because these violent kleplocracies internationalize the spoils of their theft and use of deadly force, there are vulnerabilities that the U.S. is in a unique position to address in support of peace and human rights.
Our conventional diplomacy has limited value and impact because it has not sought to alter the calculations of those fueling and profiting from war. Therefore, dismantling the financial networks that enable and benefit from mass atrocities and creating a cost for profiting from conflict will allow other essential tools – such as diplomacy, peacekeeping, state building assistance, and accountability efforts – a better chance of success.
We must focus on making war more costly than peace. The incentives for financially benefiting from violence need to be fundamentally altered through a comprehensive strategy of financial pressure that provides the necessary leverage to drive the parties to compromise. As long as war is profitable for certain leaders and their enablers, it will be that much harder to end.
The missing ingredient in U.S. policy toward South Sudan, and many other war-torn African states, is financial/economic leverage. Greed is driving the calculations of South Sudan’s government and rebel leaders. Politics in South Sudan has become a winner take all game, so huge patronage and security networks financed by acute corruption can only be maintained by keeping other factions out of government. The national interest is sacrificed for more venal self-interests as a matter of policy. And given the lack of any accountability for such a system, it should not be surprising that it continues.
When there are no limits to the hijacking of state resources or consequences for the use of violence to maintain power, instability and civil war are never far off. It is in the arena of global financial investigations into the proceeds of corruption used to fund mass atrocities that the U.S. has the most potential leverage. The U.S. and other governments working genuinely for peace in South Sudan (and other war-torn African states) can only enhance their influence in supporting peace and human rights if a concerted effort is made to expand economic pressure. And the surest route to building this kind of leverage is by hitting the leaders of the rival kleptocratic factions where it hurts the most: their wallets. A hard target transnational search is required for the assets that have been stolen from South Sudan by its leaders over the last decade, aiming to freeze, seize, and return the proceeds of corruption to the South Sudanese people and create a real consequence for those that have robbed the country blind and plunged it back into war.
That, Mr. Chairman, is where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can help the most, and where I believe your efforts should be focused: ensuring that the U.S. government and its allies 3