September 14, 2016,
Victorian Chief ReporterMelbourne
A former South Sudanese army chief named in an anti-corruption watchdog’s report that alleges the nation’s military and political elite fleeced millions of dollars from their war-ravaged country paid $1.5 million cash for a mansion in Melbourne’s southeast.
The family of General James Hoth Mai Nguoth, who controlled the South Sudanese government forces at the height of the fledgling nation’s bloody civil war, is living in suburban luxury after buying a four-bedroom home in a quiet Narre Warren cul de sac.
The Australian government has funnelled nearly $50m in humanitarian aid to South Sudan since 2013. Australian forces are also on the ground as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.
At the time General Hoth Mai bought the sprawling home with lake and parkland views, his wife and children were living in a housing commission property.
Their new home has a sauna, an infinity pool and a five-car lock-up garage. The general paid additional money to install security gates and a home theatre. A late-model BMW was yesterday parked in the drive.
In the original sale documents, the buyer was listed as the general’s wife, Nyawarga Hoth Mai. On the day of settlement, in August 2014, the sale documents were altered to record the buyer as the general’s son, Nguoth Oth Mai, an Australian citizen.
The peculiar circumstances of the sale and the general’s notoriety from the South Sudan conflict prompted the previous owner of the house, property developer Michael Mathot, to report his concerns to the Foreign Investment Review Board.
“They didn’t want a bar of it,’’ he told The Australian.
As the house is technically owned by the general’s son, it appears unlikely he has broken foreign investment rules.
Of greater concern is the unexplained wealth amassed by a career soldier who, according to the report published by the US group The Sentry, was paid a salary of no more than $US45,000 ($60,000) before he lost his job in a purge of Nuer tribesmen by the Kiir regime. Both the government-controlled Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the main rebel force led by Riek Machar, a former vice-president, have been accused of atrocities including mass murder, rape, torture and the use of child soldiers.
Murray Phillip, the Melbourne agent who sold the house to General Hoth Mai, described the well-dressed, well-educated buyers as “ridgy didge’’.
He said he met the general only once, at a post-sale inspection. “They were a typical purchaser, African family, wanting to buy a house in the area,’’ Mr Phillip said. “We didn’t think there was anything untoward or strange about it.’’
Mr Mathot, who needed to sell the house quickly to put the money towards another investment, offered a different recollection: “They are all in private school clothes, his missus is living in a commission home. There was no mortgage, full cash. I know the money came from him because his kids told me and his wife told me. I rang the investment review board and told them about it and they just gave me the brush-off.’’
Mr Mathot said final settlement was delayed as he waited for Nyawarga Hoth Mai to provide the balance of funds. According to Mr Mathot, Nyawarga said the general was having trouble getting money out of Dubai. It finally arrived on the last day of an extended settlement period. The legal firm that provided conveyancing on the instructions of the general’s wife declined to comment on the transaction. Title documents confirm the 9500sq m property was bought without covenants.
An unidentified women who answered the intercom at the Narre Warren house yesterday declined to comment on the circumstances of the sale or the allegations raised by The Sentry, a group co-founded by actor George Clooney.
Two women who left the house identified themselves as daughters of the householders.
Neighbours said the general did not live at the house. As an ethnic Nuer leading predominantly Dinka government forces, General Hoth Mai found himself stranded in no-man’s land in an increasingly destructive tribal conflict.
The Economist in February 2014 published a favourable profile, depicting General Hoth Mai as a war-weary soldier trying to stop the slaughter. Two months later he was sacked by President Salva Kiir Mayardit. He fled to Kenya and political exile.
An estimated 2.3 million people have been displaced by the civil war that has been raging for most of South Sudan’s five-year history as an independent state.