Some people in Kenya are getting very rich from the war in South Sudan. But they would rather you did not know that.
South Sudan is a fragile place where the unscrupulous and callous can make a quick buck at the expense of people. Weak financial controls, partly result of its status as a new state, and partly result of the new civil war, have left South Sudan vulnerable to grand corruption.
Government contracts have become a source of vast revenues for generals and leaders in South Sudan. Another source of wealth for South Sudan’s elite is the plunder of the country’s natural resources, mainly timber, which is exported to countries in the region but also as far as India.
As John Allan Namu demonstrates in his latest documentary, The Profiteers, the proceeds from this corruption do not go to the benefit of the people of South Sudan. Under the noses of our banks and government officials, they take advantage of the relative political stability and more advanced financial systems here in Kenya and in Uganda to stash their loot and protect their profit.
The new term is illicit financial flows, but you might know it by its traditional name: “money laundering”. This describes all activities involved in the transformation of illegally acquired wealth from the form in which it was acquired to a form that will conceal its criminal origins, and yet be available for use by those who acquired it.
The Profiteers demonstrates the use of the territories, financial services, and hospitality of Kenya and Uganda for the investment and protection of wealth coming from illegal activity in South Sudan.
What was not known before the documentary was the extent of political cover that is needed, and available, to South Sudanese actors without which their activities in Kenya and Uganda would not succeed. The documentary demonstrates that South Sudan’s elites enjoy close relations with the leadership in Kenya and also that Ugandan security forces provide support that enables the plunder of South Sudan natural resources. In putting names to what has only been a category of people referred to as South Sudan elites, the documentary has set off a process through which a more comprehensive listing of those involved can begin to emerge.
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Kenya and Uganda have their own problems of corruption. It is evident that internal weaknesses in the two countries are exploited by actors in South Sudan to expatriate their illegally-acquired wealth. However, Kenya’s political leadership has recently declared a high profile war on corruption, a stance that is inconsistent with close ties with foreign military elites that are under investigation in their own country.
In the context of the national war against corruption, Kenya’s financial systems have recently come under scrutiny following inaction by authorities when red flags were raised over the movement through the banking system of large sums of money that were stolen from the National Youth Service. Large fines that Kenya’s Central Bank imposed on the offending commercial banks signaled its intention to crack down on the laxity that allowed the use of the country’s financial system to move around proceeds of financial crime. Following reports that illegally-acquired wealth from South Sudan is moving through Kenya’s financial sector, the Central Bank must act again if it is to preserve the credibility it is trying to establish.
The revelations also expose a contradiction in Kenya’s foreign policy. Unlike Uganda and Sudan, which are widely viewed as having favourites in the South Sudan conflict, Kenya has always sought to project the image of a neutral actor. Yet the revelations of close ties between Kenya’s political leaders and South Sudan’s military elites will go a long way towards undermining that image.
Kenyan and Ugandan leaders have no natural reason to alter relations with South Sudan’s elites. It is only through the public exposure of these relationships that they will begin to act. It is unfortunate that local television stations did not give Namu’s documentary airplay. But this should give us all hope: that political leaders care when their wrong-doings are brought into the light of day, and that light will only get stronger.
Importantly, The Profiteers also focuses on victims of the South Sudan’s war, including women who have been subjected to savagery of rape, refugees living in the squalor of camps and journalists on the run, because it is no longer safe to work in their own country.
If there is a reason to act, it should be to save these innocent people who have been affected in life-changing ways by the violence around them. The violations suffered by these victims remain unattended. Endeavours for accountability in South Sudan would be incomplete unless redress for the violations suffered by these victims becomes a part of the struggle.
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