By Farah Bogani, STAND Canada Blog Writer

Since achieving independence in 2011, South Sudan has been faced with escalating tensions culminating in the ouster of Vice-President Riek Machar by President Salva Kiir in July 2013, followed by accusations of an attempted coup by Machar in December 2013. Since then, the conflict has taken on a highly divisive, ethnically-charged dimension which has plunged the state into fighting, brutal campaigns of rape, and most recently aggravated by a widespread famine officially declared in March 2017.

The conflict can be put down to a legacy of widespread kleptocracy. In the newly separated South Sudan, responsibility of governance was passed to liberation fighters like the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Their new positions of power, combined with their lack of governing and financial experience, led to failures in establishing proper institutional mechanisms, equal division of resources, and effective militia demobilisation and disarmament. Consequently, it became easy for officials to engage in corruption as sudden access to a fertile, oil-rich, and mineral-rich country promised wealth and opportunity to those who did not previously have it before. Officials have been known to divert public money into their own bank accounts, engage in contract fraud and money laundering, manipulate the exchange rate, and avoid regulated spending.

Now, with Machar and his faction removed from power, conflict has intensified. It has become a tool for both sides: the current government uses it to maintain power and control over natural resources, foreign aid, public spending, and contracts, while the opposition wields it in hopes of regaining the power and wealth they have lost. As Kiir is ethnically Dinka and Machar is ethnically Nuer, the situation is worsened by the exploitation of ethnic identities as a way to draw polarizing divisions of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ within communities, driving supporters and fighters to each side. Adding to this the fact that resources and money have been withheld, many civilians are forced to join militias to ensure survival. Those that don’t become targets of a strategy to prevent fighters from seeking shelter, food, and support from civilians, leading to acts of forced cannibalism, rape, enslavement, killing, beating, widespread arson, and displacement.

Without addressing the kleptocratic structures that flourish in South Sudan, the increased effort and concentration on peacekeeping, provision of aid, and assistance will have little effect. The system deliberately perpetuates ethnic conflict to keep power and wealth at the top and tells people to fend for themselves. President Kiir came under fire for his purchase of weapons shortly after the declaration of famine — a purchase only made possible by foreign governments investing in the chaos rather than stopping it. For the situation to change, a concrete demonstration of political will is necessary. The recent failure of the Security Council in March 2017 to adopt a resolution on an arms embargo and increased sanctions for South Sudan contributes to increasing impunity for corrupt practices, suggesting alternative strategies may be required. For example, along with a change in governance and commitment to legal and political accountability for grave human rights violations, there should be effective targeting of the illicit network of financial incentives that benefit the elite, military commanders, and local actors while fuelling conflict. It has been suggested that increasing the transparency of the national budget, implementing stronger anti-money laundering measures, and securing offshore assets of corrupt, political elites could have greater impact. It is not enough for the international community to condemn from the sidelines anymore, but to take an active role in providing real solutions for tackling the root of the conflict.

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