By Jacob J. Akol
(Editorial published in the Gurtong Focus monthly magazine July Issue with digital edition available on www.gurtong.net)
In a document dated 3rd of May 2012, President Salva Kiir Mayardit wrote an unprecedented letter to 75 current and former government officials to “wholly or partially” return an estimated $4 billion dollars of public money they have salted away in foreign banks and real property to a new bank account known only to himself “and one another”; in return they would receive an amnesty from the president. Whoever advised the President to write the letter that way was either ingenuous or ingenious, knowing exactly what s/he was doing: letting the corruption Djinni out of the bottle with no hope of putting it back!
Following Independence in July 2011, the nation appeared to be at a loss as what to do next, with practically nothing else to look forward to. Much of the news was bad: The late General Athor Deng and his fellow rebels were terrorising villages deep inside the country and at the northern border, with the declared intention of marching into the main towns of Bentiu, Malakal, Bor and Juba. Although not many in Juba seriously believed them, the heightened ethnic conflicts in Lakes, Warrap and particularly between the Lou Nuer and the Murle in Jonglei, were sending a clear message of a nation under siege.
Khartoum’s invasion of Abyei in May 2011, was soon followed by another invasion of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile, thus adding hundreds of thousands of refugees from those (North) Sudan’s states to the thousands already displaced from Abyei into the border areas of the young republic. In addition, thousands of South Sudanese citizens, who were displaced mostly from oil areas in the 1980s and 1990s, were expelled by Khartoum back to South Sudan. And while Khartoum continued to bomb border areas in South Sudan, it also banned any food exports from Sudan to South Sudan, with the clear intention of using food as a weapon to starve South Sudan and bring down the government in Juba.
At the negotiations table in Addis Ababa, Khartoum came up with a preposterous proposal to take $36 dollars out of every barrel of South Sudan oil passing through its territory, knowing full well that over 90% of South Sudan’s annual budget comes from oil and that Juba had no alternative route to export the oil to international markets. To press the point home, Khartoum proceeded to arbitrarily remove hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude from the pipeline as payment in kind based on their outrageous fee proposal.
Juba responded by shutting down the oil wells and hoped to survive by borrowing money from international markets on the strength of the oil wealth underground. Although there were promises of huge loans from South East Asia, the terms of such loans were never made clear, leave alone when such funds would be made available. The rich nations of the West could only offer peanuts, either bilaterally or through the IMF and the World Bank, secretly contending that by shutting down the key earner the young nation had cut off her nose to spite her face and should therefore stew in her own juice - unless of course they do something concrete about the almost institutionalised corruption.
Fair enough, President Kiir’s speeches have been full of bravado about “zero tolerance to corruption” since his election in April 2010, and these include his speeches in New York and on the Independence Day in July last year. But, what exactly was he doing about it? The draft media laws, which were completed as early as 2008, have up to date remained in limbo between the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly; journalists continue to be harassed, arrested, detained and released without charges; there has been at least a court case by a ruling party leader against a daily newspaper which dared publish an accusing press release by a former minister of finance. Such threats from the government amount to intimidation of the media to unnecessarily censor itself, a clear signal to Western democracies that the president and his government are not serious about tackling official corruption.
“We are committed, as you know, to democratic government,” said former US Ambassador to Juba, Barrie Walkley, in an interview published in Gurtong Focus, February 2011. “At the heart of democracy is transparency and good governance. It is crucial if you are going to have good governance you need a free press. There is no country in the world where you have transparency without free press.”
The British Ambassador to Juba, Dr Alastair McPhail, echoed the same sentiments in an interview published in the Gurtong Focus of May 2011: “We have quite strong views on governance… We think that the media laws should be finalised so that there is clarity for all. We do not think it was the right thing to do to confiscate the Juba Post and issue a warning to media editors… There may be mistakes or there may not; but it is important freedom of speech and freedom of the press are principles to which we can all adhere.”
One could hear Norway saying “Amen!” to all those sentiments. Norway, along with the US and the UK, led Western countries in seeing that an agreement between Sudan and South Sudan was signed in Nairobi in 2005 and that the key protocol which led to the referendum and independence of South Sudan was implemented. They possibly see themselves as patrons and caretakers of the young nation.
Another clear caretaker of South Sudan is the United Nations, which has considerable forces in South Sudan. When asked if one can have transparency and good governance without freedom of the press, the Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, Hilde F. Johnson, said to Gurtong Focus in an interview published in the December 2011 – January 2012 issue: “I think these are critical principles that are also embedded in the transitional constitution. Transitional constitution says that all levels of government shall guarantee the freedom of the press and other media. Transparency is also about transparency in relation to the press.”
On corruption Ms Johnson said: “It is clear that there have been corruption problems linked to individuals during the Interim Period. The President has said it himself. He has said that investigations need to go into several of these cases – of grain scandal etcetera – and I am really looking forward to see that there is a process put in place for these important procedures to be put into action.”
The President’s letter is therefore the logical progression of his repeated public pronouncements of “zero tolerance to corruption”. With so many of international personnel deployed in various ministries in Juba for capacity building, one would be justified in thinking that they all see themselves as patrons and caretakers of the young nation. It would also be in place to suggest that though they did not pen the letter, some of them certainly knew and even encouraged it.
But if any corrupt officials thought that such a letter would whitewash their crimes, they must be terribly disappointed by now. The letter has taken on a life of its own. It has captured local and international headlines and it is demonstrably supported by the public. The National Assembly, though with divided opinions, has called for the suspension of those government officials who received the letter. One parliamentarian, a lady who received the letter and felt insulted, has given her bank account numbers in Nairobi and Juba to the public to examine her accounts for any misappropriation.
It is a surprise, though, that not any of those who received the letter have done the honourable thing and resign from the government and give their accounts keys to the public, just like the lady, to clear themselves. And while President Kiir may be wrongly advised to shy away from pursuing the letter to its logical conclusion in the hope of a whitewash, one thing is sure: this corruption Djinni is not getting back into the bottle!
*Jacob J. Akol is Director of Gurtong Trust and Editor of the Gurtong Website and monthly magazine; he is also Chairman of Association for Media Development in South Sudan, AMDISS.