Opinion: South Africa needs to push for accountability in South Sudan

By Shannon Ebrahim

President Kiir who is on a working visit to South Africa received Deputy President Ramaphosa, South Africa's Special Envoy to South Sudan in Pretoria. President Kiir briefed Deputy President on the political and security situation in South Sudan., 21/01/2018(Photo credit: Kopano Tlape GCIS)
President Kiir who is on a working visit to South Africa received Deputy President Ramaphosa, South Africa’s Special Envoy to South Sudan in Pretoria. President Kiir briefed Deputy President on the political and security situation in South Sudan., 21/01/2018(Photo credit: Kopano Tlape GCIS)

October 13th 2019 (Nyamilepedia) – Exactly 20 years ago I travelled through South Sudan investigating the link between the emerging oil industry and the ongoing civil war between Sudan and South Sudan. Travelling by road with a team from Doctors Without Borders, the devastation of the civil war was all too apparent. Khartoum’s helicopters frequently dropped barrel bombs on villages, forcing locals to jump into makeshift bunkers below ground to try and escape the carnage, that included crude bombs which sprayed nails and shrapnel at everything they touched.

There was little development to speak of, and sleeping sickness caused by tsetse flies ravaged villages. The evenings spent in grass huts were punctuated by the sound of funeral services.

The adults in the villages had plenty of stories to tell about Omar al-Bashir’s militias and how they went about implementing their scorched-earth policy against South Sudan’s communities. What that meant in practice was clearing the people off the land by burning their villages to the ground, all to make way for oil exploration by multinational oil companies.

How oil in the south fueled the civil war

The civil war, which had begun in 1983, had become all the more ferocious with the exploration for oil, which was increasingly being dubbed South Sudan’s new curse. It was in 1999, when I did my tour through the south, that oil started being pumped through the new pipeline from the southern oil fields to Port Sudan in the north, and exported from there. The fight to control South Sudan’s oil fields was on, and the race by European, Chinese and the Canadian oil company Talisman to discover new oil deposits left death and destruction in their wake.

In those years the fight for South Sudan’s liberation from the north had gained traction, and it was thought that independence would be the panacea to the developmental challenges. Khartoum was exploiting the oil from the south and not ploughing any of the profits back into basic development. For much of its history, South Sudan was probably one of the most under-developed areas on the planet. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south was finally signed in 2005, 21 years after the civil war began, there was much cause for celebration, as the newest member of the UN assembly was born.

How independence led to a competition for resources

Tragically, the elation was short-lived as the newly independent South Sudan descended into frenzied chaos, as factions within the south vied for political power, and control of resources.

South Sudan has the third-largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa. Oil accounts for 98% of the government’s annual operating budget and 80% of its gross domestic product. This was a recipe for corruption, which is precisely what happened, leaving the rest of the population in dire poverty, and at the mercy of marauding militias seeking to control territory and political power.

The civil war in South Sudan officially began eight years after independence in 2013, and evolved beyond the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, Kiir’s former vice-president. The strategy of opposition armed forces was to disrupt oil production. According to some UN officials, the current armed conflict in South Sudan “is being driven primarily by the need to control the oil-producing areas in Unity and Upper Nile states” and “oil revenues, and income from other natural resources, such as illegal teak logging have continued to fund the war, enabling its continuation and the resulting human rights violations”.

The growing humanitarian crisis

The ongoing conflict has led to drastic economic decline, a severe humanitarian crisis and widespread violations of human rights. South Sudan is ranked the third most fragile nation out of 178 this year. Almost 7 million people, or 61% of the population, are food insecure, and an estimated 4.5 million will not have access to sufficient health care services this year. It is the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, with more than 1.9 million people having been forced to flee their homes, and over 2 million having fled to neighbouring countries.

Eighty-two percent of refugees are women and children, 65% under the age of 18. About 2.2 million school-aged children are out of school due to the war. Approximately 65% of women and girls have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, and one out of four reported cases of conflict-related sexual violence as a child. South Sudan has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence.

Corruption and the oil industry threaten peace

Transparency International considers South Sudan the third most corrupt nation. George Clooney’s NGO The Sentry and UN officials have warned that endemic corruption facilitated by the oil industry, combined with a lack of accountability and transparency in the economy, continues to threaten lasting peace, and that oil companies could be accused of complicity in war crimes.

A recent report by The Sentry exposed how individuals and corporations globally have been complicit in the hijacking of state institutions and looting of the country’s resources. The report also documents how multinational oil consortiums in South Sudan have been providing material support to a pro-government militia that commits atrocities, including the burning of entire villages.

Oil revenue from South Sudan’s state oil company, Nile Petroleum Corporation, has been used to fund militias responsible for horrific acts of violence against civilians in the form of fuel, equipment, funds, food and supplies and airtime for satellite phones, according to reports by The Sentry and Global Witness. Throughout the civil war the government was buying weapons with oil proceeds, something that since 2018 was against a UN-imposed arms embargo, but by which time the government had procured most of what they needed.

The Sentry report mentions a South African aviation firm that had a joint venture with South Sudan’s National Security Service, which it said is an agency documented to have played a key role in human rights abuses against the civilian population. While the signing of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan last September has contributed to a reduction in fighting between the main parties, there is no real peace in South Sudan and mass atrocities continue.

A UN panel warned last month that the failure to implement the agreement risks “plunging the country back into full-scale conflict”. While the atrocities continue, South Sudan launched its 2020 oil and gas licensing round in Cape Town this week, which is part of plans to double oil production by 2020. If profits from future oil production are to be used for the good of the people, then the government and contractors should disclose information on all oil payments and revenues, as is required by law (which UN experts found has not been happening). Oil payments should also be made directly into the account of the Bank of South Sudan to promote transparency and make secret conflict financing harder.

In May, South Africa signed a deal for the exploration and production of oil in South Sudan as part of a R14.5 billion investment, which has been widely criticised for being clouded in secrecy. South Africa has a particular responsibility to ensure greater transparency in oil payments to South Sudan, and to push for accountability and the full and urgent implementation of the Revised Peace Agreement. If the security situation slides towards civil conflict again, South Africa will find itself complicit given that it has become an investor in the oil industry.

The author, Shannon Ebrahim, is a South African columnist on foreign affairs, a freelance writer, and political consultant.

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