In April 2016, after considerable foot-dragging, opposition, and obstacles, the two main parties to the conflict in South Sudan that erupted in December 2013 formed a transitional government* as mandated in the August 2015 peace agreement. Deadly and escalating violence in multiple parts of the country has since raised serious doubts about the future of the country’s peace and political process. Sustainable peace in South Sudan will continue to be elusive unless leaders make profound and fundamental changes to establish accountability and end impunity.
Accountability was never built into the governance structure of the violent kleptocratic system that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) established in the aftermath of the 2005 peace deal that ended the 22-year north-south war. By nature, violent kleptocracies hijack governance institutions for the personal financial benefit of those within the ruling network and for the security of the regime. These kleptocracies use extreme violence, including mass atrocities, to maintain their hold on power. In this regard, South Sudan’s governance institutions were hijacked and the ability of these institutions to implement oversight functions was compromised. Wanton corruption by the political elite accelerated to unprecedented levels and further stymied the government’s ability to deliver services to the populace. In 2012, President Salva Kiir estimated that $4 billion was siphoned from the country’s coffers.
Over the years, many groups and individuals have studied institutional weaknesses in South Sudan. For the elites and their apologists, these weaknesses stem from a capacity shortfall; an affliction that they argue is inherent in processes of establishing new states. The term “capacity building” has become a catchphrase in the donor community, especially in the years immediately following South Sudan’s secession from Sudan. Donors spent a considerable amount of money and energy on capacity-building efforts in almost all sectors, including governance institutions.
Yet the perceived lack of capacity in governance institutions in South Sudan is actually the symptom of a much larger problem. Because governance institutions work at the behest of elite politicians, it is in the interest of these politicians to disable these institutions and limit their ability to play their role in oversight, regulation, and providing checks and balances on other parts of the government.
This coercion is manifest in a number of ways. First, elite politicians starve governance institutions of the funds required to enable them to perform their duties. Second, mandates to uphold accountability are undercut through the legal system. Third, elite politicians ensure that allies receive leadership positions in some of these institutions in order to wield control over their activities, and ultimately to undermine and counter the fight against graft.
This report, based on information collected before the transitional government formed in April 2016 and before violence escalated in Juba in July 2016, reviews the weaknesses of three of South Sudan’s governance institutions that are most critical to establishing accountability: the Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Audit Chamber, and the Public Accounts Committee in the National Legislative Assembly. All three institutions face considerable operational challenges that have undercut their effectiveness in implementing their constitutional mandates. Drawing on field research, this paper shows that the weaknesses of governance institutions in South Sudan stem from deliberate efforts by elite politicians to stymie these institutions’ capacity to perform their core functions to promote government accountability.
In the right political atmosphere and with the right political incentives for reform, these institutions could, however, exercise their roles effectively. The weaknesses can be addressed; they are not inevitable. The weaknesses are instilled in large part by elite kleptocrats. With genuine political will for institutional effectiveness from top leadership, supported by pressure and incentives from international partners with South Sudanese leaders, these critical governance institutions could fulfill their mandates.
It is imperative for South Sudan’s leaders to understand the significance of strong and viable institutions in fostering accountability, and most importantly, credibility for the government. Equally, it is crucial that South Sudan’s top political leaders understand that grand, competitive corruption increases the likelihood of conflict and state collapse.
It is therefore imperative that the transitional government take all the necessary steps to reform institutions of governance as stipulated in the August 2015 peace agreement, or else it could find itself presiding over the disintegration of the state.
*This report refers to the “government” and “transitional government” in South Sudan, using the terms interchangeably and acknowledging the many uncertainties about the status of the government and situation at the time of writing.