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The Paper Tiger in South Sudan: Threats without Consequences for Atrocities and Kleptocracy

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The Paper Tiger in South Sudan: Threats without Consequences for Atrocities and Kleptocracy

Posted by John Prendergast on May 24, 2016


After 30 years of either living in, visiting, or working in South Sudan, and after extensive analysis undertaken by my colleagues at the Enough Project, our collective conclusion is that the primary root cause for the atrocities and instability that mark South Sudan’s short history is that the government there quickly morphed into a violent kleptocracy. Grand corruption and extreme violence are not aberrations; they are the system.[i] Fighting for control of the government allows for control of a vast wealth-generating machine. And using extreme violence to keep control, once you have it, is viewed as imperative. Unless this violent kleptocratic system is addressed head-on by policymakers internationally, the billions of dollars spent annually for peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and the ongoing diplomacy and assistance supporting the peace deal there will simply be treating symptoms, not addressing the primary root cause of cyclical conflict.

The theory of change that underpins this policy brief is a simple one: if there are no consequences for mass corruption and mass atrocities, then there should be no illusions that anything beyond cosmetic change is going to result from South Sudan’s current peace deal. The incentive structure favors mass corruption for self-enrichment and the use of deadly violence to maintain or gain access to power. That incentive structure must be significantly altered for sustainable peace and democratic governance to have a chance to take hold in South Sudan. At a U.S. congressional hearing on April 27, 2016, Luka Biong Deng emphasized the importance of “making the costs of non-implementation more than the costs of implementation.” He added, “The parties should be made to believe that by not implementing this peace agreement, they will pay the price.”[ii]

The surest way for the United States and the broader international community to create real consequences and build critically-needed leverage for peace is by hitting the leaders of rival kleptocratic factions in South Sudan where it hurts the most: their wallets. This requires a hard-target transnational search for dirty money and corrupt deals made by government officials, rebel leaders, arms traffickers, complicit bankers, and mining and oil company representatives.

Unfortunately, the United States and its allies have continuously threatened consequences without imposing them. They have become paper tigers in South Sudan, roaring without biting. This has had the unintended impact of hardening the sense of impunity of South Sudan’s leaders, as one threat after another regarding arms embargoes and higher-level targeted sanctions have not come to fruition. Leading South Sudanese officials have learned how to do just enough to forestall more serious international actions, tying up the U.N. Security Council in endless debates and often marginalizing that body in the face of one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises.

A government at its most basic level is supposed to deliver social services, provide security, and safeguard the rule of law. In South Sudan, however, with no internal checks and balances and no international accountability, the state has been transformed into a predatory criminal enterprise that serves only the interests of those at the top of the power pyramid. Competing factions of the ruling party have hijacked the state itself and are using its institutions—along with deadly force—to finance and fortify networks aimed at self-enrichment and maintaining or acquiring power.

The factions vying for power in Juba truly believe that they can loot state coffers and commit atrocities with impunity. In the short term, an elite pact like the current peace deal between the Juba government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) may be the quickest path out of the immediate violence. But sustainable peace in South Sudan will remain illusory without fundamental changes to end impunity and establish accountability. If South Sudanese people who are striving for peace, human rights, and democracy are to be supported by the broader international community, it is critical that outsiders have a proper diagnosis of the primary driver of ongoing violence in the country today. A return to deadly conflict is likely unless the economic and atrocity crimes at the root of the country’s violent kleptocratic system are addressed.


[i] Sarah Chayes’ writings have been helpful in providing a foundation for Enough’s analysis. See Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); Sarah Chayes, “Characteristics and Causes of Global Corruption,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 30, 2015, available at; Working Group on Security and Corruption and Sarah Chayes, “Corruption: The Unrecognized Threat to International Security,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 6, 2014, available at

[ii] U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations' hearing on “South Sudan’s Prospects for Peace and Security,” April 27, 2016, time code 2:28:36, full video available at The full written Congressional testimony of Luka Biong Deng is available at, with the section on “Making the Cost of Non-Implementation More Than the Cost of Implementation” detailed on pages 16-17.