President Barack Obama’s travel to Kenya and Ethiopia offers a unique opportunity to make progress on U.S. commitments to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic governance, and promote peace and security across the continent. Achieving these objectives in regions of Africa that have been torn apart by deadly conflict requires a dedicated focus on the core source of instability and autocracy in these places: the violent kleptocracies, or highly corrupt systems that are closely linked to conflict. These systems have taken root and led to full-scale war in South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia, and other neighboring countries, as leaders and business partners have amassed significant personal wealth in large part by partnering with armed groups and commanders to extract it.
The administration’s and the broader international community’s engagement to date on conflict mitigation in Africa—including leadership in and support for peace processes, peacekeeping missions, and accountability measures—has not made a dent in disrupting or dismantling the kleptocracies that allow these wars to continue. Highlighting this most vividly are the cases of Sudan and South Sudan, where the calculations of warring parties have not yet shifted despite huge investments in conventional tools by the United States and the broader international community.
The administration’s initiatives on conflict in Africa have, however, made a positive lasting impact in several other areas. Killings by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have declined by more than 90 percent, and LRA attacks have decreased by 30 percent in the time since President Obama authorized U.S. military advisors to deploy to support a regional counter-LRA mission. Concerted U.S. engagement in support of Congo’s regional peace process and U.S. pressure on Rwanda played an important role in helping Congo and the United Nations defeat the deadly M23 rebel group in late 2013. Additionally, U.S. support for greater transparency and rule of law in the minerals sector has helped decrease the amount of funding from conflict minerals that is available to armed groups. While the security situation in Somalia remains tenuous, U.S. support to the Somali government and African Union peacekeeping forces deployed in Somalia has helped to push Al-Shabaab out of key towns and create space for the revival of governance and economic recovery.
The international community, however, needs a fresh strategy for addressing the deadly nexus between conflict and corruption, and President Obama’s trip to the region can set the tone for prioritizing new policy approaches to conflicts that had once seemed intractable. Kleptocratic systems have developed in the absence of financial, regulatory, and legal accountability for warlords hijacking and looting states and using mass atrocities, including sexual and gender-based violence, to attain or maintain power. Several studies document a strong connection between corruption, state weakness, and social and political instability. This hijacking of states is worsened by the high volume of illicit financial outflows from African economies—tens of billions of dollars annually—that have increased over time. For example, in Congo, an estimated $4 billion in illicit financial flows leaves the country every year through the manipulation of mining contracts and budgets, in part through flows of minerals from the east of the country, where conflict has continued for the past 22 years.
A new strategy for peace requires a partnership between Africa, the United States, and other influential actors focused on creating accountability for the architects of atrocities and disrupting their access to the means that enable them to wage war. Broad-based partnerships are needed to support those who fight against corruption and for greater transparency and accountability for atrocity crimes and economic crimes. The United States should leverage the diplomatic and economic influence of external partners like China, the European Union, and Persian Gulf states to work with the African Union and sub-regional African organizations to address root causes of these complex emergencies. Such partnerships, and U.S. leadership, can begin to counter violent kleptocracy, accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve peace and security.
To buttress such a new strategy, the Enough Project offers the following specific policy recommendations that could be a priority focus of the Obama administration coming out of the president’s trip to Africa:
- The United States, the U.N. Security Council, the African Union, and the European Union should prioritize targeted sanctions against individuals, companies, institutions, and other actors that facilitate grand corruption, participate in illicit natural resource trade (including conflict gold), and commit atrocities in conflict-affected areas in Africa. Particular efforts should be made to craft systemic strategies that leverage counter-terrorist financing, anti-money laundering, and transnational organized crime authorities in order to target entire networks of atrocity financing over the less effective one-off sanctions on individual commanders or companies.
- The United States and other donors should expand their existing efforts to build the technical capacity of African regional financial institutions beyond their current emphasis on countering money laundering and terrorist financing to also include a focus on international sanctions enforcement. Existing programs should be expanded to help enhance the operational capacity of regional financial intelligence units (FIUs). These FIUs are central national agencies responsible for receiving, analyzing, and transmitting disclosures on suspicious transactions to the competent authorities, making them the appropriate locus of expanded sanctions implementation activities.
- The Secretary of the Treasury should direct more resources towards African sanctions enforcement investigations in the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), allowing them to focus on those suspected of facilitating grand corruption, participating in illicit natural resource trades, and committing atrocities in Africa’s deadliest conflicts.
- The United States, along with the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada, should lead efforts to disrupt and dismantle the elite networks that steal wealth from conflict-affected African countries. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section (AFMLS), in leading the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, should investigate and locate the proceeds of grand corruption in conflict countries and use asset forfeiture provisions to recover those assets and return them to the countries and communities from which they were stolen. While in the region, President Obama should urge Kenya and Ethiopia to share intelligence and contribute actively to the asset recovery inter-agency network of eastern Africa to jump-start these efforts.
- The U.S. Office of Global Criminal Justice should encourage and support efforts to investigate and prosecute the war crime of pillage—theft in the time of war, including large-scale theft of natural resources and wildlife trafficking. The International Criminal Court (ICC), hybrid courts, and national prosecutors could more effectively pursue these pillage investigations and prosecutions with U.S. support. The United States, along with ICC states parties, should encourage ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to revive the court’s financial crimes unit and appoint special advisors on financial forensics and natural resource theft as part of a comprehensive approach to investigating and prosecuting widespread pillage in South Sudan, Sudan, Congo, and CAR.
- The U.S. government should urge a greater number of African governments—including South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, and others—to join international regulatory institutions for high-value natural resources, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). These governments should be encouraged to work to implement the practices of these regulatory institutions and initiatives and increase budget transparency.
- The United States should increase its democracy and governance support to diverse coalitions of people and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the region that are actively seeking to hold their own leaders to account for economic crimes. The United States has a longstanding commitment to empowering those who advocate together for democratic political transformation, participatory governance, participation in peace processes, and greater government transparency, but funding for these efforts has fallen in recent years. USAID can support these communities by expanding local groups’ access to funding, training, and networking to strengthen their ability to expose mass corruption and the misappropriation of their countries’ natural resource wealth.