Competitive corruption surrounding control of resources, particularly among military actors, has been a defining feature of South Sudan’s system of violent kleptocracy for many years. When the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) emerged as the leading political and military group in pre-independent and then independent South Sudan, battlefield alliances and loyalties contributed to the formation of powerful and problematic patron-client networks. Battlefield alliances also heavily influenced decisions about who received posts in the new state’s power structure and who was appointed to positions of control over state financial resources, which many used for feeding the patron-client networks. Those who received these positions also sought to settle old scores with old rivals, and there was also competition and jockeying for power among those loyal to the SPLM/A. Part of the prize for this competition was control over a share of the state’s financial resources and a role in the state military. Over time, South Sudan’s army structure became bloated and top-heavy, with fierce internal competition over appointments to positions of authority in budgets and spending.
For a brief time in South Sudan, when there was oil money, the system of armed and previously violent competition was stable or played out in political, not military, contexts. With money available, the awarding of non-competitive contracts, contract inflation, and the manipulation of soldier payrolls—common in military spending in South Sudan—provided public officials with powerful ways of buying or leasing the loyalties of armed groups. The money could employ and feed a powerful individual’s support network, particularly if such a network received inflated, lucrative military contracts for food, fuel, weapons and heavy, sophisticated military equipment.
But oil revenues declined, and the oil money began to run out in 2012. Oil production was suspended for more than a year, beginning in early 2012, and eventually resumed at lower levels. Then the global price of oil fell. The loss of oil money in recent years and ultimately the large-scale economic collapse that has both contributed to violence and been worsened by the violence in South Sudan, has caused the power networks to disintegrate and the violence and competition for money, control of the state, and military dominance to intensify.
Corruption in South Sudan has now shifted from being an integrated and self-sustaining system during the country’s brief economic boom period to being a disintegrative and self-destructing system in the wake of economic collapse. This system of violent kleptocracy defies founding principles and provisions of South Sudan’s constitution, legal statutes, and core military strategic plans for transitioning from a non-state armed group to a national army. South Sudan’s system of violent kleptocracy is marked by convergence between formerly separate military and civilian decision-making branches of government. The system both enables and is enabled by unchecked overreach of power by officials who oversee budgets with revenue and spending that is unregulated, with oversight and auditing that are obstructed. There is also cutthroat competition, infighting in the ranks and the leadership, and a volatile mix of both rank-pulling and insubordination within the army hierarchy that has stoked violence, undermined basic operational effectiveness in several cases, and led to waste and diversion of scarce public resources.
Financially enabling this system is a large, rising military budget, characterized by overruns and irregularities. A large share of this disproportionately high and rising military budget goes to salaries that are tied to a bloated army roster—which is stacked with what is believed to be thousands of ghost soldiers. The roster and payroll have not been calibrated to match operational realities or national needs. The salaries of SPLA soldiers are a fraction of what commanders receive, and the salary disbursements are often delayed by months. With soaring inflation, these salaries fail to cover basic costs of living, increasing the likelihood of soldiers taking their pay by the barrel of the gun and increasing violent crime in South Sudan still further.
Despite the huge budget deficit, unregulated public spending continues, reflecting desperate attempts by some ministry officials to continue to sustain their patronage networks despite having little or no actual money available for disbursement. Some government ministries have continued to write checks to contractors for procurement deals and other expenses that cannot be cashed at the Bank of South Sudan (central bank). Efficiency, accountability, and the regular inflow of state funds into public coffers and outflows for documented salary needs and public services is not the goal or the outcome of South Sudan’s bankrupted, thoroughly hijacked system.
In a boom market for armed violence that is rapidly expanding in South Sudan, the political and military power structure resists or altogether dismantles reform efforts. The system reinforces the inefficiencies that encourage corruption, expels reform-minded actors who threaten the system as it is, and rewards the actors who perpetuate and sustain the system. These actors have succeeded, for now, in generating some money for themselves and their supporters and in building a system that can temporarily serve private interests at the public’s expense.
The international community, with U.S. leadership, should create consequences for these predatory actors that harm South Sudanese people. These consequences should include a new U.S. executive order on South Sudan that makes public corruption and misappropriation of state assets grounds for sanctions, as current U.S. sanctions programs do for Belarus, Burma, Libya, Syria, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Ukraine/Russia. U.S. lawmakers should also leverage U.S. anti-money laundering authorities by having the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and other financial intelligence units issue advisories and investigative requests related to South Sudanese military transactions. Because many documented financial transactions involving South Sudanese leaders are carried out with U.S. dollars, the United States has leverage to stop or limit some of these transactions. The United States should bring pressure and levy stiff penalties on banks and wealth managers that facilitate financial transactions for clients—including South Sudanese parties—who have any assets associated with criminal activity that touch U.S. financial institutions and are thus subject to U.S. jurisdiction.