South Sudan’s civil war has been very profitable, and it may be turning even uglier

The South Sudanese civil war (red under government control, green under control of Machar’s rebels), as of October 20 (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

Last month, an investigative organization called The Sentry published a report showing that the nearly three year long civil war in South Sudan has been, among other things, a cover for the looting of the country by two “kleptocratic networks”–one headed by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and the other by his former VP and constant rival, Riek Machar. This war has killed roughly 50,000 people and displaced over a million, but while all that was going on, here’s a sample of how Kiir and Machar have been living:

Over the course of the conflict, Machar has repeatedly claimed — both in conversations with Foreign Policy and in other public forums — that he lacked the funds to call his troops home from the bush and thus end the conflict, demanding again and again that the United States fund his purchases of tents and food to urge men back from the battlefields. “Provide us tents, food, medicines, water so that they are assembled and they wait,” he told FP in October. “A tent is a dividend for peace.”

But according to the Sentry’s findings, Machar’s financial network is expansive, and while civilians hid in swamps and United Nations camps, his family (and at times Machar himself) resided in luxurious villas in Ethiopia and Kenya, thus avoiding the consequences of the civil war. Ironically, his newest home in Nairobi is in the upscale Lavington neighborhood, not far from one that belong to Kiir’s family. The report says Machar’s family home there “has a large backyard with a large stone patio and a teardrop-shaped, in-ground swimming pool.”  Kiir and other officials from both sides have managed to invest millions of dollars in properties outside of South Sudan, despite their meager government salaries. (Kiir’s amounted to roughly $60,000 per year and Machar’s to around $54,000.)

Kiir and Machar naturally both denied these allegations, with Kiir even threatening legal action (Machar, who would probably be arrested if he showed himself in public, presumably can’t avail himself of his legal remedies at the moment).

But look, whether Kiir and Machar, and their best pals, are enriching themselves off of this war or not (my money is on “they are”), the fact remains that the South Sudanese people are suffering and dying while two men and their elite cronies take the country apart for no discernibly justified reason. And the war itself seems on the verge of escalating to new and more frightening levels of violence:

The U.N. human rights chief warned Tuesday against the “alarming rise in hate speech and incitement to violence against certain ethnic groups” as fighting continues in South Sudan.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the “hateful rhetoric between Dinkas and Equatorians highly dangerous” and could lead to “mass atrocities if not reined in,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva.

Letters with warnings against ethnic Equatorians have been found outside the offices of several aid groups in Northern Bahr el Ghazal in the northwest, Shamdasani said.

Ethnic Dinka groups have warned Equatorians that they will be “eliminated,” the spokeswoman said.

The Dinka are Kiir’s ethnic group and are the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, followed by Machar’s Nuer. “Equatorians” is an umbrella term that encompasses several ethnicities living in the southern part of the country. On top of this developing situation with the Equatorians, Amnesty International issued a report today alleging a systematic campaign of human rights violations by the South Sudanese government against Nuer and other non-Dinka peoples living in the capital, Juba, during a spate of violence back in July:

A 24-year-old Dinka woman whose Nuer husband has been missing since July told Amnesty International that government troops stormed the family compound and arrested her husband and brother-in-law. When she told the soldiers that the two men worked for the government, she said that the soldiers responded that even if they worked for the government, they were still Nuer and “‘Nuer are rebels.’”

“My life is shattered,” she told Amnesty International. “Life without him is hopeless.”

Soldiers also sought out Nuer women for rape, not only to harm them, but also to humiliate and punish their husbands. A 35-year-old Nuer woman who was raped by three soldiers said the men emphasised: “Your husband is a Nuer man, our enemy.” She said her clothes were full of blood when they finally released her.

Government soldiers also raped other non-Dinka women and girls. A member of the Kuku ethnic group described how his two sisters, ages 14 and 17, were raped by soldiers on 11 July at their family compound in Juba’s Munuki neighbourhood. He said that the soldiers, who also looted the compound, accused the family of supporting Machar.

Machar is no prize–he’s up to his eyeballs in the unrest that has plagued South Sudan since it gained independence in 2011. But he did warn about a month ago that Kiir is trying to turn South Sudan into an ethnic Dinka state, and these charges certainly do nothing to suggest that he was lying. So when he urges continued resistance to Kiir’s government, maybe, as unsavory as Machar is, he’s got a point. Speaking of Machar, who is currently in South Africa getting medical treatment for something or other, he’s talking about returning to South Sudan in another month, a move that would likely only deepen the current crisis.

If Kiir is fomenting the kind of ethnic resentment that could turn South Sudan into another Darfur or Rwanda, then the same people who have been calling for intervention in Syria and Libya ought to be pushing for some kind of international response to forestall an attempted genocide. But as in Syria and Libya, everybody’s good intentions may not mean too much unless that response actually has a chance to achieve a positive outcome. The most talked about response right now is a potential arms embargo, assuming one could get through the UN Security Council. The feeling is that an arms embargo would hurt the government more than the rebels, thereby redressing the power imbalance and forcing both sides to negotiate. But it’s not clear how much an arms embargo would really hurt the government, and it might just help freeze the conflict in a stalemate.

The Sentry’s report would seem to open another lever to force both Kiir and Machar to reopen talks–or, better yet, to both get the fuck out of South Sudan and let people who don’t have blood all over their hands reopen talks. If both men have been siphoning that much money out of the country, they must be putting it somewhere. Maybe the international community should figure out where and, you know, take the money. If Kiir, Machar, and co. no longer see this civil war as a get rich quick scheme, then maybe they’ll lose interest in continuing to fight it.


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