JOHANNESBURG – South Sudanese officials have diverted millions of dollars of state funds that are badly needed by civilians as the country staggers away from civil war, a United Nations commission said Thursday, and it accused rival fighters of deliberately starving people for strategic gain.
The bleak report by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan comes two days before a crucial deadline for the nation’s rival leaders to join forces in a coalition government. That deadline has been extended twice in the past year, much to the impatience of the United States and others, but a key agreement appears to have been reached in recent days on the number of states under the new government.
“Today in South Sudan, civilians are deliberately starved, systematically surveilled and silenced, arbitrarily arrested and detained and denied meaningful access to justice,” the report says. It adds to widespread concerns that scattered deadly violence, the use of child soldiers, repression and sexual violence continue to imperil the fragile peace in the world's youngest nation.
Throughout South Sudan's five-year civil war and since the latest peace deal was signed in September 2018, various watchdog groups have accused officials in President Salva Kiir's government of profiting from the conflict and siphoning off massive amounts of money meant for the benefit of the country and its some 12 million people.
“Corruption has made several officials extremely wealthy at the expense of millions of starving civilians,” the U.N. commission's new report says. “Corruption has been so lucrative that it has infected every sector of the economy and every state institution.”
The graft has been carried out while the civil war, which erupted two years after independence from Sudan in 2011, killed nearly 400,000 people and sent more than 2 million fleeing the country.
The U.N commission says it has grounds to believe there has been a “steady diversion” of millions of dollars of revenue not linked to South Sudan’s oil sector into the National Revenue Authority.
The authority by law is meant to retain only 2% of revenue collected, with the rest going to the government’s consolidated account, but the new report says it has credible evidence that in September the authority kept 56% of non-oil revenue. In October and November, the authority retained almost 80%.
Millions of dollars in public revenues vanished in September and October alone, the report says. Considering that information, the U.N. commission said it believes government officials have engaged in “acts that amount to economic crimes,” including money laundering and using public money for personal gain.
There was no immediate comment from South Sudan’s government.
The U.N. commission says such looting occurs while roughly half of South Sudan’s people, or 6 million civilians, are going hungry.
Both government and opposition forces have deliberately starved civilians to achieve military objectives, including by denying food to punish people suspected of supporting the enemy, the report says.
“Such policies were envisaged and implemented as part of a wider strategy to deprive enemy communities of resources in order to force their capitulation, allow soldiers and militias to reward themselves, forcibly displace communities from ancestral lands that could then be expropriated or simply to compel individuals to join different factions engaged in the conflict,” the report says.
South Sudan’s government has neither investigated nor punished perpetrators of such crimes, it adds.
A separate report released Thursday by a multi-partner group surveying hunger in South Sudan says about 40,000 people in eastern Jonglei state are now facing famine conditions. Major flooding late last year was to blame along with the insecurity, it says.
A recent report by the U.N. humanitarian office in South Sudan says a quarter of the 319 violent incidents against aid workers and assets last year were attributed to state security forces. State security forces or civilian authorities were blamed for 70% of the 216 nonviolent incidents, including bureaucratic impediments, reported last year.
“Humanitarians were requested to pay bribes by both state and non-state actors, which led to the detention of staff and threats of eviction. Humanitarian operations were disrupted by active hostilities and military operations,” the U.N. humanitarian office said.
One hundred and sixteen aid workers have been killed in South Sudan since the civil war began.