By Charles Onyango-Obbo, DAILY MONITOR, Uganda, SEP/14/2016, SSN;
The much-anticipated report on corruption and war-profiteering in conflict-wracked South Sudan was published on Monday.
Produced by investigative unit “The Sentry” co-funded by American actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast, it spent two years following the money trail.
It reports some extraordinary looting, nepotism, and corruption by the South Sudan political and military elite who have made themselves rich while the country has been impoverished by a civil war of their making.
There are no saints and villians, both President Salva Kiir and his former deputy and rival Riek Machar have their snouts in the murk.
The report makes for sad reading, but one cannot help reflect on the ways in which South Sudan is different from almost every country in the region. Almost everywhere else, you have a few years of idealism and an attempt to do good after independence or liberation. Then the “revolution” stalls or is hijacked, and the corruption starts. No such thing for South Sudan.
The new country hit the ground stealing, so to speak. The other thing, which shouldn’t really be surprising, the report says the top leaders in the country have invested in property in neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. It also says that they have interests in Australia.
Army Chief, Gen Paul Malong, also the grand polygamist of Juba, and the man blamed for a lot of the recent madness in the country, has at least two luxurious mansions in Uganda in addition to a $2m mansion in Nairobi.
It’s last bit that interests us most today, because Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia have also been the regional mediators.
If you are God-loving or a human rights activist, you would find something terribly wrong with that because it seems the three countries are actually profiting from the conflict in South Sudan, so how can they be expected to go the extra kilometre to make peace there. And wouldn’t the ability of the belligerents to invest in these countries give them an easy way out and thus remove the incentive for them to compromise for peace?
However, the South Sudan conflict has also stunk up the neighbourhood, increased regional risk, and taken away some points from its attraction as an investment destination. The loss, some economists argue, is higher than the gain.
But if you flip the argument, you could argue that because neighbouring countries also get refugees (as dramatically illustrated in Uganda’s case with the new flood of South Sudanese refugees), suffer from loss of trading opportunities, and are hit by the “stink factor” referred to earlier, they deserve some “compensation”.
Profiting from a neighbour’s misfortune is one way of doing this.
These events, however, also point to some changes in our region, as indeed the rest of Africa, since the economic liberalisation wave kicked off at the end of the 1980s.
There are more private businesses, more rich people, and more thieving politicians who are skimming off the fat.
All these people now need “first stop” destinations where they hedge against future instability at home, a place where they can keep their money, buy expensive homes.
Next, they move to “second stop” destinations – London, Geneva, New York – where they stash their wealth to hedge against the bigger “Africa risk”.
For this reason, it has become important for countries to invest in “stability” in ways it wasn’t 30 years. The reward for being viewed as stable can be huge – both honest and crooked people – will take their money out of their countries and put it in yours, giving your economy – especially the banking sector – a liquidity boost.
If you get it wrong, like South Sudan has, everyone will steal and take their loot out. It’s a diverse business with a grey (or even dark) side, because you don’t just need stability. You also require a certain permissiveness that guarantees these people who bring their money confidentiality.
In other words, that no one in Kampala will come to ask Malong where he found the $2 million to buy his villa.
For example, it is said that Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, the anti-corruption republic, has not really ended corruption as such, it has driven a lot of it off the radar. So what do Rwanda’s corrupt do? They use Uganda and Kenya as their “first stop” destinations to stash their “unexplained surplus”.
On the other hand, the “Rwandaphonie” business people in eastern DR Congo stash their money in Rwanda, because there, it is safe from seizure from the bouts of “anti-Tutsi” politics that often erupts there.
So there is that bit – a “first stop” destination can also be a sanctuary. It’s complicated.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the editor of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3