WASHINGTON — The State Department isn’t considering slapping travel bans on South Sudanese officials despite revelations that the former rebel party that the United States backed in its independence bid has stolen billions of dollars from oil revenues meant to rebuild the country, U.S. officials have told McClatchy.
Travel bans are one of the few tools available to American officials to fight corruption, and U.S. law requires that they be imposed if the State Department has credible evidence that foreign officials are profiting corruptly from a country’s natural resources. The law allows for exemptions only for travel to the United Nations in New York, though an individual ban can be lifted if the reason for the banning has been corrected.
In June, the South Sudanese government admitted that it’s missing $4 billion in stolen funds, or roughly double its annual revenue since the mostly autonomous administration was established in 2005 as part of a U.S-brokered peace deal that led to South Sudan’s independence last year from Sudan. In May, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir said he’d sent a letter to past and present government officials asking them to return the money.
Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, indicated this week in comments to McClatchy that the State Department isn’t investigating to determine which officials absconded with the money.
“You have to know exactly who you are going to target. It’s not exactly clear who did it," Lyman said. "We are looking to the Sudanese to do the investigations. President Kiir has promised a vigorous anti-corruption policy and we encourage him in this direction."
Under American law, foreign officials and their immediate family members who steal from the public treasury or display other significant corruption are ineligible to enter the United States. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the state and foreign operations subcommittee and the author of the “anti-kleptocracy” law, said he didn’t think the State Department was doing enough to find out who stole the money.
“If the State Department has such information, we expect the U.S. Embassy to determine if it is credible and to apply the law rigorously," Leahy said.
The South Sudanese government has yet to prosecute any government officials for corruption. The letter from Kiir, which offered amnesty in return for the partial return of missing money, went to 75 former and current officials, according to Kiir’s office. Their names haven’t been made public.
The United States has a special relationship to the South Sudanese government, thanks to deep ties between the then-rebel movement and a core group of U.S. policymakers. In the 2005 peace deal, the U.S. was one of three nations that signed up as a "guarantor" of its provisions.
The deal established a six-year interim period in which South Sudan split oil revenue in its territory with the official Sudanese government. Now South Sudan’s admission plus an official auditor report make clear that billions of dollars of that money is missing.
Outside donors, including the United States, have paid for Western consultants to be embedded as advisers in the South Sudanese government since its creation. At times, the outside consultants were the ones doing the bookkeeping.
In 2004, President George W. Bush signed a presidential proclamation that enabled the State Department to restrict corrupt foreign officials and their family members from receiving travel visas to the United States. Congress passed the "anti-kleptocracy" law in 2007.
Legislation that passed last year focused on South Sudan specifically.
“It is well known that corruption is a serious problem in South Sudan, as it is in many oil-rich nations,” Leahy said in an email response to questions. “Besides restricting visas, U.S. law requires the secretary of state to seek regular audits of the financial accounts of the government of South Sudan, and to report to the Congress on steps taken by that government to improve resource management and ensure transparency and accountability of funds."
State Department spokeswoman Hilary Fuller Renner declined to respond to Leahy’s comments.
Despite Leahy’s remarks, it’s an open question whether Congress would press the Obama administration to ban South Sudanese officials from traveling to the United States. Congress has long been a bastion of support for South Sudan’s rulers and their Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. During Sudan’s long north-south civil war, members of both parties formed the so-called Sudan Caucus to advocate for tougher polices against Sudan’s government and in favor of the rebel movement.
The U.S. has known about the scale of South Sudanese corruption for some time. "From early on, I had people who knew the SPLM well citing this problem and very worried about it," Lyman said.
Lyman said corruption wasn’t unusual in young developing countries. He pointed to the example of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who was well-known for welcoming gifts and kickbacks as part of official business.
"You don’t like to see it happen, but it happens. That doesn’t excuse it," Lyman said.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His work is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @alanboswell