Corruption in South Sudan is undermining a delicate peace deal between divided political factions — a situation analysts say has spawned fresh humanitarian strain that could send the world’s newest nation spiraling back into conflict.
The September deal between opposition rebels and the South Sudanese government quelled violence that had gripped the east African nation since 2013. But the failure since to implement reforms and reduce government graft has left thousands of returning refugees in limbo.
That was a core message pushed by regional experts at an event hosted this week by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan just eight years ago.
“The peace agreement should be the most critical asset in the hands of the government right now, yet we have seen officials diverting money for other purposes,” said Brian Adeba, a deputy director at the Enough Project, a Washington-based policy organization focused on African conflict zones.
“I think the government needs to get its priorities correct and right in this particular moment,” said Mr. Adeba, who grew up in South Sudan.
Mark Ferullo, a senior adviser with The Sentry, a Washington-based investigative organization, suggested the September deal was “built on a poor economic structure.”
The recent flow of refugees back into areas previous torn by violence between rebels and government security forces is compounding the situation, added David Acuoth of the Council on South Sudanese-American Relations.
“[It] has created an economic problem because there is not enough food for people to eat,” Mr. Acuoth said. “In the absence of hearing the noises and the sounds of guns … there is a continuing crisis beneath the surface that is related to economic and food assurance.”
Their remarks at the USIP event on Tuesday came in the wake of a U.N.-backed assessment that claimed more than 60 percent of South Sudan’s roughly 13 million people are at risk of food insecurity.
The September agreement between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former rebel leader Riek Machar listed a range of processes to be put in place toward securing a sustainable government. The deal was reached under pressure from various outside powers, including the U.S., Russia, China, Uganda, and Sudan to the north.
A core focus, according to analysts, was to remove opportunities for corruption in the political and security sectors, while establishing a new economic framework and opening new funding flows for civil society.
The so far failed implementation has amplified long-held citizen distrust of the government, said Mr. Adeba, who recalled his own skepticism of political elites while growing up in South Sudan.
Mr. Ferullo pointed to the appearance of ongoing corruption.
“There is this sense in South Sudan that if you are in the political leadership, if you have the political levers, you are then in control of the economic levers,” he said. “That makes being outside of the government a bigger risk than it might be otherwise.”
An assessment posted last month on the Enough Project’s website, meanwhile, asserted that nearly $280 million is required for implementing the peace deal, but that “the government claims it has no money.”
“This claim rang hollow when leaked documents appeared to show two officials approving checks worth nearly $185 million for services unrelated to the peace deal,” the assessment said.