Note: This op-ed originally appeared on Medium and was written by Denisse Rudich, Senior Advisor for The Sentry in the UK and financial crime prevention specialist, and Tom Keatinge, Director of RUSI’s Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies.
On December 14, 2019, President Omar al-Bashir was found guilty on charges of “possessing foreign currency, corruption and receiving gifts illegally.” This decision comes less than a year after a military coup saw Bashir toppled from power and an interim civilian-military government formed. Following the takeover by the military, large stashes of unexplained cash were discovered in a secret chamber at Bashir’s former official residence. Although these funds have been confiscated as part of his sentence and Bashir has faced his day in court, many of his former associates fled the country with their ill-gotten gains; still others have scrambled for power and the opportunity to become similarly wealthy. Sudan is still missing millions, laundered through the international financial system, and the international community must act to find and return Sudan’s covertly co-opted cash.
For decades, Sudan has been used as a “looting machine” for the personal enrichment of Bashir and his elite circle. Between 1999 and 2011, Bashir’s regime controlled much of Sudan’s estimated $75 billion in oil revenue, and much of that money was appropriated by those close to Bashir and remains hidden today. In the chaos and fog of regime change, decades’ worth of stolen state assets could have flowed out of the country and into international finance centers. That money must be found and secured before it is too late. International banks must thus be on alert to identify, report, and freeze any stolen funds they may have received as a result of corruption and turmoil in Sudan.
The amounts flowing out of Sudan are staggering.
Since the change in power, stashes of dollars, euros, and Sudanese pounds have been unearthed in warehouses and in suitcases in the homes of the elite — hidden with impunity in plain sight. The amounts were sometimes so large that the cash had to be moved in trucks. Initial reports indicate that, in April, authorities found a cocktail of cash including over 6 million euros ($6.7 million), $351,000, and 5 million Sudanese pounds ($150,000) in Bashir’s official residence. It has been reported that the former President also had access to 143 million Sudanese pounds ($4.3 million) and 315 million Saudi riyals ($83.9 million) in a local bank account. Subsequent reporting included reference to Sudanese government officials seizing more than $113 million from Bashir.
And, as tends to happen during political transitions from oppressive regimes, the deposed thieves of state scuttled to move and protect their ill-gotten gains, an easy prospect in a country like Sudan, given its deficient domestic anti-money laundering laws. Local media periodically reported on the escape of prominent politically exposed figures facing charges and those known to have profited from their proximity to power for personal enrichment. Among the most spectacular escapes was that of President’s Bashir’s own brother, Al-Abbas Hassan al-Bashir, who is reported to have been assisted by Ethiopian intelligence authorities. Several other former officials facing charges similarly attempted (some successfully) to leave the country during the confusion that followed Bashir’s fall.
London and other financial centers are highly susceptible to acting as transit and investment hubs for the proceeds of corruption. In the UK alone, it has been estimated that up to £90 billion is laundered each year. Given the risk of capital flight of the proceeds of corruption and other criminal activity from Sudan, it is essential that financial institutions and those trading in gold remain vigilant to the risks of money laundering of funds. Particular focus should be placed on funds originating in Sudan and Sudanese-linked financial centers, such as neighboring and transit countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE.
The international community has a part to play in identifying and freezing stolen state assets. The UK government and those of other international financial centers should issue public advisories on capital flowing into and out of Sudan and the surrounding region. The advisory should warn businesses to be on the lookout for recent influxes of funds and gold, as well as for the purchase of homes and luxury goods by companies owned or controlled by Sudanese politicians or their family members, close friends, or business associates. Such an advisory would emphasize the importance of monitoring transactions for Sudanese connections, reporting suspicious activity, and freezing stolen assets. It would also provide clarity on how much money is flowing into and out of Sudan and through the international financial system.
Making these fortunes unavailable to those who may have had a hand in stealing them will send a clear signal that the looting machine is being shut down. It will be a critical show of support for the people of Sudan who brought down a corrupt regime that has exploited and infected the international financial system for decades. And, equally importantly, it will demonstrate international commitment to finding and returning the nation’s stolen assets — a show of tangible support for peace, human rights, and democratic transformation in Sudan.
Given its leading role in international finance, as the UK forges its path for the future, it must step forward to champion this much-needed international financial response.
Click here to view the op-ed on Medium.