Nearly two years ago, The Sentry identified the homes of South Sudanese officials in Kenya and Uganda and uncovered a worrying trend that these officials, who were maintaining the war back home in South Sudan, were buying real estate abroad, potentially as a way to hide unexplained wealth. Investigating, and if appropriate, seizing these homes would provide tremendous leverage for the peace process, as there would finally be some measure of accountability for the mass looting and atrocities since independence in 2011.
But so far, no houses have been seized. No leverage has been created. No accountability has been exercised.
What will it take for Kenyan and Ugandan officials to investigate and then seize houses and other assets determined to be the proceeds of corruption in order to apply desperately needed pressure on South Sudan’s peace spoilers?
The Kenyan government has stated its commitment to ending the war in South Sudan. “We continue to urge the leaders of South Sudan to put the interests of their people and motherland above their own,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told lawmakers last month. “As we have in the past year, Kenya stands with the people of South Sudan in their search for lasting peace.” But after five years of horrific fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions, it is clear that simply urging the country’s leaders to lay down their weapons is insufficient. Altering the conduct of those responsible for South Sudan’s war will require new leverage. With top South Sudanese officials traveling and keeping their assets primarily in Kenya and Uganda, these two countries have significant potential in this regard.
In September 2016, The Sentry released a report from an investigation that revealed that top South Sudanese officials responsible for the war — including President Kiir, ousted Vice President Riek Machar and several top generals — had accumulated significant wealth, often in the form of luxurious properties in Kampala and Nairobi. The value of these properties far exceeds what these officials could afford on their salaries alone. Almost two years later, the Nairobi and Kampala properties identified by The Sentry appear to remain in the possession of Kiir, Machar, and other top generals profiled in the report. And more properties held by other top South Sudanese officials are still being identified. There is cause to question how South Sudan’s current and former leaders can afford opulent homes abroad. Kenya and Uganda have the legal authority and means to locate, investigate, and — if warranted — seize these properties. Pursuing real estate abroad by itself will not end the war in South Sudan, but it would limit the financial resources of South Sudan’s war leaders, thereby creating personal consequences for those directing the war and cutting off what could in some cases be a channel for hiding the proceeds of corruption.
South Sudan has hemorrhaged billions of dollars since its independence, much of it lost through corruption. “The funds accumulated through the proceeds of South Sudanese corruption are moved to accounts outside of South Sudan,” according to a September 2017 advisory issued by the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. “Once the funds are held in accounts in other countries, they are used to purchase real estate (among other things) in third countries.” One of the preferred places to park those funds is Kenya. “In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, South Sudanese number plates are commonplace on the four-wheel drives that circulate the leafy suburb of Lavington,” the Financial Times reported in December 2015. In 2016, Kiir acknowledged the trend of elites moving funds from South Sudan to buy real estate abroad. In an interview with Kenyan news, he explained that some government officials “have bought apartments, have bought very beautiful houses, villas. They are hiding it in Kenya and they refuse to reveal it.” What he did not mention was that at least one of these “very beautiful houses” belonged to his family.