UN watchdog: 'Staggering' $36M embezzled in South Sudan

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The United Nations commission on human rights in South Sudan says “a staggering $36 million” has been misappropriated by government officials and senior politicians since 2016 as widespread corruption continues to drain the world’s youngest nation.

“It is worth noting this is just what we were able to trace and may not reflect the whole picture,” the commission’s chair, Yasmin Sooka, told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

She noted “brazen embezzlement” in the illicit flows from South Sudan’s finance ministry and National Revenue Authority.

“Shockingly, these South Sudanese bodies have been aided and abetted in these crimes by a number of international corporations and multinational banks,” Sooka said, but not naming names. “Some of this money has been laundered through the purchase of properties abroad. Indeed, those properties may well be in your countries.”

South Sudan’s government could not immediately be reached for comment.

South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011 but erupted in civil war just two years later. Nearly 400,000 people died in five years of fighting. Now, two years after a peace deal, a unity government is slowly implementing its arrangements meant to lead to elections.

The U.N. commission and other watchdogs have long warned that South Sudanese officials are siphoning off millions of dollars from the weak economy that has largely relied on the country’s oil production.

“To give a flavor of what’s going on – a recent report to parliament by South Sudan’s National Revenue Authority indicates that approximately $300 million U.S. dollars have been ‘lost’ in the last three months alone,” Sooka said.

The “financial corruption on an epic scale” means that South Sudanese are suffering, and now the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions are creating further pain, Sooka said.

“If restrictions on the importation of food continue, and food prices continue to shoot up, there is a possibility of food-related riots or other forms of social unrest,” she said.

The U.N. has said more than 6 million people — over half South Sudan’s population — regularly goes hungry.