The government of South Sudan will pay $3.7 million to Gainful Solutions, a U.S.-based lobbying firm managed by Michael Ranneberger, former U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
In the agreement disclosed by the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Act, South Sudan employed Gainful Solutions to work to "delay and ultimately block" the establishment of an African Union-South Sudanese hybrid court, which would investigate international crimes and prosecute individuals responsible for violations during the country's civil war.
The $3.7 million promised to Gainful Solutions includes a $1.2 million nonrefundable retainer, according to the disclosure.
Gordon Buay, South Sudan's ambassador to the U.S., who signed the agreement on behalf of South Sudan, distanced himself from allegations that South Sudan wanted to block the establishment of the hybrid court and added the agreement with Gainful Solutions to repair relations with the U.S.
"The U.S. and South Sudan have been friends for a long time. But when the war broke out, the relations went sour, but we are still friends. So, we need to go back to the same relationship between the two countries," Buay said.
Gainful Solutions was hired by South Sudan to open communication channels between President Salva Kiir and U.S. President Donald Trump, and to eventually persuade Trump to reverse current sanctions and block potential sanctions.
"Gainful Solutions, as long as it's going to mobilize American companies to come and invest in South Sudan, then there is no need for sanctions," Buay said. "Because sanctions can prevent American companies from investing in South Sudan. So, the removal of sanctions is part of the business transaction."
In December, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Israel Ziv and Obac William Olawo "for being leaders of entities whose actions expanded or extended the conflict in South Sudan."
Gregory Vasili was also designated under the Office of Foreign Asset Control "for actions that have undermined peace, stability and security in South Sudan."
Buay said his country initiated contact with Gainful Solutions.
Social media anger
The amount of money promised to Gainful Solutions, as well as the involvement of a former U.S. ambassador, struck a nerve with social media users.
Canadian diplomat Nicholas Coghlan, former ambassador to South Sudan, wrote on his Twitter page that the contract involving a former U.S. ambassador to "stymie the hybrid court is utterly shameful."
The signing of the agreement was witnessed by former U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay Timothy Towell, who also came under heavy criticism.
Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathan Pedneault criticized Towell for witnessing an agreement meant to "deny justice to South Sudan's rape survivors. May their memory never let you sleep."
Buay said the anger expressed online is misplaced.
"Who are the people who are frustrated because we want to have diplomatic or financial or economic relations with the United States?" he asked.
Buay added South Sudan has not transferred money to Gainful Solutions.
"We have a timeline of paying them," he said, and the timeline is "confidential."
Ranneberger was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Kenya in July 2006. He was also ambassador to Mali for three years starting in 1999, and was deputy chief of mission in Mogadishu in August 1994.