WASHINGTON - A top South Sudan army official has used his position to accumulate millions of dollars through his personal business, while helping to orchestrate a conflict that has resulted in famine, according to a new report by a Washington-based human rights group.
Lt. Gen. Malek Reuben Riak, the SPLA’s deputy chief of defense force for operations, accumulated more than $3 million in his personal account between January 2012 and early 2016, according to the Sentry.
It says Reuben made millions more than what a general in his rank earned during the 2014-2015 budget cycle — about $40,000.
J.R. Mailey, the Sentry's senior investigations manager, says the report uncovers conflicts of interest and potential wrongdoing by Reuben in his roles at Mak International Services, Reuben’s company that sells explosives to private companies operating in South Sudan, as well as Bright Star International, a mining company where Reuben sits on the board of directors, and Jubilee Bank, where Reuben holds shares.
“So he is involved in energy companies, mining companies, explosives sales, quite a few things in his private capacity that have not been previously disclosed to the public,” Mailey told VOA's South Sudan in Focus. “And some of these commercial activities really deserve a lot more scrutiny because they appear to demonstrate pretty significant conflicts of interests.”
The South Sudan constitution prohibits constitutional office holders from engaging in personal business outside of their professional capacity while in office.
Selling explosives to Chinese companies
The report by the Sentry, a rights group co-founded by American actor George Clooney and John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, cites corporate records, letters from international companies doing business in South Sudan, and U.N. reports to make the case that Reuben used his senior position to strike exclusive deals for his personal interests.
The report questions the legality of Reuben’s role in Mak International Services, a company over which he has control, which sells explosives to private companies operating in South Sudan.
The Sentry alleges that Reuben exploited a conflict of interest and possibly broke the law by directing exclusive deals through his role in the military with a number of foreign companies, including China New Era and China Wu Yi.
China Wu Yi responded to the Sentry and said the company required the approval of the SPLA Engineering Corps to source the explosives needed to operate a quarry.
Mailey says SPLA Engineering Corps directed China Wu Yi to purchase its explosives from Mak International, which was the only option offered as the supplier of explosives.
“And it turns out Mak International is beneficially owned by Malek Reuben Riak. The money was going into his account from these sales,” said Mailey.
China Wu Yi tells the Sentry it was instructed to make payments to Reuben and that it gave Reuben six checks worth more than $116,000 payable to him, which were later deposited in his personal bank account. The report says China Wu Yi also wrote two additional cash payments to Mak International worth more than $13,000.
The Sentry says Reuben is not only the prime beneficiary of profits through Mak International, but as a former employee of the SPLA Engineering Corps, he oversaw the country’s approval process of similar transactions, creating a conflict of interest and potential violation of the law.
Accusations follow promotion
The accusations come as Reuben was promoted to the SPLA’s deputy chief of defense forces for operations, training and intelligence last week.
“He is someone who is being promoted and rewarded,” said Mailey, “not someone who is being held accountable for his involvement in suspect and pretty horrific military activities.”
A January 2016 U.N. panel of experts report identified Reuben as being one of the leaders who “planned the offensive” in famine-stricken Unity State and “oversaw its execution” since January 2015.
In April, a panel of experts report indicated the famine in Unity state, predicted for two years, was the result of protracted conflict and the “cumulative toll of repeated military operations” by the government in southern Unity as early as 2014.
Famine was declared in the Unity State counties of Leer and Mayendit in February.
Fighting between South Sudan's government, led by President Salva Kiir, and opposition forces led by former vice president Riek Machar has displaced nearly four million people from their homes since the conflict began at the end of 2013.
The Sentry says at its core, the conflict is a battle for control of state assets and South Sudan's abundant natural resources, including large oil reserves.