Western donors have warned South Sudan’s government that aid payments are at risk unless it tackles the corruption undermining development in a country devastated from decades of civil war with Sudan, from which it seceded in 2011.
Last year, Kiir wrote to 75 current and former officials to ask them to return $4 billion in “stolen” public money, but no senior figure had been publicly put under investigation until now.
Kiir has now lifted the immunity of Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor Kuol and Finance Minister Kosti Manibe Ngai and suspended them pending an investigation into the procurement of fireproof safes for Alor’s ministry for $8 million, according to a government decree released on Wednesday.
It said the payment had been approved by the Finance Ministry, and that a high-level committee would determine whether there was “an element of fraud and forgery exercised in this process of transfer and payments”.
South Sudan has been struggling to set up functioning state institutions since gaining independence from Khartoum in 2011 under a peace deal that ended the civil war.
The government is largely made up of former rebel commanders who dislike scrutiny and have little experience of economic management. Financial oversight is weak.
Samuel Dhong, secretary-general of the South Sudan Law Society, which promotes the rule of law, welcomed the suspensions but said it remained to be seen whether the men would be charged.
“We have experienced this kind of action, but the problem is that they don’t reach a logical conclusion at the end of the day,” he said.
He pointed to an investigation led by the same committee chairman into the theft of 176,000 South Sudanese pounds (around $45,000) from Kiir’s office in March. It concluded that office staff assisted in the theft but did not name anyone.
Decades of conflict and economic neglect have left South Sudan with some of the worst health and education statistics on the planet. Few paved roads exist outside the capital Juba.