Talk to Al Jazeera

Is oil money fuelling war in South Sudan?

Oil minister Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth discusses allegations of corruption and the role of oil in South Sudan’s future.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed since South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, and millions more have been forced to flee their homes.

On one side of the conflict are troops and militias backing President Salva Kiir. On the other, those supporting former Vice President Riek Machar.

A peace deal was signed in 2018 to end the war, but the situation is far from settled, with atrocities having been committed by both sides, and continued fighting between the government and armed groups.

In February 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a report describing what it believes is funding the war: the country’s rich oil industry.

It says that the state-owned Nilepet oil company “has diverted oil revenues which should be shared with states into the coffers of elites in the government,” and that its operations “have been characterised by a total lack of transparency and independent oversight.”

South Sudan is floating on oil. South Sudan is full of oil. Only 12 percent of the whole country is explored.

by Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, South Sudan's minister of petroleum

According to the report, “oil revenues and income from other natural resources have continued to fund the war, enabling its continuation and the resulting human rights violations.”

The country’s oil sector is supervised by the minister of petroleum, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, who denies the UN‘s allegations and others.

“I have been in the Ministry of Petroleum since 2016 and I can assure you there is no single dollar that has been used to buy arms in the ministry and even in the country,” he told Al Jazeera. “The focus is peace, peace, peace. We are not investing in war and we will not at all invest in war … Nilepet has not been financing any activities that is related to violence in the country.” 

He says that expanding the country’s oil production – oil makes up 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and almost all of its exports – and attracting foreign investors, will increase the money available for development projects.

“Now myself and my colleagues in the government, we are also working to make sure that the production is increased, and we resume the oil blocks that has been dormant for the last five years, this is also going to be translated into money, so that we can have more money and then we will provide services to the people of South Sudan,” he said.

But with a lack of transparency – one organisation obtained secret documents suggesting that Nilepet paid $80m to war-related officials and activities over a 15-month period beginning in March 2014 – the concern is that these expansions would simply deepen corruption.

South Sudan ranks 178 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index. But Gatkuoth says South Sudan’s president has initiatives to address these issues.

“Corruption is everywhere in the world but the most important thing is how you deal with it,” he said.

“People are being dismissed, people are being held accountable … We have been actually really targeting people who have been actually involved in corruption and they are in jail and they are prosecuted. To me, the president is doing exactly the right thing and we are open book. In the Ministry of Petroleum or Finance or the whole government, we are open book.”