Seated on a plastic chair outside a school in South Sudan’s northern town of Aweil, Kristine Akodit shifts her 1-year-old daughter in her arms as she breastfeeds.
“Hunger is here,” says the young mother, whose three children sometimes go days without food. At the launch of a European Union funded school meal program, Akodit hangs her head. This year is worse than last, she says.
Akodit is among the almost seven million South Sudanese people facing hunger — sixty-one percent of the population — with 1.8 million on the brink of starvation. The crisis is largely a consequence of the civil war that broke out in South Sudan in 2013 shortly after it gained independence from the north.
In 2015, the South Sudanese government launched a multi-million dollar project meant to develop farms that would feed its people and even export the surplus.
But according to the U.S. government, the farming project was instead used to cover up the sale of approximately US$150 million in weapons, including rifles, grenade launchers, and shoulder-fired rockets. In December, an Israeli security services firm contracted to run the project, as well as its owner, were blacklisted for allegedly fueling the conflict by supplying arms to both the government and the opposition. In its sanctions announcement, the U.S. Treasury Department mentioned — but didn’t name or blacklist — a “major multi-national oil firm” that was in “close collaboration.”
Newly leaked internal documents, emails, and other records obtained by OCCRP, as well as confirmation by two closely placed sources, show who that collaborator is likely to be: Trafigura Pte Ltd., an oil trading subsidiary of Trafigura Group Pte Ltd., one of the world’s largest commodity trading companies.
The materials show that Trafigura transferred at least $140 million to South Sudan’s central bank, ostensibly as pre-payments for crude oil. They also show that the government then transferred nearly the same amount to Global CST, the sanctioned Israeli company. The transfers go far beyond the $45 million allocated to the farming project, called Green Horizon.
The total amount transferred nearly matches the $150 million worth of arms the Treasury Department said Global CST’s owner sold to the government.
Trafigura did not respond to specific questions about whether its money may have been used as payments for arms.
The Company In Between
Trafigura recently surfaced in a separate story about secret money transfers.
On July 10, BuzzFeed revealed a secret meeting between Russian and Italian operatives who schemed to funnel Russian oil money to a populist right-wing Italian political party. In the meeting, Trafigura was mentioned twice as an example of the kind of intermediary the plotters needed to move the money.
“If the company in between is Trafigura, no problem for anybody,” said an unidentified Italian participant.
The money paid to the Green Horizon farming project never showed up in the government’s budget, a lack of transparency troubling to human rights watchdogs.
“When multimillion-dollar deals are kept off the books and oversight institutions are sidestepped, the money’s either being used to line the pockets of politicians or support military operations,” said J.R. Mailey, investigations director at The Sentry, a Washington-based advocacy group that investigates links between war crimes, corruption, and human rights violations.
The project shows how “multinational companies are benefiting from the violence of South Sudan,” said Edmund Yakani, executive director for Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a local advocacy organization.