The arrest of 16 prominent businessmen on charges of corruption and embezzlement may have made the media headlines in Sudan, but under the country's current "illegal wealth" laws there are no guarantees that any of them will be convicted in a court of law or spend time in jail.
Although, Sudan's Penal Code 2008 explicitly prohibits active or passive bribery or embezzlement, it also contains plea bargain provisions whereby the return of ill-gotten gains is sufficient to avoid prosecution. In most cases the waiver makes it possible for corrupt traders or companies to return to "business as usual".
Last month, in his address to the National Assembly, Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir vowed to apply the Illegal Wealth Act to uncover suspicious money laundering and put an end to gold smuggling so that the economy can recover fully. "We have reviewed the banking system and taken punitive measures against banks and companies involved in financial corruption," he said. "We will continue to review, inspect and evaluate private and public banks, especially the Central Bank of Sudan, in which we will undertake structural reforms."
He pointed out what most Sudanese have known for years and in part blamed the government for its inaction. Al-Bashir said that criminal cartels have sabotaged the Sudanese national economy and stolen public funds. However, commentators argue that tackling corruption must not be a matter for law enforcement alone but should happen in a climate where whistle blowers can feel protected. Whilst, in principle, the criminal law protects civil servants who report cases of corruption, graft, abuse of power or abuse of resource from retaliation, those who inform the authorities of wrongdoing can often suffer reprisals, especially if suspicions affect people well-connected politically.
Part of the problem faced by Al-Bashir's government in eradicating corruption is the lack of clarity in Sudanese law about the rights of government ministers and top civil servants to own and operate companies, and profit from government business while in public office. There are no clearly defined financial disclosure regulations for government officials nor any freedom of information laws that would provide public access to data held by the government. Hence, as many as 200 major companies are thought to be in the hands of government ministers who agree on lucrative contracts for family members, political allies or business associates.
The recent arrests have startled ordinary Sudanese citizens but have also served to reinforce the government's new resolve to stamp out systematic misappropriation of public funds. However, the extent of the crimes committed or the money embezzled has not been made public. The sixteen suspects are reported to be businessmen, bankers, directors of the state petroleum company and at least three officers from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Unconfirmed reports suggest that some of the men were working as a part of syndicate embezzling and syphoning-off public funds.
Earlier this year, the government refused to sign a bill to combat corruption, arguing that one of the clauses was too harsh and left the door open for national security to be compromised. The government said that the process for holding people to account required provision for the accused to make amends and pay back what was stolen without a criminal case being raised against the culprit immediately. For some opposition lawmakers, this controversial decision put in question the government's seriousness about wanting to root out corruption by naming and shaming abusers and providing a sufficient deterrent to prevent other similar abuses of the system.
To make matters worse, there are plenty of well-known incidents that have become public knowledge whereby government officials have been discovered maintaining financial interests in lucrative private businesses, or of low ranking officials owning vast amounts of real estate. In addition, there are unverified claims that public funds have been invested aboard in countries like Malaysia; figures of up to $16 billion are being suggested.
Suffice to say that the latest determination expressed by the government comes at a time when economic woes necessitate a new approach to the financial management of the country to prevent vast sums of government revenue being misappropriated. Despite the public pressure to stamp out corrupt practices perceived to be on the increase, the government has been able to point out that the introduction of new laws last September took Sudan off the list of the ten most dangerous countries for money laundering in the world, according to the Basel Institute on Governance Anti-Money Laundering Index of 2017.
Moreover, Sudan has continued to cooperate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to develop the system for combating money laundering, but that cooperation — through the introduction of economic austerity measures — has undoubtedly been part of the direct cause of the worsening economic conditions in the country that have in turn increased public and parliamentary pressure to stamp out corruption.
Speaking in parliament, Sudan's Prime Minister Hassan Bakr Salih claimed that everything possible is being done to steady the economy and implement a programme of economic reforms. However, until there is a clear upturn in the economy and more corrupt individuals have been apprehended, the so-called "war against corruption" may fizzle out altogether, or be regarded as a tiny, ineffectual battle.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.