South Sudan’s Petroleum Ministry has hired a French-run New York lobbying firm to improve the country’s image and lift US sanctions amid international misgivings over environmental degradation and lingering political instability.
Ministry Undersecretary Awow Daniel Chuang struck a deal with AZ Media PR for $280,500, according to a newly disclosed lobbying filing. The contract, for an undisclosed length of time, was effective Sept. 1.
According to its lobbying filing, AZ Media will lobby the US government and international institutions such as the World Bank, in addition to providing investor outreach and public relations. The firm says it will seek meetings with Congress, the National Security Council and the State Department as well as US commercial and economic agencies to press for sanctions removal, economic aid and greater business ties.
“The objectives of the contracted services will be targeted to improving the public image and reputation of South Sudan in the United States and internationally,” the contract states, “and to develop and implement public relations and communications strategies to assist the government in communicating its message to the public in the United States and internationally to attract investment.”
AZ Media bills itself as seeking “to nurture a more balanced and accurate image of emerging economies in the US and other developed markets.” Its CEO, Aziza Albou, is the sole registered agent on the account. Her biography on the firm’s web site lists her as having opened the New York office of French press group Jeune Afrique in 2011. Albou was not available to comment. The South Sudanese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
“The South Sudanese people deserve leaders who are committed to laying the groundwork for a successful, peaceful political transition,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The United States is committed to working with those who wish to move the peace process forward in South Sudan. Sanctions are not permanent measures and may be lifted if sanctioned individuals demonstrate measurable support of the peace process in South Sudan.”
AZ Media joins Washington lobbying firm Gainful Solutions in advocating for the removal of sanctions. The office of President Salva Kiir hired that firm for $3.7 million last year to “open channels of communication” with Trump and open a military relationship with the United States. South Sudanese Deputy Ambassador Gordon Buay told Foreign Lobbying Report that the embassy was not aware of the new contract with AZ Media, suggesting the petroleum ministry was acting on its own.
Gainful Solutions’ lobbyists on the account include managing partner and former US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger. Gainful Solutions in turn has hired Sanitas International for $62,500 per month.
South Sudan has one of the world’s most oil-dependent economies, according to the World Bank, with oil accounting for almost the totality of exports and more than 40% of its gross domestic product. The sector has been hamstrung by sanctions in recent years and now faces new challenges from environmental activists.
Celebrated as an African success story when it split from Sudan in 2011 with crucial backing from the United States, South Sudan has since lost much of its international luster. Civil war between followers of President Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar erupted in 2013, leading the Donald Trump administration to impose an arms embargo on the country and sanction several political and military officials accused of fomenting the violence, including First Vice President Taban Deng Gai. Last year the Treasury Department also sanctioned two businessmen with links to the country’s oil industry, Kur Ajing Ater and Ashraf Seed Ahmed al-Cardinal, according to The Sentry, a US organization that reports on Sudan and South Sudan.
“The South Sudanese Government, and corrupt official actors, use this [oil] revenue to purchase weapons and fund irregular militias that undermine the peace, security, and stability of South Sudan.”US Commerce Department, 2018
Meanwhile the Commerce Department in 2018 took action against 15 South Sudanese oil operators, including the Ministry of Petroleum. Their inclusion in the department’s “Entity List” complicates business dealings by requiring companies that do business with them to first obtain a US license.
“The South Sudanese Government, and corrupt official actors, use this revenue to purchase weapons and fund irregular militias that undermine the peace, security, and stability of South Sudan,” the department said in a statement at the time.
In November 2019, a report to the UN Security Council by a panel of experts bemoaned the “continued lack of transparency in the oil sector.”
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Despite those misgivings, the United States has remained the country’s largest international donor, with the State Department seeking $65 million in development assistance for FY 2020 while spending more than $481 million in humanitarian aid in FY 2019. The creation of a Transitional Government of National Unity this February between Kiir and Machar rekindled hope in a political solution to years of violence and an improved business climate.
Political squabbling over who should get to run the country’s states however has jeopardized the unity government. And now the country’s oil sector faces a new challenge in the form of mounting criticism over its toll on the environment.
In February the Associated Press reported on several environmental reports that the government allegedly buried after they uncovered evidence of “alarming” birth defects, miscarriages and other health problems. And this June the East African Court of Justice in Tanzania temporarily barred South Sudan from exporting oil to the region amid complaints of spills that have polluted the environment. The complaint was brought by Hope for Humanity Africa, a non-government organization based in the capital Juba, which is seeking $720 million in compensation for affected communities.
The government also faces criticism from many South Sudanese expatriates in the United States and Canada. Several have bandied together under the banner of the Coalition of Advocates for South Sudan, which advocates for peace and justice in the country.
“The people are not benefiting from the resources of the country,” said Bill Andress, the group’s secretary. “I’m all for the international community using all the economic weapons that they have, all the political weapons that they have, all the diplomatic weapons that they have, to weaken that government, so that it can be replaced.”