The letter was as bold as it was explosive. Signed by the South Sudanese president and sent out with a news release, it chastised its powerful recipients for collectively stealing $4 billion from the world’s newest country, before it was even born.
"We fought for freedom, justice and equality. Many of our friends died to achieve these objectives. Yet, once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people," the letter read. At least 75 officials were served with copies, which offered amnesty for the partial return of funds.
That letter set off a firestorm in the media and added to the steady stream of bad publicity that South Sudan had received in its first year of existence.
Yet its origins tell of a much deeper story, one in which America’s newest friend in Africa has turned out to be far less friendly than hoped, and international efforts to create a reliable democracy in an unstable region are faltering badly.
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The author of the letter detailing South Sudan’s corruption wasn’t a South Sudanese but an Ethiopian-American who previously had been an advocate for South Sudan in Washington and had very recently taken a job with the United Nations. Ted Dagne also had been appointed by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir as a special adviser.
Because of his anti-corruption work, Dagne was forced to flee South Sudan for his safety soon after the letter was released, and for now he isn’t allowed back into the country. The United Nations says Dagne remains on contract with its mission in South Sudan.
"He’s obviously very affected, very distraught," said a friend who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. "I don’t know what kind of impact this is going to have. He was obviously very influential in Washington."
U.S. officials declined to comment on the record or to officially condemn the incident. The South Sudanese minister of information, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, wouldn’t discuss Dagne and his role in the corruption letter. Kiir’s press secretary, Chaat Paul, also declined to discuss Dagne.
Dagne, who worked for 22 years at the Congressional Research Service as an African specialist, was part of a tight-knit group of U.S. officials with close ties to the southern Sudan rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
Advocates in Washington call Dagne the movement’s point man in Congress. He traveled frequently with the late Democratic New Jersey U.S. Rep. Donald Payne to Africa, where they often met with the southern Sudanese rebels. Dagne was known to play a personal voice mail from John Garang, the movement’s founder, to visitors.
His efforts and those of other American officials who were pro-Sudan People’s Liberation Movement paid off in a 2005 peace deal that led last year to an independent South Sudan. But Garang died six months after signing the peace accord, and Kiir took over as a consensus replacement. Unlike Garang, who had a Ph.D. from Iowa State University, Kiir had little education and had been a guerrilla fighter his entire life.
This January, Dagne left Washington and moved to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, on a U.N. contract to advise Kiir directly and work on curbing a plague within the nascent government that even friends of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement realized could prove fatal to their cause: a free-for-all looting of South Sudan’s oil revenue by the movement’s officials.
Besides his anti-corruption work, Dagne advised Kiir on international relations and at times wrote government news releases.
Dagne played another less official job: He served as an embedded go-between, and source of intelligence, for the U.N. and U.S. diplomats trying to make sense of South Sudan’s decision-making and direction. At no time was that more important than in April, when South Sudan advanced north and captured the disputed Heglig oil field. Kiir later ordered his military to withdraw, an unpopular decision domestically.
Dagne was brought into the mission by Hilde Johnson, a former Norwegian minister of international development who heads the U.N. mission in South Sudan. Johnson was backed for that position by Ambassador Susan Rice, the U.S. representative at the U.N. in New York. Dagne, Johnson and Rice all developed close ties to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement during their careers.
Johnson has referred to Dagne in conversation as a close friend and her best contact in Juba.
The public disclosure that South Sudan was missing $4 billion shocked South Sudan’s politicians, who’d spent years denying the scale of the problem.
According to a South Sudanese official who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, Kiir didn’t consult his ministers before signing Dagne’s corruption letter. An official government investigation afterward found Dagne responsible for then leaking the letter to reporters through one of Kiir’s press officers, the South Sudanese official said.
South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, who’s a political rival to Kiir, has publicly disputed the $4 billion figure, and his spokesman said Dagne was responsible for picking that number.
"The $4 billion was not based on an investigation. It was an estimation," said James Gatdet, the vice president’s press secretary. "It was this guy Ted. There was no other source."
In response to emailed questions, the U.N. said it "is not familiar" with how the $4 billion figure was calculated.
Some in the South Sudanese government were also upset that Dagne, as a foreigner, held such a senior position in the president’s office.
Fearing for his safety, Dagne fled to Nairobi, Kenya, soon after the corruption letter was leaked. Kiir then passed a message to Dagne that he should remain outside South Sudan. Dagne later tried to return, but was refused entry.
McClatchy spoke with more than 10 people who are familiar with Dagne’s situation – friends as well as U.S., U.N. and African officials – none of whom were willing to speak on the record about his case because of the sensitivities around it.
Dagne’s fierce partisanship on the Sudan issue has made him a polarizing figure in Washington. His critics describe him as naive, or they say he hurt the reputation of the Congressional Research Service, whose website says its analysis is done "without bias."
"On the Africa side, there’ve been researchers, and they’ve been pretty unbiased, and then there was Ted," said a U.S. official who’s worked on Africa for years, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. The official described Dagne as "very smart" but as someone who "had an agenda and knew how to work the system."
Dagne’s wide circle of loyal friends praise him for his tenacious commitment to the cause.
Eric Reeves, an English literature professor who worked with Dagne closely in pro-Sudan People’s Liberation Movement advocacy, said his friend had made enemies in Washington because "he was too direct, too determined and not sufficiently bound by State Department or congressional protocol, especially on Sudan."
McClatchy interviewed Dagne in April in his Juba office – a prefab container inside the president’s open-air arid compound. Dagne vigorously denounced the international response to the ongoing border conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, which he viewed as one-sided in favor of Sudan.
Dagne said he wrote news releases on behalf of the government and was frustrated with U.S. policy on the two countries, which he said he was trying to change to be more pro-South Sudan.
Near the end of the interview, he turned pensive and gazed out his window. He spoke of the country’s corruption, the internal tribal wars, the lack of development outside Juba.
"I’m not even South Sudanese, but as someone who waited a long time to see the benefits (of independence), it is frustrating," he said.
When reached by phone last week, Dagne declined to answer any questions, saying only that he was out of the region and with his family. According to a friend, Dagne is now back in the U.S.
“What he gave up to go to South Sudan, the danger he endured, the emails I received about his life there," his friend Reeves wrote in an email. "I hope you at least understand – as Ted most certainly did – what a target he was by virtue of his role in helping root out corruption. Think of who that made his enemies! A lot of guys, with a lot of money, with a lot of followers, with a lot of guns."