Opinion: The Teak Mafia of South Sudan
Teak trees are among the best tropical trees that provide an excellent source of hardwood. The teak wood is particularly valued for its durability and water resistance. It has a wide range of usage which includes boat building, exterior construction, furniture, veneer, and others. The world demand for teak timber is on the rise. South Sudan is among the few countries that produce a high-quality teak wood. The Yei River area, Loka, and Lainya are the most famous teak producers across the country. It does occur naturally in other parts of South Sudan and could be grown on a large scale. With proper planning and reasonable regulation, the teak industry could become a significant source of hard currency for the country.
Nearly a couple of weeks ago; many South Sudanese were amazed by what transpired from the documentary under the title "The Profiteers" by the Kenyan investigative journalist John-Allan Namu. It was quite powerful and remains a topical issue dominating discussions among the South Sudanese wherever they are. It exposed to the world what is already known to the locals since the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM IO) established a foothold in their area (Yei River State). It had also been rumoured for quite a while that Frank Matata, the SPLM IO Governor of Yei River State is deeply involved in illegal logging and lumbering of teak trees, and other illicit activities including gold mining.
The documentary has shown to the public perhaps only the tip of an iceberg in the illegal trade run and controlled by the SPLM IO top commanders in the area. The negotiation between Frank Matata, Lam Paul Gabriel, and Francis Dabe on one side; and John Kiarie (John-Allan Namu disguised as a Kenyan businessman) gives the impression of a bunch of crooks trying desperately to strike a deal. What we saw in the video had all the ingredients of Mafia dealings.
Firstly, it revealed a well-established network of individuals including high ranking officials in the Ugandan police, security organs, and the military who took bribes. South Sudanese officials were also being bribed to provide official documents for the facilitation of swift movement across the border. It's typical of the manner in which the Mafia operates anywhere on planet Earth. Al Capone's Mafia outfit infiltrated the Chicago police department and recruited some government officials including some members of the judiciary in the twenties and thirties of the past century. More recently, Pablo Escobar and Joaquin Guzman "El Chapo" of the drug cartels did the same in Colombia and Mexico respectively.
Secondly, being the "Governor" of Yei River State, one would have expected Frank Matata to organise a formal meeting with the businessman where there would be full documentation with someone taking the minutes of the meeting. None of those did happen. How would the money be audited or accounted for in case of embezzlement or theft?!
Thirdly, Lam Paul Gabriel is the SPLM IO deputy Spokesman. I am not aware that he is part of the Yei River State Administration if at all such a thing does exist on the ground under SPLM IO. He does not even hail from the area. How come an official tasked with issuing military statements gets involved in illegal smuggling and sale of teak timber?!
Fourthly, Francis Dabe, who calls himself a former State Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, was more concerned about getting a $ 1000.00 commission or bribe as he increased the actual cost from $ 4500.00 to $ 5500.00 per each truckload of teak timber. The twenty trucks would cost the businessman $ 20,000.00 that would be given to Frank Matata. He did not disclose what position he does occupy in the SPLM-IO. But the question is why the huge commission or bribe if the deal was for the benefit of the local community as they claimed? And in the same vein, where does the SPLM-IO rhetoric of reforming the system and fighting corruption stand in this particular situation?!
Fifthly, in the face to face meeting between Frank Matata and John Kiarie, he bargained for $ 28,000.00 as a bottom line down from 30,000 US dollars. He explained that the money would be used to bribe senior officials in the Ugandan government. He further disclosed their identities as the Regional Police Commander, the Internal Security Officer, and the Regional Chieftaincy Military Intelligence (CMI). Earlier, Lam Paul Gabriel lifted the lid on those in cahoots with them in the government of Uganda. Who would have expected someone in his position to reveal a top secret such as an SPLM-IO collaborator in the office of President Museveni?!
Here the prospect of cashing in a lump sum of US Dollars seems to have gotten the better of Matata Frank and Lam Paul Gabriel in the sense that they divulged sensitive information to an unknown businessman regarding their collaborators and security cover. If their revelations haven't already caused grave consequences to their Ugandan buddies; they are indeed bound to do so.
In a bid for damage control following the damaging documentary, Lam Paul Gabriel posted a video clip on YouTube where he attempted a rebuttal of what was evident to anyone who happened to watch the video. Even though they succeeded in removing the Profiteers video clip from YouTube, they could do nothing about what had been registered in people's minds. Those scenes of Lam Paul Gabriel in the timber depot provide the smoking gun. What was a "Colonel" who is supposedly a freedom fighter doing in the middle of loads of timber?!
His accusations that the National Salvation Front (NAS) connived with John-Allan Namu to incriminate him and his colleagues are laughable. Even the Voice of America (VOA) South Sudan in Focus host, John Tanza was not spared by Lam Paul Gabriel, accusing him of being a NAS sympathiser and working against the SPLM-IO. But what people saw in the documentary speaks much louder than Lam Paul Gabriel's unsubstantiated allegations. The evidence is overwhelming and very compelling. They are plundering our natural resources for their benefit with no concern about the impact on the environment and the local population. Their claim of helping the local communities through their unlawful activities lacks evidence. The SPLM-IO never assisted the locals in any way. They are accused of murdering civilians, rape, and looting at gunpoint. It's now clear that some in the opposition who call themselves as freedom fighters are in reality seeking riches through plunder and pillage of our natural resources.
Kudos to Mr John-Allan Namu for a job well done. It was an excellent, insightful account of the extent and magnitude of the illegal trade. The people of Yei River State would particularly feel indebted and very much obliged to him for opening their eyes to what the profiteers are doing in their backyards.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.