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Inside Story: How we broke the story of alleged COVID-19 corruption in South Sudan

‘They’re willing to share private emails, texts, and documents, but most people are terrified of speaking on the record.’

A woman has her hands sprayed with hand sanitiser at a supermarket in Juba, South Sudan, 1 April, 2021
A woman has her hands sprayed with hand sanitiser at a supermarket in Juba, South Sudan, 1 April, 2021.

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It all started with a tipster who was angry that South Sudan appeared to be making it harder for people to find hand sanitiser by suspending imports and authorising one small domestic company to produce it – all while people were scrambling to find the gel. 

“People are already making money off the pandemic,” said the source, who claimed they worked for the South Sudanese government when he contacted The New Humanitarian in April of last year through a secure email channel.

A slow drip of information continued for nearly two months – a name here, a name there; a couple of dates and a few steers on other alleged profiteering schemes.  

A few of those initial tips were bum steers or turned out to be red herrings – the tipster also eventually disappeared into the shadows. But the hand sanitiser lead panned out, and we were still curious. 

Given all of the foreign aid that was about to pour into South Sudan for its COVID-19 response, would this be another case of political and business elites cashing in while South Sudan’s 11.2 million people continued to suffer?

Would the same patterns emerge as we had seen in our story last year about mismanaged money that was supposed to have been allocated to the implementation of the recent peace deal, or other reports of South Sudan’s leaders being implicated in alleged corruption scandals

We enlisted Sam Mednick to help us find out. 

Mednick, who has reported on several investigations and features for The New Humanitarian, has spent years amassing an enviable treasure trove of sources from her stint in South Sudan between 2017 and 2019 – dangerous and sensitive muckraking that got her thrown out of the country in late 2019.

Now based in Burkina Faso, Mednick did her initial reporting for the investigation by phone or through email and texts to contacts. A familiar pattern emerged, one she had seen before: Everyone – and no one – wanted to talk about the alleged corruption or the rising tension between the government and aid workers. 

“In South Sudan, people always want to talk about the corruption and mismanagement and the challenges they face,” Mednick said. 

“They’re willing to share private emails, texts, and documents, but most people are terrified of speaking on the record. They’re scared of being threatened or arrested, and aid workers fear losing access to vulnerable people they’re meant to be serving, or being kicked out of the country.”

The risks are high for people willing to share their stories from South Sudan.

The government, despite earning revenue from its oil reserves, is heavily dependent on foreign aid. More than $9 billion in assistance has flowed into South Sudan since it became the world’s youngest country in 2011, and was then catapulted back to war in 2013. The US Treasury, meanwhile, has stepped up sanctions against political and military leaders accused of corruption and abuses in recent years. 

One opposition member of the new coalition government, who was frustrated with the pace of the implementation of the peace deal, shared documents with Mednick but would not speak out for fear of retribution by the “head of state.”

Aid workers also fear for their lives, but at the same time want to keep doing their jobs. The country relies on the international community to pay for the bulk of its healthcare, but attacks against aid workers have risen. Last year alone, at least 14 were killed. 

“We are all damned if we do, and damned if we don't,” one aid worker told Mednick.

Locals are also scared to give their full names. Some 1.6 million people have been displaced due to violence or disasters since 2013. Many say they are too fearful of returning home, or don’t trust the government and the security services.   

“There’s a selective way of giving out things in this country,” said Francis, a civil servant who often goes months without pay, and who asked that only his first name be used.

Mednick spent months digging and eventually uncovered a string of COVID-19 profiteering schemes that included a black market for negative test certificates that were needed for travel, and documents saying that $3.8 million was awarded to a company to procure medical equipment and renovate the infectious disease hospital – work that was done but failed to meet the standards of an infectious disease unit. 

She also talked to more than a dozen aid workers who accused the government of meddling and trying to control who should work in – and be paid for – the response.

As the investigation began to take shape, some welcome news came in October: South Sudan told Mednick she could come back to the country to report. 

Mednick spent all of December in South Sudan, reporting on news features and continuing her work on the investigation. 

Before interviewing people and travelling around the country, Mednick got a COVID-19 test. While she was getting tested at a facility in Juba, a man sitting next to her said he had just paid $18 for his coronavirus test, not realising, until it was too late, it was supposed to be free. Mednick’s was free.

With the start of 2021 – and the realisation that we wanted this story to be shared with a wide audience – we approached Al Jazeera, which has provided in-depth and specialised coverage of South Sudan since the country’s independence.

The network has been committed to keeping South Sudan in the spotlight, covering events that have included renewed fighting, power struggles, its many acute humanitarian crises, and impunity for atrocities committed against civilians.

“The conflict has left South Sudan in shambles,” said Teo Kermeliotis, Al Jazeera English online editor. “Peace remains fragile, corruption is rampant, and the humanitarian needs are immense. Meanwhile, international donors have little to show for the billions of dollars they have channelled towards the state.”

While editors at The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera worked on the text elements of the investigation, others plotted multimedia elements for the piece. 

We wanted to make it clear that South Sudan wasn’t alone in allegations of COVID-19 corruption, so The New Humanitarian’s former investigations intern, Izzy Ellis, worked with TNH’s senior web developer, Marc Fehr, and production editor, Kylee Pedersen, to develop an interactive map showing other coronavirus scandals around the world. 

With a bit of help from Whitney Patterson, The New Humanitarian’s audience engagement editor, Souha Samaha, Priyanka Tilve, and the team from Al Jazeera produced a video for the investigation, which has now been viewed by 60,000 people, as well as a podcast that featured Mednick and Edmund Yakani, a prominent civil society activist from South Sudan. 

Al Jazeera’s video and photo team also worked to find compelling video and photographs to accompany the piece – not always an easy task for investigations.  

Paisley Dodds joined TNH as investigations editor in 2019, after more than 20 years at The Associated Press.

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