Admittedly, travelling abroad with the Dutch deputy development cooperation minister is not the most exciting journalistic assignment. Dutch involvement in Africa has waned in recent years. There was a time when former development minister Jan Pronk used his influence to get involved in the peace negotiations in South Sudan.
Nowadays Dutch interest is limited to development aid: building water wells, agricultural projects, aid for setting up programmes to improve justice and training police. “The spearheads of the new policy,” as the caretaker deputy minister stresses during his visit to South Sudan.
But the journalists travelling with the minister knew that already; we want to hear news. So I focus on the opening of the new Dutch embassy in Juba. It’s been open for 11 months already, but now Mr Knapen has come to perform an official ceremony. Could there be a snippet of Dutch news? For, what did Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders have to do with the new embassy?
The Dutch government has closed ten embassies across the world (five of them in Africa), including the economically important country of Cameroon. So why did it open one in South Sudan of all places?
For some time I’ve been hearing rumours in Dutch diplomatic circles that this embassy has been set up in exchange for support from the Freedom Party for the coalition deal. Put simply, in the conflict in Sudan, the Christian south has seceded from the not-so-friendly Muslim state in the north. So is it an anti-Islam decision?
Although the Dutch government has already fallen, the caretaker deputy minister declines to confirm that Mr Wilders is behind the move. “I can’t understand where you got that from,” Mr Knapen says innocently.
Mr Knapen is quite prepared to talk about why South Sudan rather than Sudan was selected for development aid. The embassy in Khartoum remains open, but no Dutch aid is given to Sudan anymore. Many Western countries have followed this example and Khartoum isn’t pleased. In response, diplomats posted in South Sudan are not given visas to travel via Sudan.
As there is nothing new to report from the Netherlands, there is plenty to report about South Sudan itself. In recent days, the press has been dominated by a leaked letter President Salva Kir sent to his ministers and other government employees about corruption.
Four billion dollars have disappeared in the past few years. President Kir has called on those responsible to hand the money back. At a meeting with Vice President Riek Macha, Mr Knapen “expressed his concern” – as they say in diplomatic language – about corruption in the country. He promised to consult other donor countries to take joint action.
“Of course, there is corruption,” Mr Knapen says after the meeting. So, it’s been said. But then he says something that sounds like an appeal for people’s understanding:
“The information from the IMF which looked at Juba’s government income and spending, is that it might not all be down to corruption. When South Sudan suddenly started getting oil revenues in 2005, there was no Central Bank, there wasn’t even a Finance Ministry. And that in a non-existent state, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Then Mr Knapen adds: “I am glad that President Kirr is taking action. Because this is a huge amount.”
Harsh diplomatic language, but for whose ears: for South Sudan or for home consumption, where every cent of development aid needs to be defended vigorously?
Reports about large-scale corruption first came in five years ago, when South Sudan became autonomous. In the beginning, the Western donor countries looked the other way. After all, South Sudan was young and inexperienced. However, in the past two years, representatives from donor countries have been telling Juba that they are no longer prepared to ignore the corruption.
The United States handed over a list of corrupt ministers to President Kirr some time ago, but the president failed to take action. Critical members of the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement say that misappropriation of funds has been rife for years.
The corruption keeps a system of patronage in place that indirectly ensureds stability for the political class. Corruption will be allowed to continue in the interests of stability for a while. A visit by the Dutch caretaker deputy minister won’t change that. That’s because there is a difference between harsh reality and diplomatic truth.