New sanctions imposed on two South Sudanese businessmen and members of a South African family highlight the Trump administration’s extensive use of financial penalties to achieve US foreign-policy goals.
The separate moves announced in recent days simultaneously indicate that there are limits to the Trump team’s aggressive use of the sanctions tool.
The US refrained from placing sanctions on high-ranking South Sudanese and South African government officials that it suggested are involved in the same corrupt dealings for which it is punishing private individuals.
South Sudan nationals Ashraf Seed Ahmed al-Cardinal and Kur Ajing Ater, along with companies that they own or control, were cited by the US Treasury Department on Friday for “massive corruption that includes millions of dollars in bribery, kickbacks and fraud.”
Al-Cardinal is described as the head of a “global network that has looted state coffers with impunity, often with the complicity of senior government officials.”
Earlier this year, the Treasury Department added, the South Sudan government paid millions of dollars to a company owned by al-Cardinal. The government said the payment was for food, but “the money instead went to senior South Sudanese government officials,” the US charged.
Friday’s sanctions announcement does not name those officials.
In slapping sanctions on Ajing, the Treasury Department said he bribed “key officials in the government of South Sudan” to maintain his access to the country’s oil market.
“Ajing used these bribes to both curry favour with a senior gatekeeper within the government of South Sudan and to ensure the silence and compliance of a key government officials,” the announcement added.
Again, the South Sudan government figures said to be implicated in corruption were neither named nor subjected to sanctions.
Similarly, the Treasury Department said South African government officials were involved in corrupt dealings for which members of the country’s Gupta family were sanctioned on Thursday. But those officials were not named or hit with sanctions.
Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury Department under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, was asked about these omissions in a teleconference with reporters on Friday.
“We don’t comment on why we do or do not take action against certain individuals,” Ms Mandelker said in response. She added that “historically, we have used these tools a number of times to sanction government officials.”
Ms Mandelker also declined to comment on whether Kenyan judges, prosecutors, police and politicians bribed by the drug-trafficking Akasha brothers would be hit with US sanctions.
The actions taken on Friday against al-Cardinal, Ajing and the Guptas bring to 680 the number of individuals and entities hit with sanctions since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
That total far exceeds the number of sanctions ordered by the Obama administration in a comparable time period.
The Trump team is making aggressive use of sanctions in order to “prevent such kleptocrats and their facilitators from using the US and global financial system to hide and clean their money,” Ms Mandelker said.
She added that “our goal is simple: to support this generation of people, whether from South Africa, Sudan, DRC, or elsewhere, who clearly and firmly state that they have had enough of the past corruption and violence.”
It is Treasury Department policy not to disclose the amounts or types of assets sanctioned individuals may hold within the US financial system. Orders such as those announced on Thursday and Friday not only freeze those assets but prohibit anyone in the US from engaging in transactions with listed individuals.
US actions of this sort can also have international ramifications, Ms Mandelker said.
Persons designated by the US “quickly find that they have a lot more difficulty doing business around the world because legitimate institutions do not want to find themselves enmeshed with individuals who have engaged in wide-scale corruption,” she said.