News / Africa

Leaked Cables Detail Kenya's Role in Arming South Sudan

Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga reads the oath of office during the promulgation of the New Constitution at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Aug 27, 2010
Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga reads the oath of office during the promulgation of the New Constitution at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Aug 27, 2010


Michael Onyiego

The latest batch of secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks is shedding new light on Kenya's role in the controversial sale of arms to the government of South Sudan.

The tidal wave of controversy surrounding the release of classified US cables has finally hit Kenyan shores. On Thursday, WikiLeaks released several secret communiqués from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi that further illuminated Kenya's long-suspected role in arming Southern Sudan.  

The arrangement had been embarrassingly exposed in 2008 when the M/V Faina - a Belize flagged, Ukrainian Tanker - was hijacked by Somali pirates en route to Kenya. The pirates later revealed the ship was carrying 33 Soviet-era Ukranian tanks and other weaponry which was bound for Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. The M/V Faina was released to Kenyan custody after a ransom of $3.2 million was paid.

Vigorous denials were issued by both the Kenyan and Ukrainian governments, who were suspected to be secret partners in arming the fledgling southern government. Kenyan Chief of General Staff General Jeremiah Kianga said the tanks were bound for Kenya's armory.

"They belong to Kenya. I don't need to maintain. What is yours is yours. And you've paid for this defense. It is the business of soldiers to defend you. That defense requires that we procure weapons for that purpose. The procurement of weapons is done competitively and, as you know, the world has become a global village."

The recently released diplomatic cables now reveal U.S. suspicions about the cargo's intended destination, as well as conversations held between U.S. and Kenyan officials regarding the M/V Faina.

A cable written in late 2008 by Ambassador Michael Ranneberger described the final destination of Juba as a "poorly kept secret." The cable goes on to explain that Kenya has been involved in arming Southern Sudan since at least 2007, receiving arms shipments and transporting them to Juba via Uganda. Ranneberger explains that military officials were uneasy with the arrangement and indicated their orders came "from the top" - which he interpreted as President Mwai Kibaki.

In another cable from 2009, the U.S. Envoy describes a conversation about the issue with Prime Minister Raila Odinga. In the meeting, Odinga affirms Kenya's commitment to assist the government of South Sudan and speaks of "intense pressure" to deliver the tanks.

The release of these cables comes on the heels of a recently released cable from the U.S. post in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. In the cable, U.S. Ambassador John Yates describes Ethiopia's reservations concerning Kenya's "Jubaland Initiative." The initiative also is described by President Meles Zenawi as an "intervention," which the Ethiopian leader compares to the country's 2006 invasion of Somalia.

In one month, Southern Sudan will hold a referendum to decide whether it secedes from the north. The vote is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than 20 years of civil war between the two sides.

Tensions have been rising along with uncertainty over the vote, and many analysts now fear a return to war. Kenya has outwardly positioned itself as neutral, twice inviting international pariah and Sudanese President Omar al Bashir to the country in the face of global protest. It remains to be seen how the release of the secret cables will affect Kenya's role in Africa's largest country.

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