The ceremony last Feb. 12 at the commercial seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, was a surprising one. When the Ukrainian-owned merchant ship Faina sailed into port, five months after its capture by Somali pirates and a week after its release, the Kenyan government rolled out the red carpet. Civilian officials and military officers lined the pier, and armed guards patrolled, as Faina’s weary seafarers debarked. There were speeches and reluctant testimonies by Faina’s senior crew before the strange gathering came to a halting end. Hundreds of vessels had been seized by Somali pirates over the previous decade, and their releases had rarely prompted an official celebration such as this.
The ceremony might have been inspired by the intensive media coverage that had surrounded the Faina’s capture and the subsequent stand-off, pitting U.S. Navy warships against the merchant ship’s ragtag captors. Faina’s captain died of natural causes in the early days of the crisis. Ultimately, the vessel’s owners paid a $3.2 million ransom, which itself is not unusual. Faina had stood out, among captured vessels, owing to her cargo: 33 Soviet-designed T-72 main battle tanks, plus other arms and ammunition — all of murky provenance and ownership. To cynical observers, the June ceremony was seen as an opportunity for Nairobi to voice its official position regarding the weapons’ origins and destination.
Nairobi waged a clumsy campaign to first cover up, then deny, its alleged South Sudan connection. In October, Kenyan authorities briefly arrested Andrew Mwangura, a prominent Mombasa seafarers’ advocate who had corroborated the U.S. Navy’s claim regarding the weapons’ destination. Faina’s welcoming party was the capstone event in this apparent disinformation strategy.
“We are very happy that our military equipment, purchased by the government from the Ukrainian government, has arrived safely — and we cannot wait to take possession,” spokesman Alfred Mutua said. In the following days, the tanks rolled from Faina’s holds and apparently headed to Kahawa Barracks, outside Nairobi. Commercial satellite imagery confirmed the presence of 33 tanks at Kahawa in March, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly, a British trade publication.
But subsequent investigation by Jane’s appeared to show the tanks migrating elsewhere. The magazine’s probe, combining satellite imagery with other photographic evidence and eyewitness reports, showed “a pattern of tanks making their way north” to neighboring South Sudan. The semi-autonomous, predominantly Christian region has in the past waged a bloody separatist campaign against Khartoum and the North’s majority Muslim population.
The Faina shipment apparently represented the third and final installment of a large batch of heavy weaponry for South Sudan, sourced from Ukraine and brokered by Nairobi. In November, the German magazine Der Spiegel claimed it had records proving an earlier shipment of 42 tanks that had largely escaped international scrutiny. Khartoum has more than equaled South Sudan’s apparent arms program, with large-scale purchases of fighter jets, helicopters and other weapons, sourced mostly from Russia and China.
The mutual re-armament, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo, bodes poorly for reconciliation efforts aimed at forestalling a continuation of the 20-year, North-South civil war. The fighting ended in 2005, and in 2007 former Kenyan President Daniel Moi traveled to Sudan to smooth out the implementation of a formal peace deal. According to the so-called “Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” in 2011, South Sudan will vote whether to remain a part of Sudan, or formally secede.
But “the implementation of the CPA has been hampered by the lack of good faith and the absence of political will,” according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Ongoing tension might tilt the referendum toward sovereignty, resulting in a fresh round of fighting — a contingency both the North and South seem to be preparing for, and one to which Kenya seems resigned. Since the CPA’s implementation, Kenya has aligned itself closely with South Sudan. Kenya gets discounts on South Sudanese oil. In return, Kenyan banks have financed massive construction projects in South Sudan. Nairobi’s apparent military assistance to South Sudan underscores Kenya’s investment in the region’s eventual, full independence.
The U.S. military’s “outing” of the Kenya-South Sudan relationship reflects Washington’s delicate stance on regional security. Washington works closely with the Kenyan government to prevent pirate attacks and prosecute captured pirates. But the U.S. seems willing to somewhat jeopardize that relationship in order to prevent arms flowing to South Sudan.
Still, the U.S. State Department is arguably South Sudan’s second-most-important supporter. Last year, the State Department awarded a contract to Virginia-based consultancy USIS, to help train up the South Sudanese army — a deal that does not include arms transfers. The goal, an unnamed State Department source told Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog , is to take the South’s army “out of the bush, basically, within the construct of the CPA — as a force that can come together in a unity government. Or if in 2011, the South secedes, that force could become the element of a South Sudan that’s sovereign.”
Despite the clear risk of massive bloodshed, sovereignty for South Sudan is a prospect both Kenya and the U.S. seem to be preparing for. The difference is in the tactics used. Washington’s support for South Sudan is subtle and non-material. Nairobi’s alleged support, by contrast, is the stuff of pirate tales and techno-thrillers — and apparently too obvious to escape major scrutiny