Slightly over a year ago, there was little hope for four Kenyans sentenced to life imprisonment for “financial crimes” in South Sudan.
While the recent decision by a court of appeal judge in Juba to order a retrial is welcome, it is also a sobering reminder of how our government has stood by and watched as the conflict in the world’s youngest nation has grown from a squabble over leadership to one of the defining humanitarian crises of our times.
Just last month, four Kenyan aid workers were executed in Pibor.
Their deaths add to a growing casualty list of Kenyans, including the more than 16 truck drivers who lost their lives in Juba last year, after fresh fighting broke out between forces under the command of President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar.
These deaths sit alongside the thousands more of innocent South Sudanese whose country has been torn apart by their leaders’ violent struggle.
Our Foreign Affairs ministry pays lip service to the pleas of Kenyan families and fails to act decisively to end the suffering.
When it comes to protecting civilians caught up in the conflict, Kenya has yet to show the sort of conviction that was on display in pulling our troops from the UN peacekeeping force following the dismissal of Gen Johnstone Ondieki.
The lack of an effective response by the government is not only disturbing but apparently puzzling.
A rational Kenyan Government should not need prompting to step up its conflict resolution efforts in South Sudan.
It is in our country’s national interests to stop the war.
The conflict is costing Kenya millions of shillings.
A 2015 report by the Juba-based Centre for Peace and Development Studies projected the economy would lose up to $24 million in lost trade opportunities if the South Sudanese conflict continued at the same intensity for five years.
Recent news from banks such as KCB, which reported a staggering Sh6.1 billion in foreign exchange losses from their South Sudan operations suggest the figures may well be gross underestimates.
The war is also leading to an influx of refugees and weapons into Kenya and undermining plans for regional integration and large infrastructure projects.
South Sudanese security operatives are active in Kenya, choreographing disappearances of the country’s dissidents in spite of orders from the Kenyan High Court against their deportation.
It is worrying when such disregard for fairness is replicated in Juba and Nairobi.
So, why hasn’t the Kenyan Government acted?
The clue seems to lie in the close links between our elite and the ruling party in South Sudan, which have their roots in Kenya’s involvement in the negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Former liberation fighters-turned generals forged very close personal relationships with Kenyan politicians at the time, which have since turned into lucrative business links.
These vested interests are at the core of Kenya’s inability to respond effectively to the crisis.
The complicity of the Kenyan elite in benefiting from the conflict exposes our institutions to a huge amount of economic, political and security risk.
Kenyan banks’ operations in South Sudan are exposed to the possibility of being cut off from the international financial system for dealing with people sanctioned for human rights abuses.
Amid ever-declining international interest in the war, Kenya remains one of the few countries that can use its influence to stall South Sudan’s rapid descent to state failure and the contagion effect on the region.
It must step up and demand that warring factions put their house in order and make it clear that a military solution to a leadership crisis is untenable.
Kenya must also stop the South Sudanese military elite using our country as a safe house, crack down on the flow of dirty money into our banks and bolster her troop and police commitments to the UN Mission in South Sudan to help end the violence.
Indeed, the costs of not acting decisively now could have irreversible consequences for both countries.
Mr Kegoro is Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.