Last month Somali pirates seized a Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, and demanded a huge ransom – which has not yet been paid.
The vessel was carrying arms, including 33 tanks belonging to Kenya (and not the government of Southern Sudan as other sources claim), according to the Government.
Since the hijack, American, Russian and Nato warships have moved to the area in international waters just off the coast of Somalia, to prevent the pirates from slipping off with the arms into the hell that the long-suffering nation has become.
This however, has raised questions as to why Kenya, the only country in East Africa with a navy to speak off, didn’t send a ship to the area too, considering that the cargo is hers.
Despite the fact that Ukrinmash, a Ukrainian state-owned company that sold the weapons to Kenya had appealed to Kenya “to assume indispensable measures” in rescuing the ship and its deadly cargo.
Military sources say that Kenya navy recognised its responsibilities, and was waiting in the high seas to escort the weapons-laden ship to Mombasa.
However, that might well draw more questions about why Kenya wasn’t the first to reach hijacked ship well before the Americans warships surrounded it.
The seeming “inaction” by the Kenya army, coming after its reluctance to get involved in domestic policing to stop the killings in the violence that followed the election dispute early this year, has also brought a more far-reaching question: What is the role of the Kenya military if it can’t stop local massacres, or protect its weapons consignment against pirates who seized them not too far from its coastline?
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, himself a former general and guerrilla, asked these questions during the post-election violence when he said the military needed to step in and take charge.
However, observers note, and the military is quick to stress, that that is not the Kenya army’s way.
For starters, the Department of Defence (DoD) spokesman Bogita Ongeri told the Saturday Nation that because the ship was in international waters, the Kenyan navy was not obliged to rescue it.
“In such an incident where the ship is in international waters, Kenya can only collaborate with other countries who have interests in the area. We are fully involved in the anti-piracy operations in conjunction with other concerned countries but can only act within the law,” Mr Ongeri said.
However, analysts say that if the weapons aboard the MV Faina fell into the hands of insurgents, it could tip the balance of power in the war-wrecked country — and create havoc at the Kenya-Somalia border.
Ultimately, even if the military wanted to abandon its cautious tradition, it would probably take a while for Kenya to change doing the things which have most preoccupied it in the last 25 years, and take a higher profile involvement in domestic issues.
Though some will fault them for not doing enough “peacekeeping” at home, abroad Kenyan military officers have won praise for their role in various United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world.
The Kenyan soldiers have been commended for exhibiting high levels of discipline and dedication while engaged in peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia, Eritrea, Namibia, Ivory Coast, Darfur, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Observers in East Africa also say that while the Kenya army could be blamed for watching as the country descended into anarchy earlier in the year, it was still better than having it get involved in politics as the military has – with disastrous consequences – in countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
The stains on the Kenya military’s image came in the 1971 and 1982 attempted coups.
Interestingly, those experiences convinced many Kenyans to believe strongly that the army should stay in the barracks whatever crisis the country is facing, except when it is attacked by an external aggressor.
Its ability to stay out of civilian affairs, makes Kenyans today watch in awe and admiration at military officers marching during public holidays.
Because of its tendency to be tight-lipped, there have been suggestions that the Kenya army might be doing something about the pirates, but will not say so.
Indeed some military sources have been keen to emphasise that the Kenya military has well trained personnel capable of conducting a rescue operation. And that the navy has six frigates which patrol the country’s coast and would be ideal for such an operation.
However, those privy to such operations insist that logistical hurdles would complicate such an operation.
That said, sources within the Police indicate that the situation for the military was more complicated than the public realised.
The sources say that on realising that they were overwhelmed by the violence, Vigilance House requested for a state of emergency that would have allowed the military to intervene but it was not declared.
To underscore the point that the army had to function within the law, and that it didn’t just look on throughout, Mr Ongeri, said: “We perform our duties according to the law. The law is very clear on when and how the military can be involved.
The military intervened in areas like Naivasha and Nakuru to save lives during the post election violence because we were requested to do so.”
However, with the criticism it faced for not intervening early and robustly and the blossoming of piracy in waters off the Somalia that is seriously hurting Kenya’s and its neighbour’s economies, the military could soon find itself forced by the pressure of regional governments, and the need to maintain its credibility by stopping massacres, to be far more activist than it is willing to be.
It cannot be that even India, in addition to the Americans, Russians and Nato, will send her navy to protect the Indian Ocean sea lanes while the Kenyan military is content to cite the law for not being a more activist force in domestic issues.