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How Kenya was left stranded with tanks meant for S. Sudan

Thursday December 9 2010

Kenyan military officers inspect some tanks after they were offloaded from the mv Faina on Febraury 15, 2009 which had been hijacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia. Photo/FILE

Kenyan military officers inspect some tanks after they were offloaded from the mv Faina on Febraury 15, 2009 which had been hijacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia. Photo/FILE 

By MUTUMA MATHIU [email protected]

The US last year threatened to impose “sweeping sanctions” against Kenya if it delivered 32 Russian-made tanks to the government of Southern Sudan, according to leaked embassy cables.

The cables prove that the government did not tell the truth when it claimed that the tanks were meant for the Kenyan military.

Not only were the tanks, now lying at the Kahawa Barracks, meant for Southern Sudan, but a further 67 had already passed through Kenya.

In a 10-day period of intense diplomatic pressure kicked off by a visit from a top Pentagon official last December, the US dramatically leaned on Kenya’s political and military leadership to ensure that the Mv Faina tanks did not cross the border.

The US government had earlier signed on to a plan to convert the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army from a guerrilla outfit to a small conventional army, capable of defending Juba, the capital of the South, but not invading Khartoum, according to the cables.

In an October 19, 2008 cable, the charge d’affairs at the US embassy in Khartoum, Mr Alberto M. Fernandez, said he advised South Sudan to make sure their arms were in future not captured by pirates, an indication of Washington’s attitude about the arms transfer.

But the publicity attending the capture of Mv Faina and the change of government in Washington led to a reversal that left Kenyan officials “very confused”.

At a meeting with Prime Minister Raila Odinga on December 15 last year, US ambassador Michael Ranneberger warned Kenya that delivering the tanks to Sudan would be a violation of US law, according to secret memo from the embassy leaked by WikiLeaks on Thursday.

The US had listed Sudan as state sponsor of terrorism and its law imposes sanctions on countries which sell arms to listed states. But it routinely issues waivers and Kenya was keen for an exemption over previous Sudan arms shipments.

At the meeting with Mr Odinga, the US ambassador made it quite clear, as did other officials knocking on Kenyan doors, that no waivers would be issued for shipments if the Mv Faina tanks found their way to Sudan. The tanks were aboard the Belize registered ship, which was captured by Somali pirates.

A week before the meeting between Mr Odinga and the US envoy, the new US position was given to Defence assistant minister David Musila and the Chief of General Staff, General Jeremiah Kianga, by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defence Vicki Huddleston and Col McNevin, the Kenya-US Liason Office chief, according to a cable by Rachel Meyers, Deputy Political Counsellor at the US embassy in Nairobi.

From the cables, Kenyan leaders and defence officials appeared bewildered by what they saw as a major US policy shift, which had left them with tanks they did not need and egg on their faces.

Also caught off-guard by Washington’s position were local embassy officials who were engaged with their Kenyan counterparts and in one cable asked their superiors for ideas on how to deal with the situation.

In Kenya’s defence, Mr Odinga told the ambassador that the government was committed to supporting Southern Sudan and hinted that the tanks may be sent to Uganda and onwards to Sudan.

The cable indicates Mr Ranneberger advised Kenya not to try that. On December 16, Mr Ranneberger sent Col McNevin to meet Gen Kianga, Vice Chief of General Staff Lt-Gen Karangi and Director of Military Intelligence Philip Kamweru.

After passing on the Mr Ranneberger’s message that Kenya faced sanctions if it allowed the shipment, Col McNevin offered US help in disposing of the tanks, which Kenya did not need.

According to the cable, before the meeting Mr Kamweru informed Col McNevin that as far as Kenya was concerned, the tanks were the property of the government of Southern Sudan and President Kibaki was “personally very angry about this issue”.

At the meeting, Gen Kianga said Kenya was “very confused” about the US position because previous shipments were done with full knowledge of the US, and “they thought we were in agreement on the way forward towards implementation of the CPA”.

“Kianga asked about the significance of what appeared to him to be a major policy reversal, and questioned whether the United States is rethinking the CPA, increasingly shifting its support to Khartoum, and/or now seeking a unitary state in Sudan. Kianga asked that the United States explain directly to the GOSS/SPLA why we are blocking the tank transfer.

Following that discussion, Kianga indicated the GOK would like to participate in a high-level trilateral meeting (GOK, GOSS, and USG) to reach a collective understanding of US and regional partner countries’ objectives with respect to implementation of the CPA,” the cable says.

At the end of the meeting, Mr Kamweru asked Col McNevin for a list of DOD programmes funded by the US apparently because the CGS wanted to use it at an upcoming National Defense Council meeting to convince President Kibaki not to release the tanks.

The cable says the defence council is chaired by the President with members being National Security Intelligence Service director Michael Gichangi, Defence minister Mohamed Yusuf Haji, Internal Security minister George Saitoti, Administration Police commandant Kinuthia Mbugua and police commissioner Mathew Iteere.

“The Defence Council is composed entirely of advisors who are close to the President and come from his Kikuyu ethnic group or closely related groups,” the cable says.

The author might have been referring to the National Security Committee, which the President chairs and in which the Prime Minister sits.

The National Defence Council is chaired by the minister, Mr Haji. At the time, its other members were Defence permanent secretary Nancy Kirui, Defence Assistant minister David Musila, service commanders Maj Gen Samson Jefwa Mwathethe (Kenya Navy), Maj Gen H.M. Tangai (Kenya Air Force) and Gen Jack Tuwei (Kenya Army).