Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta appears before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands, 08 October 2014. EPA/PETER DE JONG / POOL
When Lieutenant-General Johnson Ondieki was sacked as the United Nations peacekeeping boss in South Sudan last week, Kenya was incensed. But the outraged response says more about Kenya’s current government than it does about the rights and wrongs of the situation.
Last week, the United Nations sacked Lieutenant-General Johnson Ondieki, the commander of the international peacekeeping force in South Sudan. Ondieki took the fall for the failure of peacekeepers to prevent widespread civilian casualties and human rights abuses during renewed fighting in Juba this July, most notably the attack by government troops on a humanitarian compound.
Kenya did not take this perceived slight well. President Uhuru Kenyatta described it as an insult to Kenya’s “dignity, honour and pride”, and announced an immediate retaliatory measure: the withdrawal of Kenya’s 995 soldiers that participate in the UN force in South Sudan.
“We will no longer contribute to a mission that has failed to meet its mandate and has now resorted to scapegoating. We intend to withdraw Kenyan troops with immediate effect. Last night, I directed that Kenya disengages fully from the South Sudan peace process,” Uhuru said.
At the same time, Kenya deported James Gatdet Dak, a spokesperson for South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar who had expressed support for Ondieki’s removal on a Facebook post. Gatdet is a registered refugee, and Kenya has been criticised for flagrantly violating its commitment to international law.
In fact, Kenya has attracted plenty of criticism for its handling of the entire incident. And rightly so: it represents all the worst elements of Kenyatta’s government, in microcosm. These elements include:
Impunity for top officials
Kenya argues that Ondieki was in place for just three weeks when the alleged failures occurred; not nearly enough time for him to have fixed the structural difficulties that make it so hard for any UN force to react quickly. There may be some merit to this argument, but the buck has to stop somewhere, and Ondieki was in charge. That is the nature of command: when things go wrong, the boss is supposed to take the fall.
Except that’s not how it works in the Kenyan government at the moment. Both President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto were implicated in crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, for their role in post-election violence in 2007/2008, and both used every privilege of their office to obstruct and obfuscate the investigations against them. When impunity starts at the very top, this attitude filters down through the ranks, which perhaps explains the rise in both torture and extrajudicial killings in Kenya – and the lack of any accountability for these increases.
As demonstrated by Kenya’s antagonism towards the ICC; its support for immunity for senior government figures in the proposed new African Court for Justice and Human Rights; and now it’s drastic reaction to Ondieki’s dismissal, impunity for top officials is now official government policy.
Shrinking space for free speech
According to most reports, rebel spokesman Gatdet was deported thanks to a Facebook post he wrote in support of Ondieki’s dismissal. It read: “We welcome the change in the UNMISS Force Command in South Sudan. The peacekeepers failed to protect civilians during the crisis right in the capital, Juba, and in other parts of the country, more notably in Malakal. We hope a new Force Commander will be appointed soon who will be more responsive and take actions to protect the civilians at risk in exercising their mandate.”
This was hardly a searing takedown of the Kenyan government, but it was still too much for Kenyatta’s administration, who promptly bundled him on a plane back to Juba – where he was immediately arrested. But this government is notoriously sensitive to any kind of criticism, as evidenced by a recent spate of violence against journalists. Equally concerning is the current legislative attempt to regulate social media through restrictive conditions on all pictures and videos
As Gatdet has just discovered, the space for free speech in Kenya is shrinking rapidly.
Disregard for refugee rights
Gatdet was also a registered refugee, and therefore entitled to some protection by the Kenyan government. Sending him back to Juba, where as a prominent rebel he faces a clear and present danger to his life, is an obvious violation of international refugee law. According to Amnesty International, this is a “brazen and dangerous attack on refugee rights”.
Not that Kenya has been particularly nice to its large refugee population recently. Repeated threats to shut down Dadaab refugee camp – the world’s largest – culminated this year in Somali refugees being repatriated into active war zones. Kenya has also disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, making it significantly more difficult for refugees to access basic services. This, too, violates Kenya’s responsibilities under international refugee law. These obligations are clearly playing second fiddle to domestic political considerations.
Peacekeepers behaving badly
Ondieki aside, Kenyan troops were not directly implicated in the UN’s failures in South Sudan. They are mostly concentrated in a different part of the country. But Kenya is no stranger to peacekeepers behaving badly, and their defence of Ondieki follows a pattern of denial and distortion when it comes to abuses and crimes committed by Kenyan peacekeepers.
Kenya’s participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been dogged by controversy from the start. Most recently, the United Nations confirmed previous claims that Kenyan generals were working with al-Shabaab commanders to facilitate lucrative sugar and charcoal smuggling networks. Al-Shabaab, of course, is the Islamist militant group that Kenyan troops are ostensibly in Somalia to fight. But far from investigating the claims, Kenya’s government has dismissed them as “hogwash masquerading as research”.
Impunity for top officials, growing censorship, disregard for refugee rights and international law, and a pattern of peacekeepers behaving badly: this toxic mix of factors defined Kenya’s response to Ondieki’s sacking, but also represent worrying trends within the country itself.