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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Government of Kenya paints itself in a corner over South Sudan arms hijack debacle

NAIROBI - The Government found itself deep in diplomatic embarrassment after it emerged that the freight manifest for the hijacked ship carrying tanks and military weapons shows that the consignment was actually headed for Southern Sudan.

A copy of the freight manifest shows that the Ministry of Defence made contracts for the hardware on behalf of South Sudan. Government officials are unwilling to comment on the matter, and they kept tossing reporters around when confronted with this fresh information. Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula declined to comment, saying it was a security matter. "I cannot comment on that. That is a security matter that should be dealt with by the Ministry of Defence," said Wetangula. When confronted for comment on Tuesday night by telephone, the Minister for Defence Yusuf Haji only said: "No Comment", then hang up. Likewise, the Department of Defence spokesman Bogita Ongeri refused to comment on the development and instead referred us to the Government spokesman Dr Alfred Ng'ang'a Mutua. Dr Mutua told us he was in a place where he could not immediately take our phone call. We sent him a text message, but he did not respond. Subsequent calls went unanswered.

This new twist contradicts the Government’s avowed position that the arms on board the ill-fated Ship MV Faina belong to the army. The Ukranian ship is currently moored off the coast of Somalia near Hobyo port and surrounded by warships from various countries that are keeping watch to ensure the arms do not get into the hands of militia. The pirates have asked for $20 million (KSh1.4 billion) as ransom. Talks with the pirates have been ongoing, but details have been scanty since the drama started on September 25. A spokesman for the East African chapter of the Seafarers Assistance Programme Andrew Mwangura, who was the first to disclose that the arms were actually destined for Southern Sudan, was arrested last week and charged. But was released on bond on Tuesday.

The manifest seems to confirm that the contract was issued on behalf of South Sudan, although the consignee is DoD. This puts the Government in an awkward position. (Kenya mediated the peace pact between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.)

The latest development could be proof that Kenya has been sucked into the Sudan arms race pitting North and South Sudan, which are arming ahead of the 2011 referendum on the South’s self-governance. Contract numbers for the 33 T-72 tanks, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns bear the initials GOSS, a reference to the Government Of South Sudan. The chairman of Defence and Foreign Relations Committee in Parliament Adan Keynan yesterday said with the new development, the committee was planning to seek an adjournment of Business in the House to discuss the matter. "This is a very serious issue because it is affecting the country’s image abroad and having great impact on security of the region. We need answers on many unanswered questions," said Keynan.

Keynan said the committee is concerned about the MV Faina cargo and the little attention it is getting. He added they have summoned Haji and top military commanders to explain the destination of the weapons. Wetang’ula, former Defence Minister Njenga Karume, PS Nancy Kirui and her predecessor Zachary Mwaura have also been asked to appear before the team. It is not clear for now if the committee will need to visit Southern Sudan and Ukraine as part of their investigation, given that the manifest has answered many pending questions.

Reached on the telephone Tuesday night, the Sudanese Ambassador to Kenya Majok Guandong declined to comment on the matter. "I do not want to be associated with the arms matter anymore. Direct all your enquiries to the Kenya Government," he said curtly. An SPLM official said they were consulting and would give a comprehensive statement later. "We will consult with (SPLM head of mission) Adruga Duku and talk to you later," he said.

Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka is among Government officials who have said the "arms belong to the Kenyan people since they were bought with taxpayers’ money". Assistant Defence Minister Joseph Nkaissery was also quoted as accusing the Press of being "nosy" about security matters.

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