The United Nations swiftly accepted Kenya’s decision to withdraw its peacekeeping troops from South Sudan as the diplomatic tiff escalated.
Hours after Kenya’s hard-hitting statement on Wednesday evening, a United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) official yesterday said Kenya’s notification had been received and that the UN would engage the Government concerning the matter.
However, Kenya yesterday piled pressure on the UN, with President Uhuru Kenyatta publicly announcing the country would immediately withdraw troops from UNMISS and disengage from the peace process in the world’s newest nation.
The fallout stemmed from the decision by the UN Secretariat to dismiss the Kenyan UNMISS force commander, Lt General Johnson Kimani Ondieki, following an investigation into the war in Juba from July 8 and 11, in which civilians were attacked in the vicinity of the UNMISS headquarters.
President Uhuru buttressed the earlier statement in which the Kenyan government protested against the decision by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to dismiss Mr Ondieki.
Consequently, Kenya has rejected an offer to nominate Ondieki’s replacement, instead opting out of the peace-keeping mission altogether. Uhuru said while Kenya was committed to regional and global peace, “that should not come at the expense of the country’s dignity, honour and pride”.
“The events surrounding United Nations Mission in South Sudan led the United Nations Secretariat to place the blame for a systematic failure on an individual Kenyan commander. We know the people of South Sudan want peace and we know the people of this region want peace in South Sudan. We also know peace will not come to South Sudan by blaming a Kenyan commander for the wider failing of the mission,” Uhuru said at the Kenya Military Academy in Lanet, Nakuru, when he commissioned officer cadets.
“We will no longer contribute to a mission that has failed to meet it 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.
Kenya has 995 soldiers deployed in Wau, 166 in Aweil and 304 in Kuajok – all the hot-spots of violence in South Sudan. There are also 30 Kenyan staff officers and 12 military observers in the three key areas.
An official of UNMISS was quoted saying they would engage with the Kenyan government to discuss the modalities of the withdrawal.
“This is the prerogative of the Kenyan government and we respect it. We will now consult with the Kenyan government regarding the modalities of withdrawal of its contingent,” the official stated.
UNMISS said it appreciated Kenya’s “long-standing relationship with UN Peacekeeping, contribution and the sacrifices of its troops”. This was an indication of the escalation of the fall-out over findings of the Independent Special Investigation into the violence that occurred in Juba.
In his report, Major General (rtd) Patrick Cammaert said the UNMISS response in Juba under Ondieki's leadership was “chaotic and ineffective” hence its failure to respond to acts of sexual violence in and around the Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites.
“On the uniformed side, the force did not operate under a unified command, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting orders to the four troop contingents from China, Ethiopia, Nepal and India, and ultimately under-using the more than 1,800 infantry troops at UN House,” the report said.
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The report said the Mission failed to respond to the situation at Terrain Camp, about 1.2km from UN House (UNMISS headquarters). When government soldiers forcibly entered Terrain on July 11, there were about 70 civilians in the camp.
But Kenya’s Foreign Ministry defended Ondiek, saying he was not personally to blame for “systemic dysfunctionality” within UNMISS.
Kenya accused the UN of acting without consulting Nairobi in sacking the commander, who took the job only in May.
“The process leading to this unfortunate decision not only lacked transparency but did not involve any formal consultation with the Government of Kenya. This demonstrates complete disregard of our key role and responsibility in South Sudan,” the ministry said in a statement.
Kenya rejected Ondieki’s sacking and announced it would no longer contribute to South Sudan’s peace process and would be pulling out the 1,229 troops under the UN peacekeeping mission, citing “disrespect”.
Kenya’s announcement came as former South Sudan vice president Riek Machar’s spokesman, James Gatdet, was yesterday held at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport following his arrest on Wednesday.
Other South Sudanese nationals in Nairobi's Lavington alleged harassment and arrests by police. Gatdet was picked from his home in Lavington but the reasons for the arrest were not immediately known.
Gatdet had sent out a press release on behalf of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), endorsing Ondieki’s dismissal.
“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,” Gatdet stated.
Gatdet, who risked deportation back to Juba, is concerned for his security, citing the strained relationship between his boss Dr Machar and President Salva Kiir. The opposition party demanded his release.
Miyong Kuon, SPLM-IO representative to the UN, said in a letter Wednesday they had reports that Gatdet was set to be deported.
SPLM condemned the act, terming it a violation of the UN charter on freedom of expression and association, and added that Gatdet should be accorded asylum in a safe country.
“I am appealing to your esteemed office to abort the deportation case of James Gatdet and accord him with an asylum in a country he will be safe to reside,” Mr Kuon said in the letter to UN boss Ban Ki Moon.
“It is unfortunate that the Kenyan government wants to take this unwelcoming move of handing over an opposition spokesperson to a government that killed its own people,” the letter said.
Southern Sudanese Ambassador Mariano Deng dismissed the possibility that the arrest could create a diplomatic tiff between the two countries.
“We are not going to get involved in the matter as it is between Kenya and the United Nations, not Southern Sudan,” Mr Deng said.