President Kenyatta’s disappointment and anger at the decision to sack Gen Johnson Ondieki for the failures of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) peacekeeping force is evident.
As commander-in-chief, it is perhaps the gravest task of office to determine if and how compatriots serving the nation in uniform are placed in harm’s way.
In his determination of the national interest, it is entirely and correctly his prerogative to deploy, or withdraw, Kenyan forces. But in this dispute with the United Nations, it would be a tragic outcome, for Kenya, for the region, and for the world, to turn his back on and disengage from the peace process in South Sudan.
I am proud to be of Kenyan descent, and I can be particularly proud of Kenya’s efforts to bring peace to South Sudan over many decades — a shining example of what a conscientious and moral approach to foreign policy can deliver. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese escaped the chaos of multiple civil wars and had the opportunity to gain education and skills because of our country’s welcome and hospitality.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the long running civil war between North and South Sudan, was largely brokered because of Kenyan perseverance.
What formative achievements South Sudan made since the CPA was signed in 2005 are in no small part due to the gain in human capital that an open Kenya helped make possible, even if regrettably much of that progress has since been reversed. Thousands more South Sudanese continue to rely on and believe in Kenya as a land of opportunity and hope, in both good and bad times at home.
As we all know, the return of war in 2013 was a nightmare for the people of South Sudan and for the region as a whole. Despite the efforts of Igad member states to mediate and encourage dialogue, South Sudan teeters on the edge of a crisis that could endure for another generation. Now more than ever, the country needs regional solidarity, if further humanitarian, social and economic disasters are to be avoided.
Catastrophe will not stop at the borders. A little more than three months ago, Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda did not exist; now it is the world’s third largest such site, already hosting more people than Kakuma camp in Kenya. Should the crisis continue, South Sudanese refugee populations will surge in Kenya too. Another generation of South Sudanese is at risk of being lost, in what would be an unquantifiable loss of human capacity and ingenuity.
East African businesses — many of them Kenyan — have suffered in the destruction and chaos that has plagued South Sudan in recent years. The potential of South Sudan’s economy has yet to be truly realised, for either its people or for East Africa generally.
Despite being admitted to the East African Community earlier this year, South Sudan will never be a productive member of the bloc if it is not at peace. On the brink of starvation, South Sudan’s only foreseeable future export to Kenya is its people and their poverty.
Over the past two years, I worked side by side with Kenyan diplomats and one of the country’s most prominent statesmen, Igad Special Envoy Gen Lazaro Sumbeiywo, in the search for peace in South Sudan.
Despite those strenuous efforts, our work remains incomplete. The August 2015 peace agreement, of which Kenya is a legal guarantor, has been in mortal danger for months, if it can be said to still be alive at all. But the complete collapse of the peace process will only destabilise South Sudan further, with untold consequences for neighbouring states.
It is absolutely correct to note that Kenya should not be taken for granted in the search for peace, but a Kenya on the sidelines will not serve national interests, either.
All of East Africa suffers if South Sudan is weak and war-torn.
The question of participation in Unmiss is related to, but should be separate from, the imperative of serving as an honest broker in the search for peace in South Sudan.
Working for peace is thankless, and severely tests even the most patient and wise amongst us. But abandoning the peace process would only signal hopelessness to the millions of South Sudanese who still hope a true and just peace will one day be possible. It is a signal that cannot afford to be sent. Kenya’s engagement in the peace process remains vitally needed.
Aly Verjee, the former deputy and acting chief of staff of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) overseeing South Sudan’s 2015 peace agreement, was senior advisor to the IGAD mediation for South Sudan from 2014-15.