Emotionally charged Uhuru shot Kenya in the foot by withdrawing troops from South Sudan

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By Prof Makau Mutua…

For decades, Kenya has labored under a mistaken illusion about South Sudan. The Kenyan state — and its people — wrongly think that South Sudan needs Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth, or totally wrong. Even in its darkest moments, and especially then, South Sudan has never needed Kenya.

In geopolitical and military strategic logic, sub-regional powers like Kenya have a larger interest in keeping the neighbourhood safe. The reason is simple. Kenya stands to lose the most if the sub region descends into utter chaos with the attendant refugee flows.

The converse is all true. Kenya stands to reap the largest dividends if the sub region is functional. Mini-hegemons thrive where their neighbours are tranquil and prospering.

Let me give you an analogy. Troubled states like South Sudan are rickety and on stilts. They don’t have a stable or basic state infrastructure or political traditions of functional politics. South Sudan has been ruled by the gun for decades. First, it faced the brutality of the north. Now, brother has turned against brother. It’s clear early in the life of the Republic of South Sudan that its political elite is immature, juvenile, and underdeveloped.

Just take one look at President Salva Kiir and his funny hat and you get me. Who dresses like? A cowboy president in South Sudan is comical. Then take a look at his nemesis Riek Machar. I can’t get over his cufflinks. The analogy is that in a sub region like the Horn, the body politic is one whether we like it or not. When Kenya coughs, all the states in the region catch a cold. Kenya might be the heart of the region. But if South Sudan — which may be the region’s rump — gets a boil, Kenya will catch a fever.

The rump may not be a terribly important of the body because it lacks vital organs but it can be infected and eventually kill you. Thus it’s the vital body parts that must guard against the infection of the extremities. One unruly child can be the detriment of an entire family. A father who abdicates will pay a price. That’s why I was stunned when Kenya’s Uhuru without so much as a national conversation angrily announced that Nairobi would pull its troops from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

The ostensible reason was that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had sacked UNMISS force commander, Kenya’s Lt Gen Johnson Kimani Ondieki for incompetence and failure to protect civilians. A UN report, whose findings have been hailed as thorough and credible, concluded that the Kenyan soldier had utterly failed to exercise leadership.

UNIMISS comprises over 12,000 troops. Kenya’s contingent is 1,000 troops. There’s little doubt that South Sudan would crater without the peacekeeping force. Is Kenya aware of this basic fact? In making the announcement to pull the troops, Kenyatta sounded personally affronted and charged that the UN had “insulted Kenya’s dignity.” My jaw dropped.

How can the proper sacking of an incompetent soldier amount to soiling Kenya’s dignity? Does Lt Gen Ondieki equal Kenya? Kenyatta clearly overreacted and looked and sounded wounded. That’s a bad image for Kenya.

You know what they say — stay out of the kitchen if you can’t take the heat. It’s unbecoming for Kenyatta to throw everything to the wind on account of one soldier. There are channels to express a grievance if, as I have heard, Kenya wasn’t consulted before Lt Gen Ondieki was fired. But taking your marbles and going home won’t do.

Kenya has invested — perhaps more than any other nation — in South Sudan. That investment is in treasure, diplomacy, and people. South Sudan is conjoined with Kenya. We can’t leave the region. Nor can we detach ourselves from South Sudan. Our fates are intertwined. Our people have a common destiny and heritage.

In fact, Kenya is the biggest beneficiary of a free and prosperous South Sudan. We lose all leverage in South Sudan if we cut and run. It doesn’t matter South Sudan leaders are clowns who are self-centered. We can only work with what we’ve got, not what we wish we had. Nor can we walk away from the UN and make a spectacle of ourselves. We are better than that. Under Jubilee, there’s an assumption that Kenya can always get its way by throwing temper tantrums and childish fits.

That’s how Kenya got its way with the International Criminal Court. Pulling stunts and shedding false tears — and making hypocritical claims of racism — seemed to work with the ICC. But what’s at stake in South Sudan is very large. It’s strategic and geopolitical. Others will fill Kenya’s vacuum if we walk away. Let’s cooler heads prevail and return us to reason.

Makau Mutua is a Kenyan-American professor of law

This article was first published by The Standard