Kenya, The Pirates and those Rather Embarrassing Tanks

Pirates with the MV Faina (US Navy pic)

So where were the MV Faina’s 33 T-72 tanks heading? The fog of misinformation surrounding their destination suggests a fresh scandal brewing. As soon as I heard the ship had been hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia last week, I was content with the information I’d been given that the tanks would travel overland from Mombasa to South Sudan. The BBC and AP were reporting the same thing, quoting Andrew Mwangura. A check with another colleague confirmed the consensus view that the tanks were going to the SPLM government in S Sudan. So I went with it…

The Ukrainian foreign ministry said today that the Faina’s captain had radioed maritime authorities to say that three cutters with armed men were approaching his vessel at high speed before communications were lost. Her cargo was destined for South Sudan’s government.

Two hours after my story appeared on The Times website, I received a text message from Dr Alfred Mutua, Kenya’s government spokesman urging me to check his website.

The Government wishes to notify the general public that yesterday, at about 4 p.m., an Ukrainian Ship MV FAINA, registered in Belize, with cargo meant for the Kenyan Military, was hijacked off the Somali Coast by Pirates. The cargo in the ship includes military hardware such as tanks and an assortment of spare parts for use by different branches of the Kenyan Military.

This seemed odd. Why would Kenya be spending several hundred million dollars on heavy armour? Were they planning to invade Uganda? Yet two previous shipments had been landed in Mombasa – one of which the Kenyan government had claimed ownership of – but had then been seen trundling overland towards the Sudanese border on flatbed trucks. I checked with my original source, who was standing by his info. So I fudged it for the next day’s paper saying the tanks appeared to be on their way to S Sudan.
Since then two more updates have come out of the Kenyan government, my favourite being today’s slightly hysterical denial of any involvement.

There have been alarming propaganda by the pirates to media that the weapons are not for the Kenyan Military. This, is a tactic by the terrorists to try and fend off reprisals against them. The Kenyan Government will not engage in answering back to terrorists who have hijacked important military equipment paid for by the Kenyan tax payer for use by the Kenyan Military.
The Government advises media editors to be cautious about being used by terrorrists who, on realizing they cannot get away with their plunder, are trying to draw attention from their criminal acts.
Who do you believe? The Official Kenyan Government or a rag tag terrorism unit that has been hijacking ships and causing wanton destruction to the World? Do not empower them by giving them the publicity they seek.

Then today, after this series of increasingly shrill denials, we have the US fifth fleet saying, no, actually the weaponry was on its way to Sudan.

Lt. Nathan Christensen, a deputy spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said the shipment of 33 Russian-designed tanks, rifles and ammunition on the Ukrainian-operated Faina was headed for Sudan — not Kenya as previously claimed by Kenyan officials.

So what’s going on? Well under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended decades of civil war between north and south Sudan, it seems that the southern government is not actually allowed to buy heavy weapons. Kenya’s government has extensive and deep links to the former rebels of the SPLA who now make up S Sudan’s government. Civil war is the last thing Kenya wants on its doorstep and one way of ensuring stability (possibly misguided) is to help build up S Sudan’s army. And it seems they have been helping do just that by acting as a go-between in the supply of tanks.
The last thing Kenya needed was the blaze of publicity created by the pirates pinching one of the ships. Very embarrassing indeed. But, Dr Alfred, denying involvement is not going to help for long. The “rag tag terrorism unit” is doing a better spin job than you.