Kenya-Sudan diplomatic spat poised to ignite Horn of Africa

By Simon Allison 30 November 2011

Sudan's cut diplomatic ties in disgust at a Kenyan court decision to arrest President Omar al-Bashir if he's ever in Kenya again. While this has caught Kenya's bemused government by surprise, alienating Sudan might just have made its incursion into Somalia significantly more rigorous. By SIMON ALLISON.

It was in frustration more than anything else that Sudan expelled the Kenyan ambassador on Monday, abruptly cutting off diplomatic ties between the two countries. With all the problems the regime in Khartoum has – the failing economy, the domestic protests, the various rebel movements that just won’t go away and the lingering disputes with South Sudan – the last thing Bashir and his government need is for one of their few allies to turn against them.

Not that Kenya was much of an ally, gravitating naturally towards South Sudan. But Kenya has nonetheless been sympathetic to Khartoum, most significantly on the vexed question of what to do about Bashir and the International Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over his head. Bashir has been charged with genocide and war crimes for atrocities committed in Darfur, but the Sudanese president has so far declined to voluntarily appear before the court. The warrant has, however, curtailed his holiday trips somewhat, as he can only visit countries who promise not to hand him over.

Until Monday, Kenya was one of those countries. Bashir was in Nairobi as recently as August. But then things changed after a judge ruled that if Bashir sets foot in Kenya again, he will be detained and delivered to ICC headquarters in The Hague. The ruling came after a non-governmental organisation petitioned the high court to enforce the rules of the ICC, of which Kenya is a member state.

Khartoum’s response was swift – barely had judgment been passed before the Kenyan ambassador was summarily expelled, while Sudan’s envoy in Nairobi was hastily recalled. Though understandable, Khartoum’s anger may be somewhat misplaced. It’s difficult for authoritarian
states like Sudan to really grasp judicial independence, but the fact remains that the court order was exactly that, and not an executive decision. Kenya’s politicians are probably bemused by it – after all, most of them aren’t big fans of the ICC, which is currently conducting pre-trial hearings into six Kenyan politicians accused of inciting the devastating post-election violence in 2008.

But Kenya now has a serious issue on its hands, one which might have implications beyond the rarefied diplomatic community. It’s an unwelcome distraction from the war Kenya is currently waging against Al Shabaab in Somalia, and might even make the successful execution of the military operation there significantly more arduous.

As the Somali conflict assumes regional dimensions – with Ethiopian troops joining the fray, and Djibouti and Sierra Leone sending reinforcements to the African Union mission which already hosts soldiers  from Uganda and Burundi – Kenya needs to recognise that alienating Sudan could even further destabilise Somalia.

Most concerning is Sudan’s new-found friendship with Eritrea. The two countries have historically not been good neighbours, with both governments at one time or another providing support to rebel groups in each other’s territory. But this animosity recently gave way to a strange friendship. Sudan has returned hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers to their home country, much to the horror of the UNHCR.

For Kenya, this is a dangerous friendship. It is Eritrea that it’s accused of funding Al Shabaab, and it’ll be worried – with good reason – that Sudan will take its perceived rejection by Kenya hard, and align itself instead with Kenya’s enemies, who just happen to already be Sudan’s friends.

And so the vague, initial outlines of a regional battle are being drawn. Sudan and Eritrea on one side, united by their rogue status and struggling to find friends elsewhere. And on the other, the rest of East Africa, with Kenya and Ethiopia leading the charge and the African Union leading the cheers. The battleground? Somalia, of course, where the prospects of peace and stability look even further remote. DM



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