More than two decades ago Africa learned that the United Nations and United States would not act to stop mass murder. Nearly a million people were killed in less than a hundred days during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
But today a new lesson is being learned. Court documents and U.N. reports, some obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast, show that African states will not only stand by during mass bloodshed, but will assist a brutal government—South Sudan—as it pushes the country closer to genocide.
A court affidavit in Nairobi alleges a close partnership between Kenyan and South Sudanese spies. A confidential report that describes U.N. peacekeeping operations suggests military cooperation between Uganda’s and South Sudan’s government. And an internal U.N. letter shows that Egypt has provided diplomatic cover to South Sudan at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
This support has contributed to the collapse of South Sudan, the youngest country in the world that gained independence in 2011 with the strong support of the United States.
African states pushed for a greater role in solving regional crises after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where the U.S. and U.N. received blame for standing by during mass atrocities. There is no doubt President Salva Kiir and the constellation of rebel groups who have taken up arms against him are overwhelmingly responsible for their country’s fate. But the documents show how in one of East Africa’s first opportunities to take the lead in ending one of the world’s worst wars is failing, miserably.
Leaders are afraid of supporting an arms embargo, sanctions, and attempts to bring leaders to justice in South Sudan, because it could set a precedent in the broader East African region, Luka Kuol, a professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies said in an interview. The thinking of these African leaders is simple: these tools may be used against them next.
Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. envoy to South Sudan, also told The Daily Beast that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and others in the region have significant financial interests in South Sudan that are at risk if Kiir’s government falls.
The U.N. says South Sudan is at risk of genocide and ethnic cleansing already is underway. Earlier this year a million people were on the brink of a famine created by the conflict. Since the summer of 2016 nearly a million South Sudanese have fled marauding government forces into Uganda, where they have created the world’s largest new refugee camp.
Uganda also appears to be one of the biggest military suppliers to South Sudan’s government, according to a collection of public reports by U.N. experts (PDF).
Military cooperation between Uganda and South Sudan is close. When the exodus of refugees was at a peak last winter, Uganda’s military crossed the border into South Sudan to assist civilians fleeing the brewing ethnic conflict, according to a confidential report from the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism, a body that monitors the country’s peace deal.
The Ugandan military “temporarily helped civilians return to their villages to collect belongings, and encountered the SPLA [the government’s militia] gang raping women, especially near the Asua military barracks,” the report said.
No intervention on behalf of Uganda’s government was described in the March report.
Agreements to operate on each other’s territory appear to work in both directions. In late May, around 50 South Sudanese government soldiers toting automatic weapons were sighted some 20 kilometers across the border in northern Uganda. The rag-tag soldiers were traveling in the direction north to Kajo-Keji, a once bustling South Sudanese town that has seen some of the worst ethnic fighting and is nearly fully deserted.
In the case of Kenya, there is evidence that its intelligence officials work closely with their South Sudanese counterparts. In late January 2017, a pair of South Sudanese living in Kenya—human rights lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and opposition official Aggrey Idri—disappeared in the capital of Nairobi.
Telephone transcripts filed as an affidavit in Kenyan court obtained by The Daily Beast show a South Sudanese intelligence officer, John Top Lam, appeared to have inside knowledge of the disappearance. He sought a $10,000 bribe from a confidant of the two men and implied it was for Major-General Philip Wachira Kameru, the head of Kenya’s intelligence service.
Kameru told Lam, the South Sudanese intelligence officer, that the two kidnapped men “will not be taken to Juba, we will first get information from them,” according to the telephone transcript. “You know these people, it is always the language of money.”
It is unclear if the money was ever sent but Dong and Aggrey were never found. As a result, a flood of South Sudanese opposition figures who used to lounge and drink warm Guinness in Nairobi’s rooftop hotels have fled the country.
After hundreds died in fighting that spread across the capital of Juba last summer, evidence of Egypt’s military support to the South Sudanese surfaced in U.N. reports. They indicate Egyptian nationals have supplied South Sudan’s government with caches of small arms and ammunition, as well as armored vehicles.
Egypt’s government called these reports “inaccurate” and “erroneous” in a June letter of protest from the country’s United Nations delegation that has been obtained by The Daily Beast. Importantly, the letter does not dispute charges that Egypt has fueled South Sudan’s civil war.
Cairo later tried to block future investigations into the conflict, U.N. officials say. That effort was unsuccessful, but along with its vocal opposition to an arms embargo at the Security Council, Egypt’s diplomatic maneuvers have chilled resolutions at the U.N.
Sudan was a frequent supplier of weapons to rebel groups in South Sudan, but there has been little public evidence that operation continues. Pressure from the U.S. government has helped.
The African Union has been charged with holding South Sudan’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity committed during the civil war, but progress has been slow. A court of both African and South Sudanese judges to try the country’s leaders for crimes committed during the civil war has been agreed to, and observers say that its creation is a test.
A former senior official from the Obama administration said that this is an important moment for the African Union to show that it has both the will and the capacity to hold regional leaders accountable when they engage in some of the worst crimes known to humanity.
There is cause for hope. After two years of delay, the African Union and South Sudanese government recently made some progress on details of what that court will look like. But like previous agreements South Sudan’s government has made, it is likely to stall or back out entirely.
For all the criticism of the African states’ role in fueling South Sudan’s war, relying on them for peace would not be necessary if the United States, United Kingdom, or other Western nations stepped up. Western nations like the United States and United Kingdom are hesitant to commit peacekeepers to South Sudan to protect civilians.
For more than two years the United States essentially blocked an arms embargo on South Sudan. Heads of state and high-ranking officials from these governments have never participated in a sustained diplomatic effort for peace in South Sudan.
If these countries don’t like the way East Africa is fueling South Sudan’s civil war, it’s time for them to begin acting, not just talking.