Hostilities against Kenyans living in South Sudan could be the first test for diplomatic and trade relations between the Nairobi and Juba regimes following the swearing in of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
On Wednesday four Kenyans were among the 12 people shot dead by gunmen who attacked a United Nations convoy adding to a long list of Kenyans who have died in South Sudan. The four were working with a company that was drilling water boreholes for the UN.
AFP reported that five Indian peacekeepers were also killed when some 200 attackers — some armed with rocket-propelled grenades — ambushed the convoy in the troubled eastern region of Jonglei.
“The peacekeepers were vastly outnumbered,” UN peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero told AFP. “It was a deliberate and targeted attack.”
At least a dozen Kenyans have lost their lives in the Africa’s youngest nation as they went hunting for job and business opportunities in what were suspected xenophobic attacks.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said the latest attacks could constitute a war crime. Kenya hosted most of its South Sudanese refugees and exiles citizens during years of conflict.
Last year, 45-year-old Peter Kimani, an operator of an electronic repair shop, died of what family members claim were injuries from an assault by South Sudanese police.
Pharmacist Joseph Matu was killed in August on claims of operating without due licence. Tabitha Musangi, a teacher, was shot by soldiers four months earlier after her taxi driver failed to stop when the flag was being lowered.
The xenophobic attitude was one of the reasons said to have contributed to South Sudan’s application to join East African Community being rejected last year.
This combined with a dollar shortage experienced by South Sudan has resulted in the volume of trade between the two neighbours slumping.
Data from the Centre for Business Information in Kenya shows that Kenya’s exports to South Sudan were at Sh4.3 billion by mid last year, about less than a fifth of Sh22 billion exported in full year 2011.
In the same six months, Kenyans had imported goods worth Sh952 million compared to the Sh818 million bill of 2011.
A standoff with Sudan on management of oil revenues had depleted the country’s dollar stock leading to delayed payments of supplies which forced some of the service providers such as Fly540 to withhold their services.
The volatile eastern state of Jonglei has been the scene of widespread ethnic conflict since South Sudan became independent in July 2011 between the Dinka, Lou Nuer and Murle people.
Cattle rustling has escalated into a wave of brutal killings on the back of guns left after two decades of civil war. The violence combined with xenophobic attacks is likely to instill fear among Kenyans deployed by companies expanding into the country forcing them to return home.
The two countries are also partnering on a Sh2 trillion infrastructure project that will include the construction of a pipeline from the landlocked nation’s vast oil fields to a planned refinery in Lamu.