After failing to meet in Libya, partly because Muammar Gaddafi sent his army to invade his neighbour in 1980, the OAU, the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor of the current African Union, decided to meet in Nairobi.
That marked the zenith of Kenya’s diplomatic standing in the world in a region beset by turmoil, two years after the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and a leading political figure in post-Independence Africa.
In 1980, Kenya was ruled by president Daniel arap Moi, whose 24 years at the helm, which ended in 2002, turned out to be one of Africa’s most lamentable tyrannies.
Moi was replaced as president at the end of 2002 by an urbane golf-playing economist who had graduated from the London School of Economics, no less — Mwai Kibaki. Then a veteran opposition leader, Kibaki had previously been a vice president in Moi’s government and held various ministerial positions before he resigned.
Kibaki used to be described as the man who led Africa’s largest opposition coalition to power. Surrounded by a bunch of well-educated men and women, Kibaki was expected to revive Kenya’s fortunes, which had collapsed under Moi, and make it an influential African nation again.
Despite all the difficulties of the past eight years, Kenya’s economy has posted a secular upward trend, and the country is today one of the freest in Africa. In August 2010, it passed what is easily Africa’s most progressive Constitution in a referendum.
Sun refuses to shine
On the ground though, the sun doesn’t seem to be shining on Kenya yet. But the most shocking thing of all is that, unlike Moi, the record of Kibaki’s government on the big regional and international diplomatic stages has been a disaster.
On most counts, Kenya today doesn’t enjoy a jot of the geopolitical influence it had under the discredited Moi.
It is an outcome many are still struggling to explain, constituting as it does a profligate waste of diplomatic capital by a country with the economic standing of Kenya.
A recent example is the brewing conflict with Rwanda over which country’s turn it is to fill the post of Secretary General of the East African Community.
While Kenya has been a progressive actor in EAC affairs, in the argument with Rwanda — which is yet to be discussed officially by the Council of Ministers and the EAC presidents — analysts argue that it has not been behaving the way a big power (relative to its position in Africa and the region) ought to when dealing with a small country.
In such a case, it ought to rely more on soft power to win influence than brute force and arm-twisting to win an argument.
Nairobi is still an important diplomatic destination, in part because it is the regional capital of most humanitarian organisations that work in Southern Sudan and Somalia, and is the base of the only UN agency headquartered in Africa — the United Nations Environment Programme (and UN Habitat).
In terms of economic power, its strategic location and relatively well-developed infrastructure and skilled labour force have turned it into a regional business hub.
Firms such as the Coca Cola Company, Nestlé, Airtel and Microsoft run their sub-Saharan operations out of Nairobi. But still, it is unlikely that an AU summit would be brought to Nairobi today, as it was in 1981, to break a deadlock.
How Nairobi lost its groove
The decline in Kenya’s status has taken place in full view of the world, over the Kibaki government’s attempt to win AU support for a deferral of the International Criminal Court’s looming case against five government officials and politicians, and one journalist.
The six were fingered by the ICC last year for their suspected role in the 2008 post-election violence in which nearly 1,400 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The violence following a disputed general election, which the opposition and several players in the international community and observers said had been rigged for President Mwai Kibaki, and the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga had been robbed of victory.
To end the violence, an accord was signed to form a coalition sharing power between Kibaki’s Party of Nation Unity (PNU) and the ODM. Kibaki remained president, and Raila became prime minister, with considerable powers.
This forced marriage was expected to face major difficulties, and PNU and ODM have often been at odds over the past three years.
However, on two issues where it was expected that the two sides would work together to show Africa a united face for the sake of Kenya and the continent, the petty rivalry between the parties has worked to undermine Kenya’s standing in the world.
The first issue is Nairobi’s strident hostility to the ICC, which the government — or at least a section of it — has vowed to withdraw from because it now doesn’t want the so-called Hague Six to be tried at the international court.
The second issue is the appointment of Prime Minister Raila Odinga as AU’s mediator in the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, where President Laurent Gbagbo is clinging on to power after losing the election last month to Alassanne Ouattara.
The two sides have fallen out publicly over the shuttle diplomacy by Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka to win AU support for Nairobi’s position.
Raila’s ODM side of the coalition, however, opposes any moves to withdraw from the ICC, and has distanced itself from Kalonzo’s diplomacy, suggesting it is a partisan enterprise by the PNU side.
Kalonzo must look ridiculous, arriving in African capitals, with one part of the government criticising his effort.
‘Kenya a diplomatic joke’
There is no other African country where this split over such big issues could happen, and it has made Kenya a laughing stock. The same thing happened with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Raila and his ODM have criticised Mugabe, calling him a dictator and a disgrace to Africa. They have said warm things about his coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangrai, who came to power in much the same power-sharing deal as Raila following a discredited election. The Kibaki side of the government has backed Mugabe.
The negotiations to end the violence in Kenya were led by an AU-appointed mediator, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Annan was, and remains, an object of hatred for hardline elements in PNU, who viewed him as being pro-ODM, and as having been part of an international conspiracy to deligitimise Kibaki, and strip him of the power they believe he won freely.
Without doing much to mend fences with the AU over its treatment of Annan, the Kibaki faction of the government is going to the same AU to seek solidarity against the ICC.
To make matters worse, following the election fiasco in Ivory Coast in which the AU — and the rest of the international community — recognised Ouattara as the election victory, and Gbagbo refused to hand over power, Ivory Coast is teetering on the brink, with two rival governments in Abidjan.
The AU picked Raila as it mediator in the crisis. However, the Kibaki side of the government has not taken kindly to the decision, and called AU Commission head Jean Ping to Nairobi for a shellacking.
In a tit-for-tat, the PNU side of government has been running a campaign to discredit Raila’s mediation, and its MPs have held press conferences to reject his and the AU’s position.
That may play well to local politics, but again, it is a first in Africa. No African country has publicly attacked its own national, moreover a prime minister, when cast in an international diplomatic role.
It would be like Ghana denouncing Annan during his mediation in Kenya — something that would be unthinkable in Accra.
With headlines about politicians allied to Kibaki attacking Raila’s role as the AU mediator, the Kenya government is appearing before the same AU to rally support against the ICC! Such actions have led many influential people in African politics, as one Nairobi diplomat put it, to consider “Kenya a diplomatic joke.”
By internationalising its parochial factional fights, Kenya comes across as not ready to be a country, let alone being a grown up regional power.
This picture of Kenya as a diplomatic greenhorn and minion, contrasts sharply with its standing as East Africa’s economic hub and one of Africa’s leading economies.
It is a version of the “Japan” or “German problem” — economies that are the giants in their region, but geopolitical minions, because post-World War II settlements put limits on their ability to project power.
Except that, in Kenya’s case, this limitation is not imposed by outsiders. It is self-inflicted. Even more significant, it is a specific feature of the Kibaki years.
Contrast Kibaki’s record with Moi’s — who, because he was internationally despised, one would have expected to be less effective abroad.
The Somalia talks that led to the formation of the current Transitional Federal Government were started by Moi in Nairobi in October 2002. The Sudan peace talks, which resulted into the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Nairobi, and the referendum on Independence in South Sudan three weeks ago, were started by Moi in June 2002.
Unlikely as it seemed, Moi appointed Gen Lazarus Sumbeiywo as Special Envoy, and he proved one of the most accomplished African mediators in any conflict.
Though the Somalia and Sudan Peace processes were signed during Kibaki’s rule, his government has not played the role Moi played in conflict resolution, and has not initiated any diplomatic initiatives of its own.
The first such initiative is Raila’s mediation in Ivory Coast, which Kibaki doesn’t seem to support. During Moi’s time, Kenya was involved in several peacekeeping roles: In Namibia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, to name a few. Kibaki has not sent out any peacekeeping mission.
In that regard, Kenya is the odd man out in the East African Community. Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete got involved in Kenya’s post-election violence peace negotiations.
A country with an economy that is barely 15 per cent of Kenya’s, Burundi, has peacekeeping forces in the Africa Union Mission in Somalia.
Uganda, meanwhile, is the lead contingent in Amisom. Rwanda has peacekeeping troops in Sudan’s Darfur region, and is a key player in the current lull in fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Rwandan example
Rwanda, in fact, offers a good example of how to leverage the power that comes from playing the geopolitical game.
Last year, there was a leaked report by a UN human-rights panel, which was ruthless in condemning Rwanda’s alleged role in what, the report said, “could amount to genocide in eastern DRC.”
Rwanda was so outraged, it threatened to withdraw from its Sudan peacekeeping role, and suggested it would end the intervention that had brought a cessation to the fighting in eastern DRC.
Not only was the publication of the report delayed by several weeks, when it was eventually published, it was criticised as having been watered down and therefore rendered worthless.
In 2001, Rwanda and Uganda faced possible sanctions by the UN Security Council for their invasion and alleged rape and plunder of the DRC.
The two called in their diplomatic capital as the Great Lakes policemen, and in Uganda’s case as the military bulwark against the southward expansion of Islamist-fuelled terrorism, and got the USA and UK to beat back the sanctions.
How they play on the world stage
Rwanda and Uganda thus build the capital they spend. Kenya wants to spend the diplomatic currency it doesn’t have in its wallet, particularly in as far as the AU goes.
For example, in a case that was not publicised, but was seen as scandalous at the AU, about two years ago Kenya quietly expelled the representative of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) following protests from Morocco.
Morocco, according to AU sources, threatened to cut diplomatic ties and remove its mission from Kenya. The irony is that Kenya did Morocco a favour although it was Rabat that unilaterally pulled out of the then-OAU in 1984 following the admission of the SADR and has never returned. So Kenya kicked out an AU member, to appease a non-member.
Kenya has been diplomatically hobbled because, unlike its neighbours, it has the weakest and most divided government.
It is part of an age-old disease of the Kenyan political class in the country, that they will put political point-scoring above everything else, including the prestige of their nation.
This has done Kenya little good. US President Barack Obama’s father was a Kenyan — from PM Raila’s Nyanza region.
To many of Raila’s rivals in government, therefore, Obama cannot be trusted because he is a Luo. And all of the contacts between the US and Kenya, especially if they involve Raila, are seen in tribal terms.
Which is the second problem with the current state of Kenyan politics. It is also one of the few countries where tribal politics does not stay at home, but is put on show on the world stage.
Observers also blame Kibaki’s laidback style, and suggest that the election dispute of 2007 has made him shy about getting involved in affairs outside Kenya. If that is the case, it explains only a small part of it.
Kibaki is a man who is loyal to his friends, and his close circle, whose views he values, are elderly men whose imagination is no longer fired by international ambitions.
Most of them are now tribal chiefs, uninterested in matters beyond the next hill. For as long as they remain influential in government, Kenya will continue to flounder and embarrass itself with diplomatic charades.
It has not helped that the same tribal cleavages have played a big role in politicising Kenya’s diplomatic service around the world.
It is common today for political operatives to be actively engaged in running Kenya’s foreign service to the exclusion of trained professionals.
At a wider level, the ascent of Kibaki to power was a victory for Kenya’s old business and farming class. The Kibaki government is swayed by land and farming interests from Kenya’s central and eastern farming regions.
These are largely rich, conservative men and women, who don’t want any noise that will disturb the market. In that sense, Kibaki’s reluctance to stick his nose into matters outside Kenya has served the business class, allowing them to spread into the East Africa Community and Comesa markets and Southern Sudan, and to make fortunes none would even have dreamt of 10 years ago.
The progressive general
There is, however, a growing crop in especially Kenya’s security services, who realise that Kenya needs to develop the posture and means to protect its vast regional economic interests.
Many of them are in the Maj-Gen Michael Gichangi-led National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS). They are, for example, thought to be the brains behind Kenya’s Jubaland Initiative in south Somalia, a campaign to create an extensive buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia using Somali troops trained in Kenya, and possibly hive it off into a Puntland-type independent state in the fullness of time.
They are also behind the successful regional intelligence sharing initiatives that have helped keep Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab’s Global Jihad brand of terror at bay in East Africa.
When a new government is elected in Kenya in 2012 under the new Constitution, it will have a technocratic Cabinet that is not drawn from parliament.
They will be largely drawn from the professional and business classes, which are very East African in outlook and actively engaged with the rest of Africa and the world, and coolly confident in that sphere.
Analysts expect that there will be a sharp turn toward a more activist foreign policy. Until then, Kenya will have to remain on the sidelines in African diplomacy, only stepping in to perform as the circus clown, as it is doing with Ivory Coast and the ICC.