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Diplomacy: How Kenya lost its standing in the outside world

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Coalition partners Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki pulling apart

Coalition partners Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki pulling apart 

By Nick Wachira and Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Monday, January 31   2011 at  00:00

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

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