The just concluded African Union Commission election has shown that countries in East Africa are challenging Kenya’s political leadership in the region.
The last minute ditching by fellow East African Community member states — Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi — of Kenya’s candidate, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, in her quest to be the chair of the African Union Commission, is a major blow to the country’s long-held presumed leadership role.
Sources in Addis Ababa told The EastAfrican that regional rivalry played a big role in Ms Mohamed’s election loss as Kenya was seen as a Big Brother riding roughshod over its neighbours and taking the EAC support for granted. Nairobi, while sending delegations to 53 African countries in an unprecedented diplomatic run-up to the AU election, forgot to lobby the EAC region.
Ms Mohamed, was trailing Chad’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, by 25 to 28 votes in the sixth round, after Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti refused to vote for her, while Tanzania abstained, in solidarity with 15 other countries from the Southern African Development Community of which it is also a member.
This is the second time that Uganda has turned against Kenya. In May 2016, Uganda changed its mind and decided to reroute its proposed oil pipeline through the Tanzanian port of Tanga despite earlier signing a memorandum of understanding with Kenya for the use of Lamu port.
But Uganda has denied having abandoned Ms Mohamed. An unsigned letter released on Wednesday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but declared authentic and confirmed by Uganda’s head of public diplomacy Margaret Kafeero, say, “Uganda wishes to reassure the government and the people of Kenya, and Amina in particular, that we remain a reliable ally and partner given our warm and close relations and our commitment to the EAC integration.”
Kenya is also becoming increasingly economically isolated, with Rwanda preferring to do business with Tanzania, while Nairobi has been thinking of going it alone in the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union as most of the EAC members continue to dither about signing the agreement.
After Kenya failed to vote for Dr Specioza Kazibwe in last July’s aborted AU elections in Kigali, Uganda saw no obligation to stick with Kenya and abstained in the seventh round in Addis Ababa last week despite Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Yoweri Museveni consulting throughout the session.
Ms Mohamed now wants Kenya to investigate its neighbours for abandoning her in Addis Ababa. She rhetorically wondered whether Kenya was seen by fellow EAC partner states as a “friend or a threat?”
The majority leader in Kenya’s parliament, Aden Duale, has issued a warning that Kenya will from now be inward looking when it comes to the EAC and think of its national interests first. He said that the AUC election was a revelation to Kenya as to “who its true friends were in East Africa and Africa.”
According to Nicodemus Minde, a Tanzanian political and diplomatic analyst, it is not surprising that Tanzania, Uganda and other countries abstained at the last minute.
He added that states are driven by national interests and it would be wrong for Kenya to openly castigate the countries they think didn’t vote for its candidate.
“With the prolonged voting, Uganda just like other states, shifted position. Despite the close friendship between Uhuru and Museveni, other factors could have played against Ms Mohamed, which resonated with Uganda and the states that either abstained or voted for Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad,” said Mr Minde.
He said that Kenya saw the AUC election as a way of reaffirming President Kenyatta’s Africa-centric foreign policy.
“Had Amina Mohamed won, it would have cemented Kenya’s emerging foreign policy under President Kenyatta. However, an election is a one-time event and will hardly have implications for the diplomatic relations between the EAC countries,” Mr Minde added.
Burundi had made it clear from the beginning that it was going to vote with Central and Francophone Africa, mainly because President Kenyatta is seen to be close to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, whose bilateral relations with Burundi are at an all-time low.
Burundi has also not forgiven Kenya for taking the lead in pushing for the deployment of 5,000 regional troops to deal with the political crisis brought on by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term in 2015.
While Somalia has a dispute with Kenya over the maritime border in the Indian Ocean, Djibouti had its own candidates for deputy chair and commissioner for political affairs — which meant Ms Mohamed’s win could have locked them out.
Diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa say that Kenya went to the election with some “diplomatic baggage” such as failing to provide leadership in the South Sudan crisis by withdrawing its troops from the UN mission, forcing out Somali refugees from Dadaab and spearheading the campaign against the International Criminal Court on the continent.