Can Kenya’s new leader fill Uhuru Kenyatta’s large EAC shoes?

Sunday August 14 2022
Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

Presidential contenders Raila Odinga and William Ruto. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


The new Kenyan president inherits large shoes worn by his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, a master of soft power whose popularity rose exponentially in the East African Community (EAC), especially in his second term due to his bridge-building efforts.

President Kenyatta goes down in recent history as the leader who restored a semblance of integration at a time when the EAC looked like it would collapse following several years of squabbles over trade and security among partner states.

Kenyatta was a builder, linking the region through major infrastructure development, including the standard gauge railway, new highways, port and aviation projects.

With such high credentials, the region expects his successor to pick up from where he left off, and there is hope that some of the long pending issues around regional trade and integration will now be resolved by new players.

But are Raila Odinga and William Ruto cut out for the task?

The winner of the election may not have much choice, as the region expects continuity and stability. Some of the issues may just need political goodwill to implement as the Kenyatta administration has been hard at work. Such include lifting of trade barriers and finishing projects that are in progress.


While Mr Odinga has expressed willingness to continue on the same trajectory – with improvements – Dr Ruto has expressed his discomfort with the infrastructure juggernaut that has left the country reeling under heavy debt.

The new leader was expected to be named on Sunday evening after a tedious vote verification following the Tuesday elections which were praised in many quarters as open and largely peaceful.

As the new leader prepares to assume office, integration projects and political stability will perhaps be the least East Africa will be demanding from him.

But he will first have to deal with domestic challenges such as the need to cushion the poor from economic crises beyond Kenya’s control such as the war in Ukraine and the post-pandemic recovery hangover.

Politically, the new leader will also be required to reunite a country divided by political completion and a tight presidential contest.

The new administration is expected to continue implementing the regional infrastructure projects that President Kenyatta initiated during his 10-year tenure. Both the Odinga and Ruto manifestos, and the country’s own tradition — including in a law passed last year — encourage integration and closer ties with neighbours and to promote trade.

The Foreign Service Act of 2021 places regional integration as the immediate role of the government in advancing the country’s foreign policy. This president will be the first to implement the law that only came into effect earlier this year.

Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga have made promises to implement critical infrastructure projects that connect the region.

Mr Odinga, the Azimio la Umoja leader, prioritised infrastructure projects in his manifesto released in July.

“Infrastructure projects that cut across national boundaries and are regional can all be developed simultaneously, with each country committing to do its part while the RECs (regional economic communities) provide supporting and coordinating roles,” said Odinga, who has been the High Representative for Infrastructure at the African Union.

An Odinga presidency would continue with the infrastructure projects that President Kenyatta initiated.

“With that spirit, the Kisumu-Malaba-Kampala standard gauge railway line can be done in a fairly short time if Kenya and Uganda each commit to developing their respective segments,” Mr Odinga said.

This project is close to Mr Odinga’s heart as it opens up the country for more trade with the Great Lakes region and his western Kenya backyard would particularly benefit from the increased trade linked with activity in Lake Victoria.

Dr Ruto of the United Democratic Alliance, part of the Kenya Kwanza coalition, also captures trade as a key part of his bottom-up economic model to spearhead economic growth in the country. He targets small and medium enterprises, agriculture, housing, healthcare access, digital superhighway and the creative economy to enable Kenyans of low incomes to rise and trade more with the region.

Dr Ruto has pledged to complete all roads under construction in the country, some of which link Kenya with its neighbours.

The 700km road for Isiolo-Kula, Mawe-Modogashe-Samatar-Wajir-Kutulo-Elwak-Ramu corridor is one of the roads Ruto promised to complete. Once complete, the road will link Kenya and Ethiopia and Somalia under the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) corridor.

“I will complete road projects that were begun during the Jubilee administration,” said Ruto when he launched his manifesto in July. “My government will construct a 100,000 kilometre fibre optic network, roll out fibre to counties, villages, schools, over 24,000 businesses and homes, establish the Africa Regional Hub and promote the development of software for export.”

Mr Odinga promised to focus on the Ethiopia-Sudan Power Transmission Interconnector, which could be accomplished quickly, with each of the countries already doing their part.

With Somalia having applied to join the East African Community, it is envisaged that the new leadership in Nairobi will speed up the Nairobi-Mogadishu Fibre-Optic link which would be developed simultaneously on the Somalia and Kenya sides. Somalia has some of the fastest internet connections, and some of the cheapest on the continent, in spite of being perennially in a security crisis blamed on al Shabaab.

In spite of having criticised the government initially for retaining Kenyan troops in Somalia as part of AU mission, a president Odinga would not pull them out soon, as the African Union Transition Mission (ATMIS) is undergoing final stages of drawdown by end of 2023. Dr Ruto too has promised to be a part of continental efforts on counterterrorism.

Mr Odinga’s position as the AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development has elevated him to an African statesman buoyed by his pan-Africanist credentials.

His relationship with the regional leadership is likely to benefit the region in terms of continuity of the projects and diplomacy.

He enjoys close ties with Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi, and like outgoing President Kenyatta, has recently tried to embrace Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who endorsed a Ruto presidency before declaring that he had no favourite in the contest. Mr Odinga was close to the late Tanzanian president John Magufuli whose deputy Samia Suluhu Hassan took over after his death in 2020; and is likely to be embraced by the other EAC leaders.

Mr Odinga, who since 2018 has politically worked with President Kenyatta, would ease into the Kenyatta legacy projects, as they seemed to share a vision for the country.

Dr Ruto, Kenyatta’s principal assistant though estranged in the sunset years of their tenure, would also easily take up the Jubilee projects, which were mooted with his contribution.

A president Ruto would aid the resolution of the current trade wars between Kenya and Uganda, being a Museveni friend and having been associated with several investments in Uganda. He would therefore take a keener interest in the development of the Northern Corridor efficiencies.

Ugandans expect the new administration to not only ensure the safe passage of their goods but also resolve the disputes over milk, eggs and sugar exports to Kenya on which Nairobi has imposed steep tariffs.

In a regional context, a Raila presidency is expected to oversee the rebound of the Lake Victoria economy. The Kenyatta administration has been keen on tapping the huge potential in the country’s blue economy, mainly in the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria.

The government refurbished the Kisumu Port and revived shipbuilding at the dry dock.

The $25 million refurbished Kisumu Port was reopened by President Kenyatta together with Burundi President Ndayishimiye in June last year.

Port revenues are slowly picking up, as manufacturers and traders embrace lake transport after decades of dormancy in the Lake Victoria transport network.

Lake transport has cut transport costs between Kisumu and Uganda by up to 30 percent, according to Kenya Railways which is operating the vessel MV Uhuru to transport goods, including petroleum products, to Uganda.

The planned increase in the number of vessels now means a higher maritime capacity in the lake, which has a catchment area covering 193,000 square kilometres in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, as well as parts of Rwanda and Burundi.

In addition to Kisumu, major facilities used in the regional trade are Mwanza, Musoma and Bukoba in Tanzania, and Port Bell and Jinja in Uganda.

The Kenyan government has also connected the SGR line to the metre gauge one at the Naivasha Inland Container Depot, allowing a seamless flow of cargo from the Port of Mombasa to Kisumu and onward to Uganda.

President Kenyatta’s administration has invested heavily in the region’s road network, a catalyst for increased and easy movement of farm produce and industrial goods to markets.

They include the Ahero-Kisii-Isebania road (172 kilometres) and upgraded feeder roads totalling about 77 kilometres. The road forms part of the A1 road connecting with Tanzania, facilitating cross-border movement for passengers and cargo.

The Kisumu-Kakamega-Kitale road has also been upgraded, with several links that connect four counties and markets in Uganda and South Sudan.

Tanzania’s President Samia and Kenyatta in July 2022 officially opened the 42.4km Arusha Bypass, which is part of the regional Arusha-Holili-Taveta-Voi transit corridor that links Tanzania with Kenya.

While handing over the EAC chairmanship to Burundi President Ndayishimiye, President Kenyatta said the road will be completed by his successor.

“The connection between Arusha and Voi to Mombasa will ease the supply of agricultural produce such as maize, tomatoes and vegetables and will help fight poverty in our countries by improving the lives of the people. Infrastructure is the foundation of our integration,” said Kenyatta. “I will not be around to see its completion but I promise that my successor will complete that project.”

Glimmer of hope

The Lapsset project, which has been dormant due to lack of participation by partners Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan, has a glimmer of hope in the new administration.

Mr Odinga says the Lapsset is a good example of a regional project whose implementation has been paralysed by lack of national ownership and failure by regional economic communities to prioritise it.

The eight Igad member states together with a population close to 300 million people sitting on an ocean shoreline of 11,600 kilometres has significant potential for a blue economy.

The region is also sitting on underexploited minerals with evidence of sizeable amounts of platinum, silver, gold, soda ash, limestone, phosphate, copper and zinc across the Igad region that Kenyan leadership promises to exploit.

“It is for this reason that I have, in the past two years, been advocating the establishment of an Africa fund for infrastructure to support important and necessary project preparation and development of a pipeline of bankable infrastructure projects,” said Mr Odinga.

Besides infrastructure, Kenya has played a major role in ensuring peace in the region.

Kenya has for some time now been trying to broker direct peace talks between the government of the DRC and M23 rebels who have seized parts of eastern Congo.

The new Kenyan administration is expected to continue and review the implementation of the 2013 Nairobi Declaration and support Mr Kenyatta, on whom the EAC has vested the onus of brokering peace in the Congo.

Already Kenya has been involved in a shuttle diplomacy day after the M23 rebel group declared a unilateral ceasefire on April 1, saying it was seeking dialogue with the government.