Kenya’s president-elect William Ruto may have been deputy president for 10 years, but few people can figure out his foreign policy. Many point out that the country’s policy developed in 2014 during the first Jubilee administration — in which he was DP — will likely be unaltered.
Kenya has a new Foreign Service Act, which prioritises regional integration and Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor will be the first president to implement it.
The country’s foreign policy is anchored in a vision of “peaceful, prosperous and globally competitive Kenya”, and a mission to “project, promote and protect Kenya’s interests and image globally through innovative diplomacy, and contribute towards a just, peaceful and equitable world”.
In the manifesto of his Kenya Kwanza alliance, Mr Ruto indicated that he would promote an “Africa-focused foreign policy”.
This week, after the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) declared him the winner of Kenya’s tightly contested presidential election, whose result his main challenger former prime minister Raila Odinga has rejected and vowed to challenge in court, the congratulatory messages, seemed to show Kenya’s friends.
President of the Chadian Transitional Military Council Mahamat Idris Deby phoned Mr Ruto: “Just called the president-elect of the sister Republic of Kenya, His Excellency William Ruto to express my heartfelt congratulations to him on the occasion of his clear election,” Gen Deby wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday. “This was also an occasion to acknowledge the co-operation and fraternal relations that bind our two countries and a pledge for co-operation in several vital sectors.”
Gen Deby was among many African leaders who congratulated Mr Ruto. Others were Emerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Samia Suluhu of Tanzania, Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia, Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi, Salva Kiir of South Sudan and Omar Ismael Guelleh of Djibouti.
In the EAC, only President Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo had not congratulated the president-elect by press time.
Over the years Mr Ruto has developed ties to leaders like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Congo-Brazaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and Sudan’s former leader Omar al-Bashir.
The African Union and the EAC have remained guarded after the election whose processes were praised as open, but whose conclusion faces controversy. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) sent a message to Mr Ruto. Igad executive secretary Workneh Gebeyehu congratulated him, and asked that all disputes be resolved through legal channels.
EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki sent his congratulations too.
In the meantime, Mr Ruto has vowed to settle into his new role, and his confidants say his regional policy will be one that promotes harmony in the region while protecting Kenya’s interests.
Ababu Namwamba, head of international relations in his presidential campaign, said a Ruto administration would be “robust, creative, engaging and hands-on in the deployment of Kenya’s foreign policy”.
“The immediate neighbourhood of East and the Horn of Africa will receive special attention in both bilateral and multilateral engagement, for sharing of cross-border prosperity and responsibility for regional security,” Mr Namwamba told The EastAfrican.
Mr Ruto on Thursday met with Congressional leaders from the US who had travelled to Nairobi to seek an amicable solution to the election dispute. The US delegation also met with Mr Odinga and President Kenyatta, and they all promised a peaceful resolution of the election dispute and a smooth transition.
In 2007, a post-election dispute led to violence. But the three past elections have seen Mr Odinga take the matter to court.
If the Supreme Court upholds his win and he is sworn in, sources say Mr Ruto will be unlikely to depart from Kenya’s traditional foreign policy.
“We have yet to see his priorities,” said a Kenyan diplomat, who preferred anonymity. “But he has been part of the building of Kenya’s foreign policy for many years in many capacities. And he has been deployed severally to undertake international missions. Therefore, one would assume that he is fully briefed and well understanding of Kenya’s foreign policy. So one would expect him to sustain that.”
According to the official, a new president is usually presented with diplomatic issues according to Kenya’s five pillars of foreign policy - peace diplomacy, economic diplomacy, diaspora, environmental and cultural diplomacy.
In his capacity as Deputy President over the past 10 years, Mr Ruto represented the president at functions abroad. In May 2016, he addressed the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, where he spoke about Kenya’s plan to close the Dadaab Refugee Camp in the northeast. Kenya’s argument at the time was that the camp had become a security hazard. In September 2016, he addressed the UN General Assembly.
These diplomatic assignments fizzled out in their second term as Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta fell out over a post-election peace deal with Mr Odinga.
Mr Ruto’s “Bottom-Up” economic model proposes to develop the economy from the small enterprises.
“I think he has articulated his manifesto well, especially in areas of poverty eradication, inclusivity and home-grown fiscal policies,” a Western diplomat who preferred anonymity told The EastAfrican on Monday. “We look forward to working with him to address common challenges and take advantage of common opportunities.”
The “bottom-up” proposal’s funding and sustainability could be a challenge as the new government finds its footing. The Chinese, Kenya’s traditional funders of big-ticket infrastructure projects, are unlikely to be involved.
Observers are keen to see how a Ruto government would navigate the Kenya-China relations. On the campaign trail, Mr Ruto took an antagonistic stance towards Beijing, even vowing to end government borrowing from China.
According to Kathleen Klaus, a professor at the University of San Francisco who spoke to The Conversation, if he were to implement this, Kenya would face a contentious relationship with China that could stall future development projects “while helping to rein in future debt obligations”.
The Kenya Kwanza alliance proposed to make Kenya respected and valued abroad, promote friendly relations with neighbours, play a leading role in regional and pan-African affairs, collaborate with international partners, and uphold commitments to the international community. The Alliance proposed to expand markets for Kenyan products, taking advantage of the country’s membership in regional organisations such as the EAC, Comesa, Igad and the AU, and Kenya’s status as technology powerhouse to drive economic growth.
Mr Ruto also promised to lead efforts to advance regional stability and peace, support global initiatives to stem violent extremism, and co-operate with other countries as a reliable ally or neighbour.
Meanwhile, regional businesses are looking forward to more support for a competitive and stronger value chain from the new government.
Experts say that Mr Ruto’s role as President Uhuru Kenyatta’s deputy provides little indication of his ability to push through transformative economic policies within East Africa, which is smarting from the effects of Covid-19, the Ukraine-Russia war, a shortage of goods and high prices.
East Africa’s private sector is looking up to Kenya’s new president to provide the leadership that will create recovery.
“We have a lot of expectations from him in terms of his commitment to business,” said John Kalisa, East African Business Council chief executive. “He said we need to build on what his predecessor has achieved, especially infrastructure. We want him to improve the regional value chain, fast-track the EAC Common Market and support South Sudan and the DR Congo to actively participate in regional integration and build the right institutions.”
“We expect him to fast-track the Common Market commitments to address the issue of open skies, the One Area Network, common tourist visa and making the region competitive,” Mr Kalisa added.
Uganda is also optimistic that Kenya’s new president will focus more on the private sector as the main driver of integration.
Simon Kaheru, vice-chair of the EABC, said Mr Ruto has experience in the private sector, “which is an advantage for us because we can engage him as a comrade”.
Robert Bafakulera, chairperson of Rwanda Private Sector Federation and vice chair of EABC, said the private sector is optimistic that the president will address the issues around the implementation of the Common Market.
“Rwanda does a lot of business with Kenya, as our cargo is transported through the port of Mombasa. We want him to reduce the cost of transportation on the Northern Corridor. We expect him to fast track the implementation of the EAC Monetary Union. It would be less expensive to do business if the region can attain a single currency, which we want him to push for.”
Rwanda’s businesses also expect the new president to lower the cost of work permits for East Africans.
“We would have wished to have more Rwandans working in Kenya, but the cost of the work permit is very high,” said Mr Bafakulera.
“In terms of his commitment to promote the region’s value chain, especially agriculture, we want to see his commitment on how the region can weather the shocks caused by the Ukraine war and to ensure that we start exploiting our comparative and competing advantage,” Mr Kalisa said.
The Kenya Association of Manufacturers expects the incoming government to prioritise food and nutrition security through increased value addition in the agriculture and agro-processing.
“This is because global inflation around food is a major concern and countries will now need to focus on food security,” said Tobias Alando, acting KAM chief executive.
“We urge the incoming government to reduce the number of regulations and bring down the cost and time spent on compliance and consolidate regulators at the national and county levels.”