How Security Council seat race is shaping EA and Horn politics

Sunday August 25 2019

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the 2018 AU Peace and Security Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Kenya is keen to clinch a seat in the UN Security Council, hoping to wield more influence in the region. PHOTO | PSCU


Vested interests in the Horn of Africa could threaten the role of the African Union in deciding who represents the continent at the UN Security Council when a vote is held next June.

On Wednesday, Kenya thought it had received the continental endorsement for the race after defeating Djibouti in a secret ballot at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. But Djibouti, which lost three times in a race that required two-thirds majority victory of 37-13 votes, backtracked after conceding, and is now taking its campaign for the seat directly to UN member states.


Djibouti’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Mohamed Siad Doualeh, said his country will continue to vie for the non-permanent seat, defying the AU’s tradition where a local decision often means automatic continental support for a candidate.

“Djibouti reaffirms its decision to continue its bid to secure a seat at the Security Council for the period 2021-2022. We thank all UN member states that have formally expressed to support Djibouti,” the envoy said, contradicting his compatriot and Permanent Representative to the African Union Mohammed Idris Farah.

By announcing that it will continue with the race, Djibouti seems to openly defy the AU after it emerged that the government was duly informed of the AU decision on Wednesday.


Moments after Kenya was declared winner, Egyptian diplomat Osama Abdelhalek, who chairs the group of African ambassadors in Addis Ababa, wrote to his Sudanese counterpart in New York, Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig, the chair of the African group of ambassadors at the UN, informing him of the decision.

Traditionally, African countries have worked in concert to push through agenda that affects them.

Djibouti had also endorsed the decision of the African Union Council of Ministers to decide the candidature through a ballot before November 2019.

This change of heart is deemed suspect, with diplomacy experts seeing a hand of a more powerful force behind the tiny Horn of Africa state. Djibouti has powerful friends – it is host to military bases for major global powers such as China, US, France and Japan and is being wooed by others for its strategic geographical location on the Red Sea.

But many see the hand of Somalia and its circle of friends with vested interests in the country.

During the campaigns for the UN seat, Djibouti and Nairobi failed to agree through consensus who should be in the race, forcing the African Union to hold a vote to decide.

With the eastern Africa region allocated a slot in the 2021-2022 period, only Kenya and Djibouti expressed interest, and Djibouti entered the race several months after Nairobi had declared its candidature in 2018.

Traditionally, the African Union has, as part of a joint bid to fight for reforms in the UN system, agreed to be fronting joint candidates “to act in its name and on its behalf,” according to a January 2019 communique. Yet the AU, a 55-member bloc whose endorsement often guarantees success, has no vote of its own at the United Nations. According to rules of elections at the UN, only member states with voting rights can cast ballots.

Djibouti is therefore taking advantage of a loophole in the UN voting rules of procedure to contest the seat. Rule Number 92 says that no candidate for the UN Security Council is “nominated” to contest, meaning a country can still contest in the elections even if its regional bloc has endorsed a different country.

That means that while Kenya will seek to garner at least 129 votes, Djibouti remains in the race, targeting to disrupt this threshold, and reopening the contest. Usually, being a non-permanent member of the Council, for a membership of two years, it isn’t a big deal and countries like the Netherlands and Italy have in the past shared out their time.

But each of the two African countries is now targeting the Council seat to elevate its international politics. Kenya desperately wants the seat, and has been sending out envoys across the world to shore up its numbers. Kenya celebrated the win in Addis Ababa this week, seeing it as a step closer to achieving its desired goal – a seat at the table where influential decisions are made.

“This endorsement is an affirmation that Kenya has remained true to the decisions and aspirations of the African Union and confirms that it is a safe and dependable pair of hands,” Kenyan Foreign Affairs Secretary Monica Juma said after the vote. “Kenya commits to the African brothers and sisters that we shall be a bold voice for Africa and shall steadfastly promote and defend the African position.”


At the AU, Political and Diplomatic Secretary Tom Amolo, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the AU Catherine Mwangi and Kenya’s envoy to the UN Lazarus Amayo championed the bid. In public, they promised to be Africa’s “good voice” to fight terrorism, climate change and sustainable development.

Deeper though, and despite the seat lacking veto power, senior government officials in Nairobi told The EastAfrican they seek to be in close contact with global powers who control decisions of the Council, some of which touch on the Horn of Africa.

The UNSC is the most powerful organ of the United Nations, tasked with ensuring peace and security of the world. It can impose sanctions, admit new members to the UN and enforce decisions of the International Court of Justice.

Somalia sued Kenya at the ICJ over a maritime boundary dispute and with a decision coming up in the next two weeks in The Hague, Kenyan diplomats argue that having “proper” contacts in the Council could sway its stand on Nairobi’s call for a political, rather than a legal solution for the maritime case.

The ICJ has passed many remarkable decisions, but a balance of power within the Council’s permanent members has often prevented some of the decisions from being implemented. The Council also, often votes simultaneously alongside the UN General Assembly for the ICJ judges, who must garner absolute majority in both chambers to be appointed for nine-year terms. The US, for example, quit the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction in 1986, and it may have no moral standing to enforce its decisions.

China has also rejected decisions of other UN tribunals created to resolve sea border disputes with its neighbours, hinting on how politics, not law, plays on the Council.

These global powers are also playing in the Horn. In Djibouti, France, China and the US run military airbases. Some experts now think decisions of some countries in the Horn are largely influenced by these global powers – and Qatar and Turkey. So, for Nairobi, the shuttle diplomacy is not over yet.