Is Kenya losing its lead in the region?

Sunday July 14 2019

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and South Sudan President Salva Kiir. They were in Juba for tripartite talks on regional affairs. Kenya could slowly be losing its strategic lead in East Africa due to the changing geopolitics and the newfound unity between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. PHOTO | AFP


Kenya could slowly be losing its strategic lead in East Africa due to the changing geopolitics and the newfound unity between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

Analysts suggest Kenya needs to adjust its foreign policy in light of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali becoming the regional point man to fix problems ranging from the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute to the conflict in Sudan.


As an important trade hub for landlocked countries, Kenya has maintained its the middle-of-the path stance taken during the Cold War under the Non-Aligned Movement. As a result, Kenya has kept its allies like the US and China in investments, leadership of international organisations and tackling threats like terrorism, climate change and HIV/Aids.

In 2014 Kenya developed its first written foreign policy since Independence in 1963, with five main pillars — peace diplomacy, economic diplomacy, diaspora diplomacy, environment diplomacy and cultural diplomacy.

However, Kenya’s peace diplomacy is being overshadowed by organisations like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) with Prime Minister Abiy as its chairman.


According to Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, director and senior consultant at Southlink Consultants and a Horn of Africa political scientist at Kenyatta University, oil multinationals are lobbying for Somali interests in their own countries.

He added that Kenyan foreign policy towards Somalia needs restructuring since the fight against Al Shabaab has attracted new stakeholders, with the Gulf crisis spilling over into Somalia.

“Kenya should side either with the Saudi-led coalition or the Qatari and Turkey alliance. To date, Kenya has not sided with any of those interested groups who are at loggerheads inside Somalia and it has a contagion effect on Kenya’s interests,” said Dr Abdisamad.

Kenya brokered the 2005 Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which eventually led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, and it continues to host of thousands of South Sudanese refugees, as well as being the commercial centre for South Sudan transactions.

Kenya also hosted the Somalia peace talks that led to the formation of the first transitional government in 2004, and was home to the Somali government for about two years when it could not translocate to Mogadishu.


Currently, Kenya is fighting Al Shabaab militants in Somalia as part of the African peacekeeping force Amisom. But the maritime border dispute with Somalia is threatening the cordial relations that the two countries have maintained over the years.

According to Nicodemus Minde, a Tanzanian political commentator, Kenya remains well-placed geopolitically despite the seeming rise of Dr Abiy’s regional diplomacy.

He said that with one of the key pillars in Kenya’s foreign policy being peace diplomacy based on its national interests, the country will continue to be involved in conflict mediation in the region through Igad.

“Kenya still remains important to Tanzania in terms of trade, business and investments. The two countries have a long history of co-operation, albeit it is a love-hate relationship,” said Mr Minde.

Harold Acemah, a retired Ugandan diplomat, said that as the premier UN centre in Africa, Nairobi and Kenya remains an important hub of diplomacy in the sub-region as well in Africa.