Key foreign policy issues for Kenya in 2020

Friday January 03 2020

Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo (left) and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta during a press conference in Nairobi on November 14, 2019. PHOTO | PSCU


Kenya’s performance on the international stage in 2019 could be debatable, depending on who you ask.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his New Year’s message, claimed the year saw the country’s profile “soar” through sportspeople, scientists and... “our leadership in areas of international peace and diplomacy".

The President may have been referring to conferences Nairobi hosted, such as the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25), and victories like being re-elected to the Council of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), as well as the African Union endorsement of Kenya’s candidature for the UN seat.

This was also the year when Nairobi lost opportunities to host the nascent AU free trade secretariat (AfCTA) to Ghana and the regional offices for the Afrexim Bank to Uganda.

In 2020, the bar could be higher for Kenyan diplomats. Here are the key areas that could pre-occupy Nairobi for the next 12 months.

Maritime dispute with Somalia


Somalia’s case at the International Court of Justice largely punctuated relations between the countries in 2018.

Kenya accused Somalia of auctioning oil blocks in the disputed area, charges Mogadishu denied, but Nairobi went ahead to pull plugs on bilateral relations, which were only normalised in November.

With the ICJ decision binding on both sides, Nairobi has been lobbying to have the issue resolved out of court, arguing the judges may not consider the political compromises attached to the dispute.

How will it go? The ICJ is due to hear, and determine, the case in June but Nairobi’s lobbyists say the matter may not end there, especially since the Court lacks powers to enforce the binding decisions.

Whatever happens at the court, before or after the verdict, also depends on political movements in Somalia.

As Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo seeks to consolidate power, and seek re-election; his key headache has been how to secure the country, and make federal states toe his line.

Ahead of elections, the maritime issue has become a nationalistic debate with anyone opposed to case branded a traitor. In the meantime, Nairobi may hope that whoever wins the election, if it is held at all, will accept to discuss an amicable solution to the boundary issue.

• UN Security Council seat

Kenya won African Union’s endorsement to contest for the non-permanent UN Security Council seat last year, but the victory appeared more of a triumph in a battel rather a war.

While AU is not a member of the UN, the continental body has traditionally been endorsing candidates, based on regional rotation, “to act in its name” at the UN. It means that an endorsement often almost guarantees you victory at the UN.

For Kenya, however, its initial competitor, Djibouti, has refused to give away and has gone on to launch a parallel campaign directly to UN members. Djibouti argues AU’s procedure of endorsing Kenya was flawed and did not consider the fact that Kenya has been there twice before (Djibouti once).

How will Kenya do it? A group of diplomats, led by the Diplomatic and Political Secretary Tom Amolo and Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN Lazarus Amayo, have been marketing the country to UN members, promising to defend multilateralism and the link with regional blocs.

However, if the contest goes down to the wire, Nairobi could be forced to do another lobbying among African states for the vote as it needs at least 129 votes at the UN.

A victory at the June elections could be the ultimate prize, but a loss against Djibouti could be an embarrassment everyone in Nairobi wants to avoid.

Border problems with neighbours

Related to the maritime dispute, Nairobi has several unfinished boundary problems with neighbours. In 2018, Kenya signed an MoU with Uganda and South Sudan to help demarcate their borders.

It agreed to a joint administration of Migingo Island, an unresolved issue for the last 15 years. According to Foreign Affairs CS Monica Juma, the MoU is not to give away part of Kenya but is meant to clarify each country’s territory.

Uganda has been Kenya’s biggest trading partner in Africa, though it now sells more than it buys to Kenya, and diplomats had argued the Migingo issue needed a slow action to avoid antagonising a good neighbour.

In South Sudan, the Ilemi Triangle remains an unmarked boundary and has often seen the Topossa fight it out with the Turkana of Kenya over grazing lands.

The communities are pastoralist so these kinds of raids are expected but the region is suspected to have important minerals, a possible ticking time bomb if borders are unmarked.

• Regional integration and trade

Kenya has traditionally declared that it fully supports regional integration.

It was a founding member of the re-established East African Community, and President Uhuru Kenyatta launched what he called ‘economic diplomacy’ when he took power.

In 2018, Kenya was among the first countries to sign the AfCFTA meant to open borders. Yet within the East African Community, occasional tiffs often happen.

Last year, Uganda complained there was little “synergy” in policies to enable smooth flow of goods. Nairobi argues it granted Kampala privileges to enable faster importation or exportation through the port of Mombasa.

In 2018, Uganda sold more goods to Kenya than it bought.

While the East African Community's provisions allow free flow of goods manufactured in the region without unnecessary tariffs, how Kenya protects local manufacturers, while expanding on regional integration could be the key challenge for Nairobi.

In the meantime, Nairobi says it will also be seeking opportunities beyond Africa, starting with the upcoming UK-Africa Investment Summit later this month in London.

Counter-terrorism and security

This year will mark nine years since Kenya Defence Forces went to Somalia, and eight years since they were re-hatted to the African Union Mission after the fall of Kismayu.

This year, Amisom will begin its gradual withdrawal from Somalia. Francisco Madeira, the Mozambican diplomat in charge of Amisom, said on New Year’s Day that the first batch of 1000 Amisom troops will pull out of Somalia in February, and will be replaced by trained local forces.

With Somalia planning for elections however, Mogadishu is attracting interests from both the Horn of Africa, Middle East and the West.

The dilemma is whether Somalia can now handle own security, or whether Amisom should stay longer. In the meantime, Kenya continues to be hit by terror group Al-Shabaab, ostensibly because KDF are in Somalia.

Kenya insists the troops will remain in Somalia as long as Amisom stays. The problem, however, is that few people are willing to pay for the troops to stay.

Nairobi’s defence and foreign policy chiefs could, in 2019, be engaged on this matter, with partners.