Uncertanity over future of Kenya's foreign policy

Monday March 06 2023
Kenya's Minister for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Alfred Mutua

Kenya's Minister for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Alfred Mutua. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG


Kenya says it would this week explain why it shifted its foreign policy procedures to allow countries’ missions in Kenya to engage directly with ministries and state agencies without involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The government further moved the engagement of diplomats from the ministry and handed the coordination duties to the Deputy President.

Experts, however, warn that the country could dismantle a practice that ensures the right and left hands of the government work in harmony.

Both serving and former diplomats say the move sidesteps international best practices.

A note verbale issued last week to the foreign embassies indicated Deputy President Gachagua would handle meetings where embassies want to engage more than one government department at once.

“Requests of meetings of cross-cutting nature and that which involve more than one ministry, it is advised that such requests should be made through the office of the deputy president for coordination purposes,” the letter shared with all foreign missions accredited to Nairobi indicated.


Read: Kenya foreign policy shift clips minister’s wings

The move upends an old tradition in which the Foreign ministry has been central to coordinating engagements based on the Vienna Conventions of 1961 and 1963 on diplomatic and consular relations.

Ngovi Kitau, a former Kenyan ambassador to South Korea, told The EastAfrican that the country might be misstepping by adopting a foreign policy that other countries do not use.

“The problem we have is that policies are not harmonised in our ministries. They need the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to coordinate them because this is the practice globally,” he said.

“Foreign policy is not based on who is in power. It is based on effort and practice that is guided by the Vienna Convention. You cannot be domestic-centric in foreign affairs. Foreign affairs are guided by the Convention. That is why, for example, if the Saudi Embassy has a national day, they invite the Foreign Ministry. In these changes, who will they invite? Mr Kitau posed.

Argument valid

He warned that some countries may decline audiences if delegations from other ministries travelled without the involvement of the Foreign ministry.

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Korir Sing’oei said on Friday the government would explain to “relevant actors on implementing this ministerial directive consistently with the VCDR (Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations), Kenya Constitution, Foreign Service Act & the Executive Order of Jan 2023.”

Dr Claire Amuhaya, a lecturer at Rudn University in Moscow, and adjunct lecturer at Riara University, says the argument for better coordination is valid, given the more actors involved in foreign policy these days, such as ministries of trade, infrastructure and East African affairs.

“Since the 20th century, diplomacy has experienced notable changes, but the main characteristic is the requirement to synchronise all government ministries and departments to work together with a common goal of achieving foreign policy,” she told The EastAfrican.

“The solution is to go back to why the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations was enacted. It is the core of diplomatic relations because it creates a level playing field all over the world. For Kenya to try and create its own way of doing things is almost a deviation from international law which can bring challenges,” she argued.

Diplomats lament

This week, Kenyan diplomats lamented the decision, with some indicating it could make the ministry redundant and its career diplomats underworked.

“If the Ministry is inefficient, it should have been instructed to shape up and create a new coordination mechanism and office specifically to do that,” a senior Kenyan diplomat said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“To ask the presidency to coordinate foreign affairs roles is to effectively transfer that mandate at the heart of the conduct of Foreign policy. There is no Minister of Foreign Affairs in any other country that has accepted or will ever accept that arrangement,” the envoy said.

“No other country will allow Kenyan diplomats running amok knocking unofficially on doors of every office they dream about, and if they cannot, why would it be okay for foreign diplomats to do so in Kenya?”

Another official warned the directive might be impossible to reverse once implemented and that Kenyan diplomats will be unable to work properly, especially in missions abroad.

According to the presidency, coordination of ministries is actually under the office of the Prime Cabinet Secretary, indicating a possible turf war with the deputy president’s office.

Diplomats also raised fears that government officials with little background in geopolitics would now be involved in crucial foreign policy decisions.

“People need to know the history we have with individual countries. Having direct engagements with rookies might see countries begin taking advantage of us.”

“Just imagine what kind of memorandum of understanding they will sign and who will be held accountable for them? There’s no precedence for this anywhere else in the world,” explained another diplomat.

Bureaucratic delays

The EastAfrican understands the directive arose from numerous complaints from foreign diplomats in Nairobi, county governments, and other departments about the bureaucratic delays in approving meetings by the Ministry, now headed by Dr Alfred Mutua.

According to the Vienna Convention of 1961, the host states may decide the exact government agency to handle foreign policy. It is unusual, however, to have two entities coordinating engagements.

“All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed,” says Article 41 of the Convention.