Debt, a weakening currency and high food prices are not problems unique to Kenya, but they are pushing Nairobi’s current open-door policy to the world’s greatest powers, potentially becoming a theatre of ongoing global rivalry.
This week, President William Ruto hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose trip had been largely unannounced until a day before he arrived when rumours seeped in.
It was a significant trip: Lavrov had visited Africa three times before, but never touched down in Nairobi since his country invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Hosting the Russian diplomat was a significant climbdown for Kenya, which initially condemned the Ukraine invasion, with its envoy to the UN describing it as “embers of dead empires”.
But Nairobi would also reject a proposal by Ukraine to have its president address the Kenyan parliament on the war, taking a similar stance with the African Union.
Asked about the diplomatic ping-pong, Kenya’s Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua said there is no confusion, just a change of tack.
“What we are doing is clearing the shamba and planting and soon, we will start to harvest,” Dr Mutua told The EastAfrican. “The Foreign ministry will no longer be about quiet diplomacy but active engagements. We are making Kenya the go-to country on the continent.”
Lavrov told Russian media that he had managed to explain, much to Nairobi’s understanding, why they are fighting in Ukraine.
“It seems to me that our partners understand us. They expressed their gratitude to us for a detailed discussion of these issues,” Lavrov said on Monday.
“We described in detail our assessment of the situation that took shape due to the West’s perennial line towards creating direct threats to Russia’s security, encouraging the Kyiv regime to destroy all things Russian.”
President Ruto’s office said: “Kenya calls for a resolution of the conflict in a manner respectful to the two parties.” The President spoke of business ties with Moscow.
“Kenya will deepen its relations with Russia to increase trade volumes.”
A new business pact is due to be signed before end of year, targeting to raise trade volumes beyond the lowly $30 million a year.
But the new camaraderie with Moscow could roil the West and its allies, to whom Ruto has been close since he came to power.
In May alone, he hosted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly in Nairobi.
Some of these leaders have been critical of Russia’s invasion and have sided with the US in seeking the isolation of Moscow.
Ruto ICC debt?
To Russia, Ruto has a debt dating back to the first term of the UhuRuto regime during his indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to two diplomats who worked with him while he served as deputy president. Russia, sitting on the UN Security Council, had a role in vetoing any referrals.
“We sent emissaries to Moscow to make sure that Russia and China, among other countries, did not support any motion to deny Kenya a hearing on the issue of the ICC in the Security Council, and to make sure that the Security Council rejected any prosecution and interference with the Kenyan political process,” explained a diplomat familiar with the matter.
China and Russia are not signatories to the Rome Statute that establishes the ICC, and neither is the US, but they all had influence in the perception of the legality and fairness of the case, another official told The EastAfrican this week.
The ICC dropped the cases.
“Russia also helped us with the campaign for the UN Security Council by staying on the side in a way that was useful for our campaign. Russia has helped Kenya several times in the past on the international arena, when dealing with tricky domestic issues, especially when dealing with Western powers,” the second official said.
Both still serve in government and say Nairobi owes Russia no diplomatic debt.
“There is no debt. It is quid pro quo,” the second diplomat explained on Thursday.
So, what then is Ruto’s plan?
David Monda, a professor of international relations, political science and foreign policy at City University of New York,says President Ruto is playing both sides while targeting particular interests.
“This works well because he can hedge his bets on both sides and extract benefits, whatever the outcome, while simultaneously building on the soft power diplomacy as being the peacemaker between competing giants,” Prof Monda told The EastAfrican.
“I'd call it strategic ambiguity. Ruto is creating dilemmas for major powers, skilfully manipulating their rivalries and fears to advance national interests. I think strategic ambiguity can be seen as an asset because the foreign policy actor keeps the belligerents guessing while gaining benefit from their rivalry.”
For Kenya, the President has been looking for food and Russia has a lot of wheat. It also has fertiliser, which the administration needs to boost local food production.
This week, Moscow delivered 34,000 tonnes of fertiliser to Kenya, with delivery to the continent totalling 300,000 tonnes so far. Lavrov is promising more if the Black Sea Initiative window of exports works well.
Kenya’s economy is also experiencing significant macroeconomic challenges, including lingering effects of drought, which continue to pose a risk to agricultural production.
According to Kenyan parliamentary budget experts, business environment has deteriorated over cutback in consumer spending due to high inflation while the shilling has declined significantly against the dollar, resulting in a reduction of the forex reserves below the statutory four months of import cover, and increasing the risk of debt distress.
Indeed, the country is facing an increasingly vulnerable debt position, underpinned by undersubscription of domestic bond issuance, constrained access to international capital markets and a downgraded credit rating.
Globally, agitated financial markets, and tightening monetary policy have led to significant slowdown in economic growth.
Lavrov spoke of the desire to push for a parallel system of payments to dodge the dollar, something Ruto supports too.
“We have identical opinions on these issues. All countries are interested in protecting themselves from the negative impact of the mechanisms created by the West for advancing its globalisation model and from its attempts to abuse the role of the dollar in international transactions,” said Lavrov in Nairobi.
“They want to make a transition to national currencies and develop logistics chains that will not be affected by blackmail and pressure. Our positions of principle fully coincide in this respect. It will take time to reach these goals. This is hard work but we are motivated to achieve results. I am content with the results of my visit.”
Ditching the dollar
This week, Ruto asked African leaders to take first steps towards ditching the US dollar by signing up to the Pan-African Payments and Settlement System (PAPSS) to facilitate trade in local currencies.
PAPSS, which was launched in January 2022, is operated by the African Export-Import Bank in collaboration with African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat and the African Union.
“We are all struggling to make payments for goods and services from one country to another because of differences in currencies. And, in the middle of all these, we are all subjected to a dollar environment,” Dr Ruto told government and private sector officials attending a forum on AfCFTA in Nairobi on Monday.
“There has been a mechanism where all our traders can trade in the local currency, and we leave it to the Afreximbank to settle all the payments. We do not have to look for dollars.”
The solution may take years to materialise and could also be sabotaged.
“The danger with strategic ambiguity is it can make Kenya lose credibility with its closest allies in the West, with whom it sided during the Cold War and after. It can also create a foreign policy that is undefined, ambiguous and contradictory,” Prof Monda said.
“Countries that tend to play the strategic ambiguity card tend to vacillate between the lofty ideals of international peace and cooperation that are contradicted by their practice that is ruthlessly pragmatic.”
Security Council reforms
Beyond trade, however, Moscow had something else: Reforms at the UN Security Council. For the past two decades, Kenya and peers in the Global South have called for reforms, including veto powers to be granted to at least two African countries. It never materialised.
State House in Nairobi in a statement noted that Kenya and Africa count on friends like Russia in the creation of a new architecture at the Council.
“The continent can bring to the table rich ideas, suggestions and experiences that would serve the globe well,” Ruto said after the meeting in Nairobi.
Russia says it is backing Africa.
“A reform of the UN Security Council should be a step in this direction,” said Lavrov. “Out of its 15 current members, six represent the US and its allies. It is necessary to remove this injustice by accepting Asian, Latin American and African representatives in the UN Security Council.”
In spite of the manoeuvres, some experts think Kenya needs to move away from a “securitised” singular foreign policy, where partnerships are seen in terms of security problems rather than general human needs of the citizens.
“There is a need for Kenya’s foreign policy to align with the African Union’s agenda so that a common position can strengthen African countries' negotiating power in today's power competitions. Unity is strength, as our forefathers taught us,” said Dr Hawa Noor, an associate Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies, University of Bremen, Germany.
“Most importantly, Kenya’s foreign policy should place people at the centre, as opposed to the old-fashioned state and national interests. It is, indeed, time for a feminist foreign policy along countries such as Canada, Sweden, Mexico, France, Spain, Netherlands, in order to emphasise peace and justice, as opposed to state security and war, and elite male dominance. This will radically change our international engagement and push us to a more just world,” she said.