Kenya’s President-elect William Ruto gave a glimpse of his foreign policy agenda in a CNN interview on Wednesday, promising to scale up the country’s contribution to regional peace efforts.
Dr Ruto, who is due to be sworn in on September 13, did not hint at any major shift in foreign policy from that of his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta. The swearing event will be at the Kasarani Sports Complex in Nairobi.
Dr Ruto is taking over the mantle of leading Kenya amid challenges and opportunities in the country, region and larger Horn of Africa.
He can ride on the diplomatic successes that his predecessor — Uhuru Kenyatta — made in regional integration and put Kenya at the centre of the regional peace and security projects, or pursue his own path with a new political and economic broom.
In his political manifesto, Dr Ruto says his Kenya Kwanza Alliance is committed to regional integration that will make Kenya an anchor state in the region.
“The Kenya Kwanza government will ensure that the country is respected and valued abroad. It will promote friendly relations with our neighbours, play a leading role in regional and pan-African affairs, collaborate with our international partners, and uphold our commitment to the international community,” the manifesto says in the chapter on foreign policy.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a challenge. While Uhuru pursued a policy of to mitigating the conflict in eastern DRC Dr Ruto starts from an ambiguous point in his relationship with Africa’s second largest country and its leader, Felix Tshisekedi.
President Kenyatta was among the few African statesmen who attended President Tshisekedi’s inauguration in Kinshasa at a time when other African leaders and the African Union (AU), doubted his win against Martin Fayulu.
Recently, President Kenyatta hosted East African Community Heads of State to discuss the deteriorating security in eastern DR Congo and harped on the actualisation of the East African Standby Force, and deployment to DR Congo. He also committed to the pacification of eastern DR Congo by sending 200 Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers to neutralise militias causing havoc on civilians and threatening the presence of the UN peacekeepers.
Dr Ruto is expected to build on this relation. In a hint of disconnect of DR Congo’s closeness with East African countries, in February, Dr Ruto raised eyebrows in Kenya and DR Congo when in an off-the-cuff comment appeared to be mocking Congolese that they are only good for wearing high waist trousers but could not keep cows as an investment.
DR Congo ambassador to Kenya Francine Muyumba took to Twitter to register her displeasure. The matter was later cleared.
Kenya under Dr Ruto is, however, expected to reach out to DR Congo not just because the latter is now a member of the East African Community or for the potential huge market it offers to Kenyan products, but also because several Kenyan companies are already operating there such as Equity Group and the KCB Group.
DR Congo potentially has enough hydropower to light up the continent when fully exploited and has 11 major economic corridors that facilitate trade flows in the region, which are largely served by Kenya’s port of Mombasa.
But closer home, Dr Ruto starts with clear co-operation with neighbouring Uganda. He has a close relationship with President Yoweri Museveni, having travelled to Uganda several times during his time as Deputy President for personal business but also to discuss EAC political federation and trade relations between the two countries.
The perceived rapport between Dr Ruto and President Museveni had Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga in January 2022 accuse the Ugandan leader of seeking to influence the August 2022 elections.
President Museveni however cleared the air saying: “Elections in Kenya or any other African country are a matter of the people of that country. We never take sides in the internal matters of other countries. So, we have no side in the Kenya elections.”
This week, President Museveni said he had personally called Dr Ruto to congratulate after the Supreme Court decision.
"I look forward to working with him to strengthen our strategic partnership in advancing the EAC agenda. God bless the people of Kenya," President Museveni tweeted. Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Djibouti, Somalia, South Sudan and South Africa have also congratulated.
It is yet to be seen what kind of relationship Dr Ruto will have with Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan and whether they will strike the same rapport that existed with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Similarly, Dr Ruto’s relationship with presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Évariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi and Salva Kiir of South Sudan have not been tested and it would be his burden to open up to these three leaders.
But barring a calamity such as the series of terrorist attacks lie those that forced President Kenyatta’s hand in his early months in office, the incoming president is likely to find himself largely bogged down at home by the pressure to address the current economic hardships, consolidate power, push back against national legitimacy questions despite the favourable Supreme Court ruling and manage internal politics, with an eye on his re-election in 2027.
The peaceful conclusion of the elections, with the confirmation of Dr Ruto’s victory by the Supreme Court on Monday, has prompted upbeat growth forecasts for the Kenyan economy. But he takes office feeling the weight of expectations on his shoulders, having run a populist campaign appealing to the lower social class voters.
His first major challenge will be honouring his campaign promise to bring down the cost of living within 100 days in an economy that has in recent months taken a hit from the global supply chain disruptions related to the Russian war in Ukraine before it could fully recover from the pandemic shocks.
Mounting public debt estimated to be close to 70 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has also left the government with too little money to spend on social services such as health and education and development projects needed to create jobs.
World Bank data show that the proportion of Kenya’s labour force out of work more than doubled to 5.7 percent over the last decade under President Kenyatta’s administration, leaving the country with the highest unemployment rate.
While Dr Ruto promised a “bottom-up” approach economic transformation, no one what transformative economic policies he will pursue to realise this.
Kenya’s business community is however hopefully that Dr Ruto’s will resolve trade disputes with EAC partners.
Simon Kaheru, vice chairperson of the East African Business Council and Uganda’s private sector chapter said, "I believe the trade disputes that keep erupting between the countries cannot be simply attributed to or solved by the presidents on their own.” Kenya and Uganda have long standing trade impasse over milk, sugar, beef and poultry products. Kenya has banned beef, milk and maize from Uganda, the latter on grounds of high levels of aflatoxin.
Mr Kaheru said while Dr Ruto is likely to play a major role in EAC integration, the private sector and the EAC Secretariat have a bigger role and duty to ensure free movement of goods and services in the region.
Uhuru’s charm offensive
Tanzania was a major beneficiary of Uhuru’s charm offensive leadership especially after President Samia became president. It was therefore surprising that soon after the Supreme Court ruling on Monday, Tanzania cracked down on maize exports to Kenya, explaining that all exports from Tanzania must follow government permits procedure.
The Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement: “Tanzania hasn’t barred issuance of permits for maize exports and it is not planning to do so. Traders should follow crop export procedures including securing crop export permits that are issued free of charge,” Minister Hussein Bashe said on Wednesday. “Between August 27 and September 7, 2022, Tanzania issued maize export permits for 37,450 tonnes of the product.”
He explained that all exporters require an export permit and a phytosanitary certificate and all foreign exporters required to register their companies in Tanzania.
“The challenge is that people don’t want to follow procedures. Foreigners would like to arbitrarily enter the farms in Tanzania and ferry the crop to their respective nations,” he further said.
The circumstances of Dr Ruto’s election following a bitter fallout with President Kenyatta and senior administration figures and the post-campaign rhetoric by some of his political allies point to probably the most radical shakeup of government since the tense transition from Daniel arap Moi’s regime to the Mwai Kibaki administration in 2003.
While Cabinet changes are routine between administrations, the upcoming shakeup comes with a political subtext, too. Dr Ruto publicly admonished a number of ministers for allegedly openly campaigning for his rival, Raila Odinga. Also, allegations by Dr Ruto’s legal team and electoral commission chairman Wafula Chebukati that some senior security chiefs sought to block Ruto’s win have sparked speculation that the radical changes in the public service could extend to the national security agencies.
Perhaps the clearest signal so far that Dr Ruto intends to consolidate power is his swift move to control parliament, where on Thursday his coalition won both the Senate and National Assembly Speaker positions by wooing legislators from Raila’s Azimio coalition. This gives Ruto powers to control all legislative agendas.
After this third victory over Raila, he tweeted: “I salute members of parliament for trusting Kenya Kwanza to provide leadership in both Houses; a clear indication of our national support.”