Inside Kenyatta’s emerging, assertive policy in East Africa

Saturday April 13 2013

The newly inaugurated government of Uhuru Kenyatta is recalibrating Kenya’s foreign policy to reflect an assertive new Africa-centred approach as the central plank of Nairobi’s regional and global policy.

Certainly, Kenya’s new “Look Inwards policy”— as opposed to the traditional “Look West” policy or the emerging “Look East” policy now in vogue — is in line with the Uhuru-Ruto campaign’s frequent assertions that Western powers wanted to use the International Criminal Court to effect regime change during the recent presidential election on March 4.

At the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto on April 9, the almost 60,000 people assembled at the Moi International Sports Centre Kasarani were astounded when they were asked to sing the little-known official anthem of the East-African Community — “Oh God, we pray you protect the East African Community.”

Few of them had heard of the anthem — which, together with a guest-list of over a dozen African heads of state and the tenor of the speeches delivered at the occasion — heralded Kenya’s strident turn to an assertive pan-African policy towards Africa and the world.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s father and the first president of Kenya was one of the organisers — together with Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), George Padmore (Trinidad) and W E B DuBois (US) — of the famous Pan African Conference held in Manchester in 1945.

Thus, a strong pan-African thrust provided the ideological wind that drove Kenya’s liberation struggle and the reformist post-colonial government after Independence.


However, the imperatives of the Cold War soon forced Kenya’s post-colonial regime to draw closer to the West and jettison the pan-African stance that marked the tenures of Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1964), Joseph Murumbi (1964-1966) and Mbiyu Koinange (1966-1967) as foreign ministers.

During the Cold War, the country pursued a non-aligned approach to global politics. It also nurtured strong relations with Western powers while maintaining generally friendly relations with the East.

Nevertheless, since Kenya’s return to multiparty politics in 1991 and more so after 2002, its relations with the West have declined steadily.

On the eve of the inauguration, scholars of Kenya’s international relations predicted that the Kenyatta administration was unlikely to overhaul the country’s foreign policy, arguing that he would merely re-emphasise the role of the East African region and give a pride of place to the new economic powerhouses, mainly the Brics states — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

However, the inauguration signalled a search for a foreign-policy orientation anchored in sub-regionalism and pan-Africanism, with Kenyatta’s government pledging to strengthen its ties with the East African Community member states — Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi as well as South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, which are likely to become EAC members in the future.

In his inauguration speech, Kenyatta declared that Kenya’s future is inextricably joined to that of the region (East Africa and the greater Horn of Africa).

Kenyatta is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki. He has promised to strengthen regional groupings, particularly Igad and the African Union as instruments of regional peace and stability and beachheads in the war against terrorism and piracy in Somalia.

He will not pull Kenyan troops from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. Rather, he has justified the deployment of Kenyan forces in the country as a necessary war against “terrorism and piracy.”

The Jubilee government has pledged to work towards the free movement of people, goods and investments. To this end, it plans to remove tariff barriers and non-tariff barriers to trade within the EAC.

Beyond the EAC, the new government means to complete Kibaki’s work towards economic integration with the country’s northern neighbour, with the massive $24.7 billion Lapsset flagship project to jointly build a second port in Lamu, with a road, fibre-optic cable, railway and pipeline linking it to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The new government promises to ride the crest of a new wave of Afro-optimism now washing over Africa — which Kenyatta has attributed to “rising self-confidence, a growing educated, youthful population and God-given abundance of natural wealth and resources.”

The dozen-odd African leaders who attended the inauguration represented countries widely described as “regional powers/hegemons” or “pivotal states.” Among them were Presidents Goodluck Jonathan (Nigeria), Jacob Zuma (South Africa) and Prime Ministers Hailemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia) and a representative of the Egyptian government Hesham Qandil.

However, the presence of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — who has weathered decades of sustained Western sanctions — brought to the fore another element: Defiance of the global hegemony.

Currently, the main target of this renewed defiance is the International Criminal Court. Many African pundits and leaders view the ICC as the West’s tool of choice for regime change and the eventual recolonisation of the continent.

Not surprisingly, in his speech, President Yoweri Museveni praised Kenyan voters for rejecting “blackmail” by the ICC and electing Kenyatta and Ruto who are facing charges of crimes against humanity at the Hague relating to the 2007-2008 post-election violence.

“The usual opinionated and arrogant actors are now using the ICC to install leaders of their choice in Africa and eliminate the ones they do not like,” he said.

With the coming to power of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, “Western powers find themselves in a very difficult situation,” says Warwick University Kenyan analyst Daniel Branch.

Thus, although America and the European powers sent ambassadors to the inauguration, pundits predict that they will most likely adopt “a cautious” diplomatic approach to Kenya. But any slip-up risks opening space for China and other Asian powers already gaining foothold in Africa.

The Asian giants of China and India are now positioning themselves to step in should the West decide not to deal with Kenyatta and Ruto.

Long before the election petition, Chinese ambassador Liu Guang Yuan and his Indian counterpart Sibabrata Tripathi became the first diplomats to congratulate the new government. And Beijing and Delhi sent high-powered delegations to Kenyatta’s inauguration.

Ultimately, Kenya’s region-centred strategy is its best guarantee for the realisation of its foreign policy goals.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is CEO of Africa Policy Institute. He was expert consultant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the generation of Kenya’s Draft Foreign Policy and Strategy Document (2005-2007).