Kenya will now serve as a Non-Permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the period 2021 – 2022, after being elected on June 18, 2020, by member-states of the United Nations (UN). Ever since the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as Kenya’s fourth president in 2013, there has been a remarkable shift in the country’s diplomacy and foreign policy. Kenya’s foreign policy before then was quite narrow in its scope, with only a regional focus. Two years into Kenyatta’s presidency, Kenya launched a comprehensive foreign policy framework which prioritized peace, security, and economic prosperity. Located in the turbulent Horn of Africa region, Kenya has always underscored its geostrategic importance through its involvement in peacebuilding initiatives in countries like Somalia and South Sudan. The country’s capital, Nairobi is also a regional economic hub and a financial entrepôt for bilateral and multilateral engagements.

Pragmatic and Assertive Foreign Policy

Kenya’s foreign policy under President Kenyatta has been pragmatic and assertive. Kenyan foreign policy scholar, Mumo Nzau couched the pragmatic approach as the “strategic art of appeasing old lovers while courting new friends.”1Nzau Mumo, “The Strategic Art of Appeasing Old Lovers while Courting New Friends: Kenya’s Foreign Relations in Retrospect.” in Kenya After 50. African Histories and Modernities, eds. Michael Mwenda Kithinji, Mickie Mwanzia Koster and Jerono P. Rotich (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 137-64. The country forged its relations with new allies such as China while balancing its ties with old traditional Western friends such as the United States of America (USA) and the United Kingdom (UK). Economically, Mr. Kenyatta gravitated towards engaging China economically and diplomatically, and successfully negotiated an expansive infrastructural project with the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Mombasa to Nairobi, among other projects. The project has been estimated to be valued at about 3 billion USD with the Exim (Export-Import) Bank of China contributing about 90 percent of this first phase. Recent economic figures show that China is Kenya’s foremost trading partner, albeit within the context of an imbalanced trading relationship. A recent economic survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) of 2018 points to a 17.3 percent share of Kenya’s trade being with China, and that with the European Union (EU) and US accounting for 14.3 percent and 4.5 percent respectively.

As a bloc however, Kenya’s trade with Africa stood at 18.3%. With this balancing act, Kenya’s foreign policy under President Kenyatta took on an increasingly Afro-centric political approach which was partly motivated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) case against him and his Deputy at the time, William Ruto.2Faith Mabera, “Kenya’s foreign policy in context (1963–2015),” South African Journal of International Affairs, 23, no.3, (2016): 365-384. Kenya was able to capitalize on the support and anti-ICC sentiments of African leaders and heads of states who vigorously supported the push for a deferral of the case.

Kenya’s Afro-centric foreign policy was also supported by its commitment to regionalism as a centerpiece of her diplomacy. Two of Kenya’s five foreign policy pillars, the economic and peace have underpinned continued regional economic, peace, and security engagements.3Republic of Kenya. 2018. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Strategic Plan 2018/2019-2022/2023, Nairobi: Government of Kenya. Accessed July 21, 2020. During his second inauguration speech in November 2017, President Kenyatta restated Kenya’s pledge to uphold Pan-Africanist values and solidarity when he directed a visa-upon arrival for all Africans visiting Kenya. He also reaffirmed Kenya’s continued support for regionalism committing to a deeper East African Community integration.

In 2016, Kenya put forward Ambassador Amina Mohammed for the position of the African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson but failed. Kenya has also recently nominated her for the position of the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Had Kenya succeeded in clinching the position of the AUC’s Chairperson, it would have marked the culmination of this renewed Afro-centric foreign policy approach. The country’s Afro-centric policy has been particularly successful in the areas of peacebuilding and security in the Horn of Africa especially through the auspices of the regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Somalia and South Sudan. However, Kenya’s assertive foreign policy has not always gone down very well with some of her East African neighbors. The tensions that have historically characterized its relations with Tanzania have deepened in the recent past in what has been interpreted as a jostling for regional supremacy. Kenya has continued to maintain cordial economic and political relations with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Kenya Continental Lobbying

Kenya’s renewed assertive foreign policy approach was again seen in its bid for the Non-Permanent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat. When Kenya launched its candidature for the Non-Permanent seat of the UNSC in November 2019, it banked on the support of the continental body, the African Union (AU). The AU’s endorsement of Kenya’s candidature for the UNSC seat over Djibouti can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, it demonstrates the country’s new assertiveness through continental diplomatic lobbying, and secondly it can be interpreted as a retrospective appeasement by the AU for the Kenya’s failure to clinch the position of AUC Chair in 2017. The efforts of President Kenyatta’s Afro-centric policy since his election and reelection as demonstrated earlier could have informed AU’s endorsement. Kenya was able to fight off Djibouti’s challenge for the seat, winning in the second round by 129 votes against Djibouti’s 62.

Kenya put forth a ten-point agenda in its bid which was anchored on the five pillars of its foreign policy.4Kenya’s foreign policy is anchored on five interlinked pillars; Peace diplomacy pillar; Economic diplomacy pillar; Diaspora diplomacy pillar; Environment diplomacy pillar and Cultural diplomacy pillar. Foreign policy is said to be an extension of a country’s domestic policy and this can be seen in the ten-point agenda put forward by Kenya. The ten-point agenda covered among other things, building bridges, peacekeeping support, regional peace and security as well as countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism – all resonate with the country’s contemporary domestic policy climate. Others included the agenda for youth empowerment, humanitarian action, women and security and the agenda for the environment and climate change action.

For the period 2021 – 2022, Kenya will join Niger and Tunisia, Africa’s other representatives in the UNSC. The country will now have a better opportunity and platform to play a crucial role in global peace and security decision-making processes. Commenting after the successful UNSC elections, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Raychelle Omamo reaffirmed Kenya’s commitment to international law and multilateralism on the areas of peace and security. Strategically and diplomatically, Kenya’s victory symbolizes a renewed desire to assert itself as a leading regional and continental player.

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