The new foreign policy framework announced by the Kenyan government focuses on Africa. But the country has not been able to assert its influence in sorting out the bitter political conflicts in Burundi and South Sudan. To fulfil the aspirations contained in its Africa-focused foreign policy, Kenya has to seize this moment and lead from the front, argues Sylvanus Wekesa


IN 2014, Kenya launched its first official foreign policy document in which the guiding mission promised: “To project, promote and protect Kenya’s interests and image globally through innovative diplomacy, and contribute towards a just, peaceful and equitable world.” The expectation was that Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy, would build on this national strategic framework to play a key role in regional geopolitics.

The bitter political conflicts in Burundi and South Sudan provided Kenya with a gilt edge opportunity to test its regional and continental aspirations encompassed in its foreign policy. But having failed to assert its influence over the peacemaking efforts in these two theatres of conflict has Kenya been isolated from playing a bigger role in resolving them or has it been punching above its weight? Kenya’s failure to land the African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson’s position has not helped matters either.


In December 2014, a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, in South Sudan turned into a violent conflict threatening to destroy the new country. At the time of writing South Sudan remains in a political crisis after the collapse of the recent peace deal. Things have been compounded in this benighted country with the declaration of a famine in parts of South Sudan by the UN on February 20. This was the first time in six years that famine has been declared anywhere in the world.   


In the case of Burundi, in 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi contrived to force through his decision to seek a third term despite protests, and thus plunged the country into a political crisis.


These conflicts have not only created a challenge for the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), but also key regional anchor states, such as Kenya, which is striving to assert itself in its region and the continent. The important question to ask is why has Kenya failed to assert its influence over the peacemaking efforts in South Sudan and Burundi.


Kenya’s reluctance to assert its authority at the beginning of the South Sudan conflict saw Uganda’s emergence as an impeccable alternative through its military intervention. In the subsequent Inter Government Authority of Development (IGAD) peace talks, Ethiopia assumed leadership and control of the processes.


Kenya’s role, apart from sending one of its top mediators, General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, to the mediation process and its threat of sanctions against the warring parties, has been largely dreary considering the political and socio-economic ties between the two countries. Furthermore, despite Kenya’s geo-political and economic advantage to the landlocked country, it has failed to exert its influence in the peace deal; in effect playing second fiddle to Ethiopia.


Similarly, in the Burundi crisis, following the disputed decision of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term, Kenya yet again failed to have its influence felt. This is despite Burundi’s support for Kenya’s lobbying efforts against the International Criminal Court (ICC). Moreover, historically Kenya played a key role during the Arusha Peace Talks of 2000 as part of the East African Community’s mediation efforts that ended the war that had ravaged the country.


As a signatory and guarantor to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that gave birth to South Sudan, Kenya should have been duty bound to be at the forefront of the peace processes. One would argue that the violence in South Sudan occurred at a period when so much of Kenya’s foreign policy engagements were focused on the ICC cases that implicated both President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. The ICC reality might have made the South Sudan situation less of a priority for Kenya, with the government only focusing on ensuring the safe return of Kenyans caught in the violence.


Kenya’s new foreign policy framework stresses the need to promote Africa’s political unity through regional and sub-regional integration. As observed earlier, Kenya launched its foreign policy framework at a time when the country’s foreign engagements were underpinned by the ICC cases.  Several African countries were lobbied and they played a crucial role in taking the fight to the United Nations Security Council with a call for the cases to be dropped. Key countries were Burundi and South Sudan.


The deliberate inward African looking foreign policy is informed first by geographical reality. One reason why Kenya has not attempted to impel the leadership of South Sudan and Burundi towards peace processes might be because the current leaders are indebted to these countries and many others during the push to have the ICC cases dropped. There is however a moral obligation from Kenya to actively lend a hand in resolving conflicts afflicting these two countries who helped Kenya’s leaders in the fight against ICC.


Broadly speaking, due to mistrust and conflict of interest within the East African Community (EAC) and IGAD, the peace talks that were initiated in Burundi and South Sudan have not been brought to fruition. The situation in which IGAD and the EAC are in right now has created new challenges and demands that call for a different type of leadership to emerge within the region. With South Sudan having been admitted to the EAC, Kenya has more leverage and power to assert its influence.


The character and personality of Kenyatta resonates well with his peers in the region. In addition, he is a relatively new leader in the region and carries less baggage in terms of regional meddling. Therefore, he is well placed to project the power that Kenya wields but which it is unable to use currently.


The nomination of Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohammed for the candidacy of the AUC chairperson was seen as a well calculated move to test its robust foreign policy that has placed emphasis on Africa. Mohammed did not manage to win the seat due a number of reasons that have been put across. In my opinion the main reason is that Kenya lacked a proper strategy to bring everyone on board, given the colonial language divide in Africa.


Furthermore, Kenya’s lacklustre performance with regard to the raging conflicts within its sphere of influence was a blip on the candidature of Mohammed. For example the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from South Sudan over a UN report that fingered the Kenyan force commander did not go down well with a majority of players in the South Sudan conflict. Despite the huge investment placed on Mohammed’s candidature, there are questions relating to her role as foreign minister. Under her tenure, Kenya has looked weak, especially in terms of pushing its agenda in the region. The only time Mohammed’s voice was heard was during the Kenyan campaign against the ICC


Kenyatta is not a Mandela or a Nyerere in terms of diplomatic skills and experience. In spite of that, leading a country with aspirations of being a regional anchor state gives him the necessary power to take charge of some issues confronting the region. It is instructive that Kenya has not been afraid to stamp its authority like it did when it sent troops to Somalia. Despite the challenges, Kenya has managed to keep the troops there. To fulfil the aspirations contained in its foreign policy, Kenya has to seize this moment and lead from the front.


Sylvanus Wekesa is a research fellow with the African Leadership Centre, Kings College London.