William Ruto diplomacy gamble: Risks and opportunities

President William Ruto with Morrocan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita

President William Ruto with Morrocan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at State House Nairobi on September 14, 2022. The meeting resulted into a diplomatic gaffe. PHOTO | PSCU

Photo credit: Courtesy | PSCU

What you need to know:

  • One way of making use of it for Ruto, the analysts say, is to pursue the principle of strategic ambiguity; when the government deliberately remains vague on a policy to help it gain from both sides.
  • Such a policy can avoid confrontations from parties, but the experts warned this could bring the risk of being misunderstood in future, especially if the ambiguity is declared.

Kenya President William Ruto’s communication team may have goofed after announcing a premature cutting of ties with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) mid this month.

But some observers think the lesson there may be good for the new President’s future conduct of regional foreign policy and help strengthen ties with peers.

The Sahrawi matter has since been clarified with Kenya confirming it was still aligned with the African Union on the matter.

“The gaffe on the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) question should be taken as a lesson on how not to conduct foreign affairs in an evolving policy space since it relates with an extremely fluid regional, continental, or global context,” said Leonard Wanyama, Vice-Chairperson of the International Relations Society of Kenya.

Dr Ruto’s manifesto did not elaborate much on foreign policy even though he promised on inauguration day that he would pursue regional peace and security challenges, as well as economic opportunities.

This lack of clear pronouncements, however, may just be what neighbours like about the new Nairobi administration.

The Nation understands his President Ruto will authorise the deployment of troops to the DR Congo, as part of the regional standby force agreed on during the tenure of his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta.

The troops will have a composite mandate— including spreading awareness to civilians on peace, helping repair damaged crucial infrastructure as well as combat, according to a Concept of Operations the regional heads agreed on.

During his inauguration, Ruto said he looks forward to deepening regional integration.

“Kenya is fully committed to the implementation of the EAC treaty and its protocols of free movement of people, goods and services. Equally important is our commitment to the full actualisation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA),” he said.

The president also intends to be actively involved in the peace process in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict and will work with the Somali government on a transition phase that will also adopt a wider model of fighting Al-Shabaab beyond military means.

“President William Ruto is walking into an arena where there is considerable goodwill for Kenya as witnessed by good attendance of EAC plus other African leaders and their immediate acceptance of former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s new role as peace envoy to the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region,” Mr Wanyama told the Nation on Monday, adding the President’s experience, however was still thin.

In the region, he has been closer to the Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, suggesting that future trade disputes such as has been on eggs and milk, may be handled more urgently than before.

Some countries like Ethiopia may also see him as a more impartial arbiter, given the way the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels have been demanding President Kenyatta to mediate their conflict, while Addis Ababa demands the African Union.

During his time, Kenyatta endorsed the African Union process, although he had personally tried to prevail upon Addis Ababa to hold dialogue with the TPLF.

Will Ruto choose who to like or dislike in the region?

Neighbours may decide how to handle him, but the new president now operates within a stronger legal framework to implement the foreign policy, experts say.

“I do not expect Kenya's Foreign policy to change radically with the new president because [it] is relatively independent of political changes and there is a document with a structure,” Said Dr Hawa Noor, a Kenyan researcher on the Horn of Africa’s peace and security and Associate Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) in Germany.

“Nevertheless, everyone has their style and priority that will likely be moulded into the foreign pollicy. Moreover, Ruto was the deputy president for 10 years and so he has enough experience on the matter,” she added.

Like Mwai Kibaki and Kenyatta, Ruto may still prioritise the economy given the bottom-up approach.

However, Dr Noor suggests there may be a variance especially since the new president has voiced reservations on borrowing.

“What we may see could be new economic partners,” she said.

In the region however, Wanyama said the gaffe on Sahrawi may just help him know who to place in positions of responsibility in future, including how to communicate foreign policy decisions.

In general, the continual problems of insecurity, drought and political instability means Ruto cannot abandon his predecessor’s ways of doing things. He may, in fact, better them.

“The government should reinvigorate relations with traditional allies – the US, the UK and Western Europe – while also redefining Kenya-China relations so as to align them to Nairobi’s trade and investment interests,” argued international relations lecturers, Prof David Kikaya and Dr Nasong’o Muliro, in a joint commentary last week.

“Strategically, the incoming regime should enhance its relations with Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan, while at the same time accelerating its entry into the DRC. Kenya should give full support to the current regime of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (Somalia), not just in terms of security but also economically and personnel training.”

Dr Noor said Ruto’s personal qualities, including charisma and ability to speak issues from experience, may earn him a welcome to neighbours.

But 'religion', he said, is bit too prominent and may have to be scaled down so that he promotes himself as a statesman for all people guided by the Constitution.

“Of course I am not saying that he should relinquish his freedom of worship but to curb its over-projection.”