The state of Kenya’s diplomacy is a toss-up between its cynics and optimists. Kenya has a stark choice between becoming a soft power nation or a hard power nation.
Sensationally, the spotlight has been sharply on the impact of 39 foreign trips that President William Ruto has made to 26 countries in the 14 months stint between September 19, 2022 and November 11, 2023 — which critics partly blames for fueling the economic meltdown but the government says have netted Sh2 trillion as contracts and investments to the country.
Moreover, Kenya has to withdraw its over 3,000 soldiers from Somalia following the Security Council Resolution 2687 that directed a complete pullout of the African Transition Mission (ATMIS) troops from the country by the end of 2024.
Although on November 16, Kenyan lawmakers approved the deployment of Kenyan police officers to Haiti as part of the U.N. mission to curb gang violence, Kenya's High Court has extended orders blocking the deployment.
With chances of Kenya ever becoming a hard power nation f next to nil, the country has to deliberately invest in building its soft power capacity.
Kenya’s future is in developing a formidable and effective capacity for soft power, which involves the use of appeal and attraction— the ability to co-opt rather than coerce— to shape the preferences of others nations in contrast with hard power.
This week, I was involved in three events that revealed the emerging contours of Kenya’s soft power. First, the National Defence University (Kenya), awarded its charter in May 2021, held its first graduation on November 17, 2023.
Specialising on security training and education, the National Defense University is a new frontier of soft power capacity in Kenya’s foremost symbol of the hard power widely associated with militaries across the world.
The new university provides the military with an opportunity to develop and use more strategic, nuanced and subtle techniques to accomplish Kenya’s soft power goals.
Notably, a sizeable number of the 167 students in the inaugural class was drawn from other African countries and a few from the Indo-Pacific region.
Kenya now has the requisite capacity to train and dispatch thousands of teachers across the world, particularly Africa. The University is set to establish its Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), modelled along African Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) of the American National Defence University, which will be the sharpest tool in expanding Kenya’s soft power in Africa.
The University should be part of Kenya comprehensive Indo-pacific strategy to enhance its capacity soft power in the crucial Indian Ocean rim.
Moreover, the University’s Defence College of Health Science (DCHS) carries the promise of expanding Kenya’s medical diplomacy along the lines of Cuba, which has successfully developed its footprints in medical internationalism.
Through its International Peace Support Training Center (IPSTC), the University is poised to become the bellwether for humanitarian diplomacy. Over the last decade, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) has been involved in medical diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and grassroots support to win hearts and minds in Somalia.
The second event that has relevance for Kenya’s capacity for soft power is the on-going induction of Kenya’s newly appointed envoys (the high Commissioners, ambassadors, Consuls-Generals and Deputy heads of missions) within the aegis of the Foreign Service Academy.
Today, Kenya has one of the largest diplomatic networks by an African country: 56 diplomatic representation missions (excluding Honorary consulates), including 20 in Africa, 4 in the Americas, 16 in Asia, 12 in Europe, one in Oceania, and four representations to multilateral organisations.
Kenya also badly needs a specialised agency along the lines of the ‘African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund’ in South Africa to fund and support its soft power activities across the world. It should consider establishing ‘Harambee Institutes’ along the lines of the Chinese-sponsored Confucius instituted across the world to strengthen the country's soft power abroad.
Evidently, ‘megaphone diplomacy’, the practice of making strong statements on key developments in Africa and the world, can be harmful to Kenya’s soft power goals.
Instead, the country should prioritize quiet diplomacy, operating behind the scenes and using back channeling and discreet negotiations or actions rather than public talks, to enhance its influence. The third event is this year’s edition of the ‘Kusi Ideas Festival’ themed: “Africa’s Agenda 2063: Making the Dream Come True” and slated for Gaborone, Botswana, on December 7-8, 2023.
Launched by the Nation Media Group (NMG) in 2019 as an “ideas transaction market” for the challenges facing Africa and the various solutions and innovations the continent is undertaking to secure its future in the 21st century, the Festival signifies the role of the media in broadcasting and disseminating information in bolstering soft power capacity.
Kenya can tap into one of the most robust and largest media capacity (both public and private) as well as the largest number of foreign journalists based in the country to enhance its soft power capacity.
Kenya is also yet to effectively tap into the soft power potential of its culture. Countries have used art, literature, music, design, fashion, and even food to enhance their soft power capacity. Kenya’s ‘Riverwood’ film industry is a pale shadow of Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry now contributing to the ‘Nigerianisation’ of African cultures.
Moving forward, Kenya should build on its achievements in environmental diplomacy to enhance its soft power. Wangarĩ Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”— the first African woman to win the prestigious award.
In the wake of this year’s inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, President Ruto who hosted the event has been recognised by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Climate Leaders in Business for 2023.
As part of its peace diplomacy, Kenya should continue to support peace processes and movements across the world. in countries where it is involved in mediation. Laudably, on November 13, the Sudanese military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to Kenya, ending blips of diplomatic tiffs between the two countries and giving a new lease of life to the IGAD mediation of the deadly civil war in Sudan.
The future of Kenya as a soft power nation looks certain. A robust soft power capacity will help promote Kenyan goods and trade, provide economic opportunities to turn the youth bulge into a demographic divided and bolster strengthen “Brand Kenya”.
- Prof Peter Kagwanja former Government Adviser (2007-2013), and currently CEO at the Africa Institute and Adjunct Professor at the University of Nairobi and National Defence University.