Kenya ignoring BRICS alliance at its own peril

Central African Republic Presidnent Faustin Archange Touadera (left), Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso (left), Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique (right) and Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang (right) attend a meeting during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

The recent BRICS Summit in South Africa on August 22-24, 2023 welcomed six new members in a move that has significantly tilted the balance of global power to the global South and irreversibly changed our world.

Kenya’s untypical low-key participation in the historic BRICS fete reveals the perils of geopolitical competition between the America-Europe camp and the China-Russia détente with Africa as a new battleground. Kenya, we argue, can only ignore the BRICS at its own peril.

The BRICS — an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — describes the world’s fastest growing economies that would collectively dominate the global economy by 2050.

Known for their significant influence on regional and global affairs, all the five BRICS member states are also members of G20. During its recently concluded summit, the grouping of top emerging economies invited six countries (Argentina, Egypt and Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to join and swell its ranks by January 1, 2024. 

Founded in 2009 and headquartered in Shanghai, China, BRICS has crusaded for a fair, just, inclusive and prosperous world and sought to address the grievances of developing countries against a world order they rightly feel is rigged against them.

In many ways, the 2023 BRICS summit was a critical African summit that Kenya seemingly paid little heed to. It was hosted on the African soil by an African nation: South Africa. Its theme “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism” was Africa-centered. The Summit invited two African countries — Egypt and Ethiopia —to join the grouping. For 13 years, South Africa, Africa’s second-largest economy, has been the only African regional power in the South-South club since 2010.

In the recent past, East Africa’s economic powerhouse has expressed the same position as the BRICS, pushing for a fair international financial system, including the use of local currencies in regional international trade and financial transactions. 

Two decades ago, under President Mwai Kibaki, Kenya emerged as a towering pan-Africa nation and a powerhouse in the global south.  It adopted a robust look East policy to rebalance its traditional “look West’ orientation guided by its assertive foreign policy underpinned by national interest. All this appear to be changing.

Over 40 countries have so far expressed interest in joining BRICS and 22 formally have asked to be admitted. A common joke has been that the word BRICS is ‘misspelled’—it should be BRICKS, and the “K” should be Kenya!  In Africa, Algeria, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia and Gabon had applied to be members of BRIC. Certainly, Kenya is not one of them.  President William Ruto skipped the 2023 BRICS Summit attended by over 50 heads of state and government.

Kenya has been untypically mute on its position on BRICS. Foreign Minister, Alfred Mutua, who represented Kenya’s Head of state in the fete, is yet to make good his promise to outline Kenya’s position on engaging the ‘global South’.

Nigeria missing

With Egypt and Ethiopia now as BRICS members, Kenya is one of the remaining regional powers out of the BRICS. 

Also curiously missing in the BRICS is Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country predicted to become the world’s 14th largest economy by 2050 estimated at $4.348 trillion.

Nairobi and Abuja can find their way into the group in the next cycle of expansion.   But their absence speaks volumes about their current foreign policy orientation.  While the rest of Africa is pivoting to the global South, Nigeria and Kenya have turned virulently West-centric in their foreign policy. 

The BRICS has been attractive to Africa, and for good reasons. First, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the underbelly of the rich countries in the West, which hoarded life-saving vaccines.

Second, the continent shares the dissatisfaction of developing nations with the Western dominated global liberal international order.

Kenya cannot ignore the BRICS. Its own development is inextricably tied to the bloc. Moreover, the expansion of new members has greatly increased the global clout of BRICS.

Foreign policy

Kenya’s foreign policy managers must take to heart the idea that BRICS is the future of the world’s economic — if not military — power.  The report, by the professional services giant PwC titled “The long view: how will the global economic order change by 2050?” looks at which economies around the world will be the biggest and most powerful economies by 2050.

In the next 27 years, our planet’s economic and financial landscape will have changed so drastically from what we know now that only America will qualify as member of the world’s Seven largest economies, popularly known as ‘the G7’.  Based on their GDP/PPP, the members of the G7 by 2050 will include China ($58.499 trillion), India ($44.128 trillion), United States ($34.102 trillion), Indonesia ($10.502 trillion), Brazil ($7.540 trillion), Russia ($7.131 trillion), and Mexico ($6.863 trillion) in that order.

Following the addition of six countries to the BRICS, the grouping’s Gross Domestic Product is now 36 percent of global GDP and 47 percent of the world population. The two biggest populations being added to BRICS are Ethiopia (126.5 million) and Egypt (112.7 million). It’s possible that BRICS could eventually surpass 50 per cent of global population, as many more countries have expressed their desire to join.

The addition of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE is set to more than double the BRICS’ share of global oil production — which will grow from 20.4 per cent to 43.1 per cent.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, will be in the same economic bloc as the world’s biggest oil importer, China. BRICS’ share of global exports will also increase.

Expectedly, this harsh reality is spawning a new bout of geopolitical competition between the America-Europe axis and the China-Russia détente. Kenya’s development could be derailed if it is caught up in the ‘new scramble’ for Africa. 

Recently, Kenya has leaned towards the conservative West, ideologically influenced largely by the stifling narrowness of America’s “Bible Belt”— a region of the Southern United States in which an intensely conservative Protestant ethic plays a tragically perverse role in society.

Clearly, Nairobi must return to reason and anchor our foreign policy on our national interests, especially creating wealth to end extreme poverty, not defense of a decaying liberal global order.

Prof. Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API). This article draws heavily from a speech during the Launch of ceremony of “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” in Swahili at the University of Nairobi, August 14, 2023.