Kenya’s steady rise as a soft power in the Horn of Africa  

in this file from from 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali converse during the official opening of the Debre Birhan Industrial Park in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia.

What you need to know:

  • A calamitous war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region that started on November 4, 2020 is now spilling over into other regions. 
  • As of 2021, Kenya was ranked as the 12th most powerful African country by its conventional fighting capacity.

There is a growing hype about Kenya becoming a regional power or hegemon in the Horn of Africa. One even senses a seething unease about Kenya as “shy power”, unwilling to replace Ethiopia as a regional military power and to flex its muscle in the conflict-prone region.

In a word, pundits are extending an open invitation to Kenya to abandon its soft power approach and robustly assert a new status as a hard power nation. Kenya as a hard power or hegemonic power is a terribly bad idea.

But the pressure on Nairobi is legitimate. It stems from a string of worrying events that have turned the Horn into a cesspool of violence and epicentre of global instability. A calamitous war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region pitting the local Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) against the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) that started on November 4, 2020 is now spilling over into other regions. 

A coup in Sudan on October 25 and a protracted election impasse in Somalia, now in its second year, have signalled the return of autocracy and emboldened terrorist networks. Complicating the situation is the determination of Western powers and military alliances to contain China, resurgent Russia and rising Iran.

Owing to the recent decline of the Ethiopian military, Kenya is touted as the new military power. As of 2021, Kenya was ranked as the 12th most powerful African country by its conventional fighting capacity, with other regional powers such as Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa topping the list. Currently, Kenya has an estimated 3,664 peacekeepers in the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia. It has also  deployed peacekeepers in global flash-points.  

But this view of power is archaic. The reigning thought is the force of soft power, defined by US  political scientist Joseph Nye as the capacity to influence others through attraction rather than payment or coercion.
Nairobi’s leadership role and geostrategic position in regional business and commerce are significant factors shaping Kenya's soft power status. 

Diplomatic power

In October, Kenya reached the acme of its diplomatic power. In January, the country took up its United Nations Security Council seat as a non-permanent member for the 2021-2022 hiatus, and assumed its presidency for the month of October.

In December 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta, as the Head of State of the country hosting the 9th triennial Summit of ACP Heads of State and Government, took over as president of the 79-member Summit of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States from Papua New Guinea, which hosted the 8th ACP Summit in 2016. 

In September, Nairobi took a stab at securing the seat of the Secretary-General of the 54-member Commonwealth – a voluntary grouping of mainly former British colonial dependencies that unites both advanced and developing economies that makes up more than 2.4 billion people, nearly a third of human population. 

Regionally, Kenya is a member of the powerful AU Peace and Security Council, the standing decision-making organ of the African Union and an axial component of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), which is charged with the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts across the continent. In March, 2021, it assumed the rotational chairmanship of the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC).
World’s youngest nation

Since October 2018, Kenya’s former Prime Minister Raila Odinga has served as the African Union High Representative on Infrastructure Development, and in July 2019, Odinga’s ally and former Vice President, Kalonzo Musyoka, was appointed President Kenyatta’s special envoy to South Sudan to broker peace in the world's youngest nation. 

Kenyatta is the chairperson of the Summit of the Heads of State of the five-member East African Community. His EAC and Regional Development Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohamed is the chairperson of EAC Council of Ministers. And Dr Peter Mutuku Mathuki, a Kenyan, is EAC secretary-general. 

Economic muscle

Kenya is tapping into the soft power of its economic muscle. Before the Covid-19 crisis, Kenya was one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, with an annual growth of 5.9 per cent  between 2010 and 2018 and a GDP of $95 billion, which propelled it to a lower-middle income status.

Its communication giant, Safaricom, is poised to enter Ethiopia where it will invest an initial Sh67 billion ($600 million) towards setting up a new telecommunications operation in partnership with others, including its parent firm, Vodacom Group.

The country’s new indigenous financial corporates are now open for business in a dozen African countries, where they are forming new entities such as Equity Banque Commerciale du Congo (Equity BCDC) that blur Africa’s colonial linguistic divides: Anglophone, Francophone or Lusophone.

Kenya is also boosting its education and health diplomacy, with its neighbours jetting in for higher education and skills as well as medical services. The country’s incipient democratic culture is also an attraction to its neighbours. Kenya has, however, not fully developed its soft power capacity. Its is shine is beclouded by endemic corruption. Moreover, unlike other regional powers, Kenya is yet to tap into the cultural veins to bolster its soft power. 

In his recent book, Africa's Soft Power, Nigerian scholar Oluwaseun Tella unveils the soft power potential of Africa’s regional powers. But Kenya’s Harambee spirit, the philosophical equivalent of South Africa’s Ubuntu and Batho Pele, Nigeria’s Omolúwàbí and Egypt’s Pharaonism is, for all intents and purposes, dead as an official philosophy driving policy and public culture. Kenya has not developed an equivalent of Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry or Technical Aid Corps scheme. 

South Africa is investing in its Ubuntu to popularise and spread its constitutional values and the citizen-centred Batho Pele principles of broad consultations on public governance. It has revamped its African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund as a soft power vehicle of its African policy. Kenya lacks the soft power muscle that derives from organised, targeted and strategic deployment humanitarian and development assistance. Kenya’s Development Assistance (Kenaid) remains pipe dream.

At best, Kenya should aim at being a smart power nation, mixing hard power of the military and the soft power of its economy and democracy.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi.

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