Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi

Kenya's Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi.

| File | Nation Media Group

How (not) to make Kenya’s foreign policy

Kenya's Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi will speak on 'Foreign Policy Imperatives' at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, on Thursday afternoon.

It won't be the first time Nairobi has sought a platform to clarify an otherwise vague foreign policy.

Government officials have spent the past month defending the country's foreign policy in the wake of questions about what Kenya should be focusing on.

And depending on who you ask, there is no confusion at all, although officials, including the president himself, have been contradictory in public forums.

At an event on November 13, Korir Sing'oei, the Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs, summed up Kenya's foreign policy as one of "cooperation rather than competition", which he argued was the basis for any socioeconomic progress.

Kenya, he said, is “looking neither to the east nor the west, nor for that matter the desert but firmly on the foundational principles that have so far guided its journey.”

“Kenya’s adaptability, values-based pragmatism, commitment to Panafricanism, multilateralism and capacity to leverage its strategic interests will continue to shape its role regionally and globally,” he said in a video-recorded speech at a conference on "Transforming the Nation" organised by the German political organisation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in Nairobi.

So far, Kenya has categorised its foreign policy under the pillars of peace, economy, diaspora fairs, culture and environment.

However, some critics say Kenya's so-called pragmatism is ambiguous, making its positions confusing.

For example, while Kenya says it is pursuing continental integration, some critics have noted its consistent negotiation of bilateral trade deals with the US and the UK. The President also, initially, indicated that future summits involving Africa and the global powers should be delegated to the African Union secretariat. But he has since made an about-face, to attend all of them.

At a workshop ahead of that conference dubbed ‘Kenya in the Emerging Global Order,’ some experts did agree that the new world order has kind of “raptured” the geopolitics as we know it, forcing countries like Kenya to play to play with caution.

Those ‘raptures’ are seen in the form of the rise of new powers. Other are seen in the form of new events such as Covid-19 or wars which directly affect African countries, according to Dr Hassan Khannenje, Director of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies.

“We are seeing ourselves faced with an evolution of states, and a revolution of events in a new world order,” he said at the workshop organised jointly by the German Institute of International and Security Affairs with the KAS on Wednesday.

Those can be problems or opportunities, he said, especially for an anchor state like Kenya which is strategically located.

While Kenya’s foreign policy decisions are technically sovereign, events in far-flung countries can influence them. For example, the German foreign policy issues are now routinely conducted under the European Union.

According to Dr Karoline Eickoff, a researcher at the SWP, this may force Kenya to diversify economic relations, and expand shared interests to match the policy adopted by the European Union. So far, Kenya has been focusing on climate change issues, something that currently tallies with the European Union.

Yet this shouldn’t mean Kenya should agree with everything the EU says. That task, argued Maria Nzomo, Professor of International Relations and Governance at the University of Nairobi, falls on the tact of Kenya’s diplomats.

According to her, little has changed in the world that still plays the same old international politics. But she agrees Kenya and its peers on the continent may have stuck behind

“But Africa is resilient. The new order is hardly new but we must focus on interests that have been a part of Kenya,” Said Prof Nzomo, a former Kenyan ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

“Foreign policy is complex. Priorities can change but the core interests must never change,” she added. Those core interests should include regional integration which has remained a continental ambition since the 1960s.

“Diplomatic engagements are tactful and we must make strategic criteria based on partnerships and experiences. It is dangerous to isolate a country.”

Kenya’s best bet, she says, is to stick to continental ambitions such as the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) agreement, which upgraded the Abuja Treaty on unity in the diversity of Africans.

XN Iraki, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business and Management Sciences at the University of Nairobi thinks Kenya should have an identity on the international stage. That, he argues, will help it survive both big and small ‘raptures’ in international politics.

“It is not clear who we identify ourselves as,” he said admitting most new events place the country at the mercy of the global order. He, too, agrees regional integration can save the country as it could prevent immediate security challenges and enhance business.

“When people trade more with their neighbours, security is enhanced. Economic growth means better standards of living.

There is something more: Kenya should start preparing for its future, by learning from the present, rather than the past, he argues.

The government says regional integration is already in motion.

“We are already seeing the impact of these conversations on trade. We are already seeing open borders. We need to do more. Especially on making our blocs better, and addressing the complexity of payments under a common currency,” said Diaspora Affairs PS Roseline Njogu, on the question of regional integration.

“Currency is an issue of sovereignty but many years in, many members now see themselves as members of a common community. In fact, the currency might not even be a sticky issue. It might be our ability to control borders, being able to protect businesses and labour. These are teething problems but we are in the right direction

“If you keep doing the right things, eventually, you get through.”

Part of that, she says, is to protect ‘hustlers’ working abroad while also creating and protecting their jobs back at home through investment attraction.