Former Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Dr. Alfred Mutua (right) makes his remarks after he handed over the Foreign Affairs docket to Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi on October 17, 2023 at the Kenya Railways Headquarters.

| Francis Nderitu| NMG

Does Kenya have a new foreign policy or it's same old approach?

What you need to know:

  • Experts say it is a pattern that only changes focus, not interest.
  • But there has been a lack of clarity about what those interests are.
  • ‘Soft power, neutrality and non-aligned posture’ has made many countries trust Kenya say experts.

As Kenya celebrates 60 years of independence today, the current government under President William Ruto says it is pursuing economic and trade diplomacy. But this is hardly a departure from the past when foreign policy was characterised by ambiguity on some issues and vociferous positions on others.

The Kenya Kwanza Alliance, for example, said in its manifesto that it would "leverage our international engagements to create opportunities for our citizens, businesses and investors."

The section on foreign policy was small, but it referred to something that suggested it wasn't a departure from the old: Seeking positive influence as an anchor state for Africa in global affairs, building on the diaspora, and supporting the work of international organisations.

Experts and diplomats who have watched Kenya over those decades and who spoke to Nation.africa say it is a pattern that only changes focus, not interest. But there has been a lack of clarity about what those interests are.

For example, Kenya joined the United Nations four days later, and many world powers, including the Soviet Union (Russia), (West) Germany, China, as well as Ethiopia, established diplomatic relations with Nairobi.

Since then, Kenya's Ministry of Foreign and Diaspora Affairs lists among its achievements the hosting of the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON), which became the only UN headquarters in the southern hemisphere in June 1996, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).

Kenya was also an active member of the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Ngovi Kitau, a former Kenyan diplomat, says that Kenya's soft power, neutrality and non-aligned stance "attracted many countries to give Kenya their trust and confidence".

Kenya has been elected five times as one of the 10 non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) (there used to be fewer non-permanent members until reforms increased the number).

"This is a major achievement because a country needs to muster a two-thirds majority to be elected, and as of today, there are over 30 UN member countries that have never gotten a seat on the UNSC," Kitau said in an interview with the Nation.

Kenya was first elected to the UNSC in 1973-1974 and recently served during the 2021-2022 term. A non-permanent member usually does not have veto power, but there is prestige in sitting on the council, whose permanent members include Russia, China, the US, the UK and France.

"The founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, recognised the fluid nature of international relations and diversified the portfolio of alliances," Kitau explained.

"He built strong relationships with other newly independent African nations and resisted external influences that could threaten Kenya's sovereignty. He found solace in values-based diplomacy and multilateralism. This approach made Kenya a recognised leader in Africa and a respected voice on the global stage.

Whether Kenya has distinguished itself on the international stage is one thing. Some list wildlife and environmental conservation, athletic triumphs, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and conflict resolution among Kenya's other achievements.

But whether it has done so based on foreign policy is debatable.

Dr. Hawa Noor, an affiliated fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies [InIIS] at the University of Bremen, told the Nation that Kenya has been particularly influential in defending capitalism, Israel and various peace initiatives such as in Sudan (which helped South Sudan secede).

"As a regional hub that hosts many foreign missions, this position supports the advancement of its foreign policy," she argued.

However, she added that Kenya's foreign policy "has been securitised in recent years with the so-called war on terror discourse.

"Whether this has strengthened or weakened Kenya's position depends on your perspective. Some see it as a win, given the partnerships involved, while others argue that it has generally slowed down its democratic standing.

"Arguably, along with other incidents such as Kenya's role in Operation Jonathan (Israeli raid on Entebbe), the capture of (Turkish Abdullah) Ocalan, its policy towards Israel, etc., have exposed the country to those who oppose some of these developments, including violent actors, "Dr. Noor told the Nation, referring to how Kenya helped Israel rescue its nationals in Entebbe during Idd Amin's regime, and how Kenya helped arrest a Turkish armed revolutionary, Abdullah Ocalan, in Nairobi in 1999.

So what was Kenya's foreign policy?

Dr. Bob Wekesa, deputy director of the African Center for the Study of the United States at the University of the Witwatersrand, says Kenya's foreign policy has oscillated between periods of deliberate strategy and unintentional impulses.

"But for most of the six decades, foreign policy has been driven by unintentional impulses," said Dr. Wekesa, who is also a senior lecturer at Wits Centre for Journalism.

Kenya only documented its foreign policy for the first time in 2014, he says.

Before that, it was influenced by development plans and legislation, regional issues (such as the twists and turns of the East African Community), African continental issues (such as the transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (AU)), and global dynamics (especially West-East geopolitics).

"The fact that there was no written and official policy means that Kenya has been flying blind for most of this period," Dr. Wekesa told the nation.africa.  

Mr. Kitau admits that the East-West orientation can be challenging for Kenyan diplomats, especially since choosing sides in a shifting balance of power can be difficult.

"The real challenge is to balance the competing interests and ensure that Kenya's relations with both Western and Eastern powers and neighbors remain positive and beneficial to Kenya," Kitau said.

"A good example is the saga in Ukraine, which started in February 2022. One side calls it a special military operation, while the other side calls it an invasion." The other division is over Israel, where everyone agrees that civilian lives matter, but people disagree over whether Israel's right to self-defense overshadows that of the Palestinians.

"That's the dilemma," he said, referring to UN votes on these issues and how they differ from Kenya's biggest trading partners China, India, Tanzania and Uganda.

The solution, according to Dr Wekesa, is to align Kenya's policies with its own constitution, including the adoption of devolution.

"Although some memos, guidelines and legislation have been issued, a more comprehensive overhaul of foreign policy is needed to make it fit for purpose in a devolved context," he explained.

The Devolution Act prohibits counties from carrying out many diplomatic functions, which he argues goes against global trends.

"Sub-national diplomacy is now well established elsewhere in the world. Simply put, Kenya needs a new foreign policy framework."

It may need to work on who actually works in the foreign ministry to make it professional. A major problem is the scourge of nepotism, tribalism and cronyism in the appointment of ambassadors, Dr Wekesa noted.

"Political appointments of ambassadors are all well and good. But the appointments should not be based on narrow reward motives."

After all, the East vs. West thing isn't so bad, especially now that the world is multipolar. Kenya has a lot to gain from the West in terms of governance, democracy and human rights. From countries like China, Turkey, Middle Eastern states, Japan and others, foreign policy should be geared towards economic agendas, experts say.

Dr. Noor suggests that in the next 60 years, Kenya should adopt a more feminist approach to foreign policy by putting people and human beings at the center rather than the old-fashioned state and national interests.

Some countries, such as Canada, Sweden, Mexico, France, Spain, the Netherlands and others, are emphasizing peace and justice as opposed to state security, war and elite male dominance.

"This will radically change our international engagement and lead us to a more just world. "A feminist foreign policy for Kenya would mean reducing discrimination and structures of inequality that can no longer be tolerated in today's world.

"The grievances on the streets of the world today, including Kenya, can be remedied with a feminist foreign policy that promotes equality, demilitarization, diplomacy, multilateral cooperation to solve these problems as opposed to conventional solutions that have not much to show despite many years of practice," she said.