Why Kenya’s IMO secretary-general position bid flopped

Nancy Karigithu

Special Envoy for Shipping and Blue Economy Amb. Nancy Karigithu during the launch of her bid as Africa’s endorsed candidate for the position of secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization at KICC, Nairobi on May 17, 2023.

Photo credit: Boniface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Kenya on Tuesday lost its bid to have one of its own as secretary-general of the influential International Maritime Organisation (IMO), adding to a string of missed opportunities for the country to lead various international organisations.

Kenya's Nancy Karigithu lost out to her counterpart, Arsenio Dominguez of Panama, as the country comes to terms with losses that shippers blame on lack of government support.

Ms Karigithu is a former Principal Secretary for Shipping and Maritime Affairs, but many shippers accused the government of being lukewarm and not giving her adequate support despite being proactive in developing the maritime sector.

Mr Dominguez will replace Kitack Lim of the Republic of South Korea when his term expires at the end of this year.

He was chosen over six other candidates from six countries, including Ms Karigithu, who were vying for the top and most powerful diplomatic post in shipping.

Candidates for the post included Bangladesh (Moin Uddin Ahmed), China (Zhang Xiajojie), Dominica (Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry), Finland (Minna Kivimäki) and Turkey (Suat Hayri Aka).

"The IMO Council has appointed Mr Arsenio Antonio Dominguez of the Republic of Panama as the next secretary-general for an initial term of four years from 1 January 2024, subject to the approval of the Assembly," the IMO said in a statement.

Kenya had secured the African Union's endorsement of Ms Karigithu's candidacy at a high-level coordination meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, in July last year, putting her in a strong position.

If elected, Ms Karigithu would have been the first African and the first woman to hold the position in the international organisation dedicated to maritime safety, security and environmental protection.

Some of the shippers have accused the government of failing to provide adequate support to secure the position, saying that despite President William Ruto's late endorsement in May, his government didn't issue any further statements lobbying on her behalf.

Some sources say she even turned down trips to accompany top government officials abroad to lobby for the post.

Yesterday, Ms Karigithu and Mines and Blue Economy Cabinet Secretary Salim Mvurya congratulated the new secretary-general after Kenya's defeat.

Mr Karigithu's defeat adds to Kenya's recent losing streak in a number of international positions, the latest being Ahmed Ogwell, who lost out in the competition to become the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

Ms Ogwell is not alone; last year, Kenya's then National Security Advisor Monica Juma withdrew from the race to become Commonwealth Secretary-General, citing a lack of sufficient support from Commonwealth countries for Kenya's bid.

Dr Juma had been seen as a strong contender to replace Dominican-born British diplomat and veteran politician Patricia Janet Scotland.

In October 2020, Kenya's then-cabinet secretary for sports, Amina Mohamed, was not appointed to the post of director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), despite a spirited campaign.

Ms Mohamed did not make the shortlist of the two finalists, which included Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea's Yoo Myung-hee, and Ms Ngozi was subsequently selected as the new WTO director-general.

In 2017, Ms Mohamed lost the chairperson role of the African Union (AU) in a vote that took seven rounds to conclude, with Kenya's Ms Mohamed losing to her Chadian counterpart, Moussa Faki Mahamat, nipping in the bud her ambitions to become the continent's top diplomat.

It was a vote in which Kenya had campaigned hard across Africa, with then-president Uhuru Kenyatta sending special envoys to 53 countries.