Wednesday, July 24, 2024
In DepthWhat does Kenya’s elevated status mean for the Horn?

What does Kenya’s elevated status mean for the Horn?

The last few weeks have witnessed the birth of a renewed relationship between the west and the Horn of Africa with Kenya at the center. President William Ruto’s (PhD) ascendance in the eyes of Washington has given rise to a new round of speculation about the Horn’s diplomatic status, with pundits and analysts offering their perspectives on the advantages and implications of Nairobi’s blooming relationship with the US.

Earlier this month, Ruto became the sixth head of state to make an official visit to Washington since the Biden administration took office, following trips from the leaders of South Korea, France, India, Australia, and Japan. In fact, the Kenyan president was the first African leader to make a state visit to the White House since Ghana’s John Kufuor did it in 2008.

Pundits attribute Ruto’s apparent success to two factors. The first being the shaky security situation in the wider Horn region. Virtually all Horn countries are embroiled in active conflict or instability, making Kenya a relatively stable nation and an ideal partner for western governments looking to protect their interests.

This includes the Biden administration, which is weighing its options for the relocation of American military bases in Djibouti as well as the US-Africa Command center in Germany to Kenya, according to reliable sources.

Washington’s 10-year contract for its military installation in Djibouti is set to expire this year, and it is likely that the US will relocate some of its units to neighboring Kenya in a bid to ease the military crowd-out in Djibouti. The US Department of Defense has previously considered relocating its US-Africa Command from its long-time base in Stuttgart but the initiative was scrapped following opposition from leaders of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who feared that hosting an American military base would attract unwanted attention from insurgents and religious fundamentalist groups operating in the region.

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Biden’s description of Kenya as a ‘non-NATO ally’ denotes the strategic significance Kenya now holds. The US president said the designation is the result of close collaboration between Nairobi and Washington on fighting terrorism in the volatile Horn region.

The second factor behind the evolving diplomacy is Ruto’s personal character and diplomatic ability.

“He has a refreshing diplomatic approach. He has really worked on developing his capacity. His decision to treat both the east and west equally, in particular, is a sign of wisdom,” said Constantinos Berhutesfa (PhD), former anti-graft commissioner at the AU. “Especially because America is in fear of the ‘China is controlling Africa’ narrative, Ruto will be a good balance not only for the Horn but also for US-Africa relations.”

Ruto’s diplomatic prowess is remarkable given his background in studying botany and zoology.

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However, other analysts argue that the US set its eyes on Ruto following a slow but steady fallout with Ethiopia, particularly after Addis Ababa’s decision to join BRICS. They observe lingering issues tied to GERD and human rights violations during the two-year northern war have also played a part in alienating Abiy Ahmed’s administration from Washington.  

“During the northern conflict, the US barred Ethiopian officials, including the Prime Minister, from traveling to America. Ruto was once sought by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but the charges were dropped for a lack of witnesses. Both leaders have had such cases in the past, but America has chosen Ruto now,” said a political analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The domestic conflicts in Ethiopia have been a big concern for both the US and Europe. For instance, Ethiopia’s harsh response to [US] Ambassador Massinga’s recent speech on conflicts was unnecessary. Even the Ethiopian government recognizes that there are armed conflicts going on in the country and has initiated a national dialogue and transitional justice initiatives to resolve these issues. Why should it become a problem when an ambassador makes a speech on the same issues?”

The analyst argues that given internal strife in Sudan and Ethiopia; Washington continues to work mainly with Kenya and Somalia.

Constantinos, however, contends that Ruto’s success does not necessarily hold negative implications for Ethiopia.

“I don’t see Ruto’s latest visit as an indication that Ethiopian-American relations are irreparably damaged. Ethiopia and the US are celebrating more than a century of diplomatic history and this will continue. Of course, Ethiopia needs to do a lot to repair deteriorating relations with the US. Ethiopia’s diplomacy in general needs heavy rework. But Ruto’s achievement will bring America’s good attention to the Horn,” he said.

The US and Ethiopia are marking 120 years of diplomatic ties this year. Nairobi and Washington are simultaneously celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations.

Another major factor in the diplomatic tussle is the growing threat of Houthi forces and terrorist groups threatening the Red Sea international trade highway.

“The growing threat on the eastern and western sides of the Red Sea is forcing the west to look for alternative allies,” said the anonymous analyst. “America and Europe may go as far as recognizing Somaliland to gain a better position and ally in fighting these armed groups. In fact, it is Italy, the former colonizer of Somalia, who is holding Europe back from recognizing Somaliland statehood.”

The argument is substantiated by recent comments from Ruto and Uganda’s Museveni, who have lately been coming out in opposition to the withdrawal of a peacekeeping from Somalia at the end of this year.

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) is scheduled to end in December, but both leaders argue the withdrawal of 22,000 peacekeeping will create a security vacuum in Somalia and might lead to an Al-Shabaab led collapse of the government in Mogadishu. It is a view shared by Field Marshal Berhanu Jula, who said the withdrawal of troops would see the Somali government crumble during a recent interview with state media.

The US and Europe have decided to cut funding for ATMIS following a gradual withdrawal of troops set to end in December. Two months ago, Bankole Adeoye (Amb.), AU Peace and Security Commissioner, disclosed that the AU has yet to secure the financing needed to implement a replacement peacekeeping program in Somalia. He said more than 5,000 troops had already been withdrawn as of April 2024.

Analysts observe that Ruto’s enhanced relationship with Washington could push the US to reconsider the decision to cut funding, either by extending the lifespan of ATMIS or by installing a reconfigured peacekeeping program in Somalia. Analysts also hope to see Ruto play a role in mediating between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland in the ongoing diplomatic spat over a controversial MoU signed in January this year. 

It would not be baseless to expect Kenya to play a larger role in the Horn as a stabilizer. It is a notion further backed by Nairobi’s recently-announced police mission to Haiti, where Kenyan security personnel will be deployed in a bid to stabilize the Caribbean nation beset by widespread gang violence and insecurity following government collapse. The US is funding the mission to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Apart from security, Ruto’s state visit is also expected to heighten trade and investment, and persuade the Biden administration to give more attention to the severe damages being caused by climate change in the Horn of Africa.

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African Union sets August 6 deadline for Commission posts applicants The African Union has opened the floor for aspirants of the upcoming race for the chairperson and deputy positions of the continental body’s Commission to file their papers, or drop out in favour of rivals. Aspirants are to submit their CVs to their respective countries, statements of vision and how they intend to address emerging challenges on the continent. It is the first step for aspirants to show intent to serve as leaders of the African Union Secretariat. But it will not be the most difficult. Four aspirants have already announced publicly they will seek to contest. They include Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga, Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Somalia’s former Foreign Minister Fawzia Yusuf Adam, and former Seychellois Vice President Vincent Meriton. Their countries had already backed them. Under the current African Union rules on regulations, the seat for the African Union Commission chairperson will only be contested by countries in the eastern region while the deputy will be contested by the northern African region. Depending on whether a male or female candidate wins the chairperson seat, the deputy will then come from the opposite gender. According to an election notice publicised last week, the AU said candidates will file applications through their member states. But the final candidates on the ballot will be determined after a lengthy procedure that will also see them vetted by a panel of experts before the polls in February 2025. All the eight positions of the Commission — chairperson, deputy and six commissioners — are up for grabs. But each region will be given slots based on what leaders agreed on as a fair “principle of inter-regional rotation.” It means the six commissioners will fall to the remaining regions of south, central and western. “Each region determines its own procedure for nominating candidates for the portfolios for which it is eligible,” the notice says. The region then hands in its list to the panel of experts by August 6. “Only names of candidates submitted by the region will be considered in the pre-selection process undertaken by the Panel of Eminent Africans. Further, only member states that are not under AU sanctions are allowed to submit candidates.” It means countries currently suspended for committing coups, including Sudan, Gabon, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea are ineligible to compete for any slots. Although qualifications for each of the slots had already been created under the rules of the African Union, the Panel of Eminent Persons says it has developed job profiles and competency requirements for the leadership posts. “This includes generic leadership skills and competencies as well as expert and thematic skills for each portfolio. The assessment process for all candidates is based on the skills and competencies identified for each senior leadership position,” said a dispatch that said qualified candidates must be “visionary.” (The East African)
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