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Despite taking over office in 2022 with what appeared to be an unclear policy for diplomacy, President William Ruto is undoubtedly on a mission to position Kenya at the forefront of regional leadership and shape the country’s foreign agenda. 

Perceived largely as an underdog in diplomatic circles, and with a lot of gaffes in his early days, President Ruto has quietly silenced some of his critics by striking deals with some of the world’s most powerful leaders and stealing the show in the regional meetings he has attended. This was capped by his State Visit to Washington later in late May. 

President Ruto’s predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been lauded by many for reinvigorating Kenya’s foreign policy. His charisma and passion in addressing regional and security issues saw him worm his way into the hearts of Western nations.

Uhuru’s efforts were underpinned by the launch of the 2014 Foreign Policy Document, a comprehensive text with a guiding mission to project, promote, and protect Kenya’s interests and global image through innovative diplomacy. The policy emphasises the significance of Africa’s political unity through regional and sub-regional integration. It is still widely expected – as has been witnessed in other sectors – that President Ruto will overhaul the 2014 document. At the time of writing, there is a committee that is finalising its report on the review of Kenya’s Foreign Policy.

Building upon the achievements of the man he succeeded, President Ruto has aimed to leverage on Kenya’s increasing influence within the African Union (AU) by strategically lobbying for the prestigious AU Commission Chairperson seat when it falls vacant later this year. By doing so, he aims to propel Kenya’s foreign policy aspirations and solidify the country’s position as a regional leader.

Unifying the regional blocs by leading reforms

President Ruto’s commitment to diplomatic reform is evident in his intention to revitalise the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an organisation that has faced stagnation in certain areas. The recent war in Sudan has provided IGAD with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose, prompting collaboration with the African Union in the search for a viable solution. President Ruto has taken the lead on this issue. Additionally, the president has consistently advocated for the reintegration of Eritrea into the regional dynamics, emphasising the need for collective efforts in driving progress and unity within the region. This he demonstrated by championing for the lifting of Eritrea’s suspension from IGAD.

Furthermore, Kenya’s commitment to stability, peace, and security in the Horn of Africa is unwavering. This is demonstrated by its long-standing involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) over the past decade for purposes of peace-building. Recently, President Ruto has been engaging in efforts to reconcile Ethiopia and Somalia, following tensions between the two countries. These tensions arose when in January 2024, Ethiopia signed an MoU with Somaliland, a self-declared sovereign state which is internationally regarded as part of Somalia.

Within the East African Community (EAC) bloc, Kenya has assumed a leading role in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) peace process through the Nairobi Peace Process chaired by former President Uhuru Kenyatta. Through its participation as a troop-contributing country to the just-concluded East African Community Regional Force, alongside Uganda, South Sudan, and Burundi, Kenya has actively promoted peace building and stability in the region. The subsequent admission of Somalia into the EAC with Kenya’s overwhelming support has bolstered Kenya’s stature as a brother’s keeper.

Kenya’s recent conclusion of its two-year tenure at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) marked a historic milestone in the country’s foreign policy. This invaluable experience allowed Kenya to shape global security debates and assume strategic roles on the international stage. 

There has never been a more opportune time for Kenya to pursue the African Union Commission Chair seat. President Ruto must strategise and rally support to bring this esteemed continental leadership position back to Kenya, aligning with the country’s foreign policy aspirations. 

Why the AUC Chair post matters 

The AU is of paramount importance as the primary continental body responsible for shaping and implementing Africa’s development agenda. President Ruto has been at the forefront advocating for reforms to ensure the African Union responds better to the needs of African citizens.

Currently, the continent is facing a myriad of challenges, a good number of which are unprecedented. Instability is rampant in almost every sub-region. Political instability is prevalent in numerous states, exacerbated by coups and unconstitutional extensions of power; conflicts are raging in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and parts of North Africa; and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis is being experienced in several states due to both climate change and conflicts. The continent is in dire need of transformative leadership, and Kenya has the opportunity to provide this.

By securing the influential AUC Chairperson seat, President Ruto would realise his continental goals and enhance Kenya’s influence, leaving an indelible mark on the region and cementing his legacy in the hearts of Kenyans. 

The AUC Chair is charged with the responsibility of discharging duties relating to the continental body’s goals and aspirations. The incoming Chair will have a full in-tray that includes but is not limited to implementing long-standing AU reforms, especially on financial self-sufficiency, and the streamlining of AU institutions to ensure they work better together. 

The role of the AUC Chair is well articulated in the African Union Constitutive Act. In summary, the AUC Chairperson is charged with running the organisation administratively and financially. In addition, the Chair is required to promote and popularise the AU’s objectives and aspirations through consistent consultation with key stakeholders ranging from member states, development partners and the Regional Economic Communities.

Raila Odinga: Throwing the cat among the pigeons

After many days of speculation, former Prime Minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga came out and expressed his desire to be the next AUC Chair. It is alleged that there was a secret agreement between President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga to have the latter replace H. E. Moussa Faki Mahamat when his term ends. 

With Odinga’s nomination, President Ruto has thrown the proverbial cat among the opposition pigeons. Since losing the 2022 election, Mr Odinga has led an onslaught on President Ruto’s government through street protests that have in the past paralysed the country. Therefore, by considering Mr Odinga for the AUC Chair, President Ruto hopes to take the wind out of the opposition’s sails in the run-up to the 2027 elections, as there is no other candidate who can marshal the opposition networks like Mr Odinga can. Furthermore, the continued dalliance between former President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Odinga has continued to be a thorn in the flesh of President Ruto’s regime and this would be an ample opportunity to break it up.

Odinga’s strengths and weaknesses

Mr Odinga comes with extensive political experience spanning more than four decades in the Kenyan political arena. Being a veteran opposition politician who has contested five presidential elections has given him the necessary platform to create networks within Africa and beyond. His stint as Prime Minister of Kenya between 2008 and 2013 granted him the much-needed experience of running government. In addition, he has held various ministerial positions under previous governments – Energy, Roads and Public Works.

In 2011, the AU named Mr Odinga the mediator of the post-election conflict in Côte d’Ivoire between Laurent Gbagbo and Allasane Outtara. This demonstrated that Mr Odinga was not new to the challenges affecting the AU member states. In addition, Mr Odinga served as the AU High Representative for Infrastructure between 2018 and 2023.

Mr Odinga fashions himself as a Pan-Africanist and the position of the AUC Chair will grant him the platform to champion the ideals of Pan-Africanism at a time when the continent is facing an onslaught from geopolitical competition. He has managed to build a good network with eminent persons on the continent like former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has since spoken in support of his candidature.

Despite the rich political capital and experience that Mr Odinga wields, the biggest drawback might be his association and dalliance with opposition politicians across the continent. Campaigning on the platform of pro-democracy will run his election as AUC Chair into political headwinds. In fact, Mr Odinga’s push for democratic ideals is an albatross around his neck so much so that he cannot dare condemn the anti-democratic ills of some of the African heads of states and government without upsetting the status quo. Mr Odinga has not shied away from embracing opposition figures in African countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe. In the process, this has rubbed the ruling figures the wrong way.

The duty of choosing the AUC Chair lies with the Heads of States and Governments, and this might prove tricky especially if presidents who have an axe to grind with Mr Odinga gang up to reject his candidature. 

The age factor is also not on Raila Odinga’s side. At 78, there are those who believe he is past his best and would perhaps do better in the Panel of the Wise as opposed to taking up the demanding AUC Chair position. With an organisation struggling to shed off the tag of being a club of geriatrics, choosing Mr Odinga would send the wrong signal given the much-needed generational change to correspond to Africa’s growing young population.

In addition, despite a long stint on Kenyan political scene, Mr Odinga lacks regional and continental experience when it comes to matters of peace and security. Historically, a majority of the previous chairs of the AUC have been former ministers of foreign affairs. This implies that they have been people with relevant experience and knowledge of continental challenges. Their experience as ministers gave them ample opportunities to build and sustain relationships across the continent and beyond, and the ability to manoeuvre and manage the inner, administrative workings of an intergovernmental organisation. The centrality of the position of the AUC Chair requires a blend of multiple skills and experiences which Mr Odinga lacks.

However, at a time when the wheels of democracy are falling off in most African countries that are witnessing the resurgence of coups and unconstitutional changes in governments, Having Mr Odinga as AUC Chair, a champion for democracy, will be a fresh breath of air for the commission. 

Lessons to be learnt from past failures

This will not be the first time Kenya is bidding to become the AUC Chair. In 2017, Kenya unsuccessfully fronted former Minister of Foreign Affairs Amina Mohammed. The failure to win the seat now provides crucial insights for President Ruto’s administration to review.

Key among the lessons learnt from the 2017 attempt is that Kenya needs to streamline its foreign policy decision-making process. Since coming into power, President Ruto’s regime has been bogged down by numerous unforced errors in terms of foreign policy. The lack of a coherent foreign policy agenda has painted Kenya as an opportunistic country that does not care about following the spirit of Pan-Africanism. 

Some foreign policy decisions, such as Kenya’s decision to withdraw its support of Western Sahara at the beginning of Ruto’s term in 2022; the decision to send troops to Haiti at the behest of the United States; Kenya’s continued support for Israel amidst the ongoing bombardment of Palestinians; and the unending regional rivalry over competing economic interests, will be an Achilles’ Heel for Kenya.

Losing the bid in 2017 was partly attributed to Kenya’s failure to build consensus with its traditional allies like Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi which were said to have refused to back Kenya’s candidate. With the election of 10 members of the AU Peace and Security Council this February 2024, Kenya has an opportunity to build a coalition with other regions. The new 10 members (Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire) have cordial diplomatic relations with Kenya. 

To navigate the existing regional rivalries and get their full backing, Kenya will need to cautiously court its neighbours. Since it is Eastern Africa’s turn, Somalia and Djibouti have already thrown a spanner in the works by also nominating candidates. Djibouti in particular is still smarting from losing to Kenya in the contest for the UNSC seat and they are spoiling for a second-round rematch.   

In addition, there is need to reach out to other regions apart from Eastern Africa. For instance, Southern Africa and West Africa, which are known to vote as a bloc, will come in handy to avoid the Francophone-Anglophone divide that rocked Kenya’s boat in 2017. A calculated diplomatic charm offensive can help unclench the fists of some African countries that view President Ruto as a johnny-come-lately who has hogged all the limelight despite being in power for less than two years.

Furthermore, Kenya must be mindful of the costs associated with lobbying for the AUC Chairperson’s seat. Amidst economic struggles and an unpopular decision to raise taxes, it is imperative to provide a compelling rationale to convince the Kenyan public of the seat’s importance to the country.

 A robust government messaging campaign, highlighting the critical role of the AU and the significant returns on investment, will be essential.

Winning the AU seat will be the first step towards fulfilling Kenya’s myriad foreign aspirations as it strives to assume the leadership mantle on the continent.