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On September 13, William Ruto was sworn in as the fifth president of Kenya following a tightly contested election that had to be adjudicated upon by the Supreme Court of Kenya. The inauguration ceremony was attended by almost 20 heads of states and governments including all the presidents of the East African Community. As the celebrations fade and the reality of the work that awaits sinks in, President Ruto has a full in-tray of regional security crises around the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa that require his attention. To some observers, he has big shoes to fill—those left by his predecessor, retired president Uhuru Kenyatta who has been hailed by some for having an aggressive and assertive foreign policy agenda. This article analyses the key regional issues that President William Ruto must pay attention to as he emerges from the shadows as a Deputy President to become a full president of one of the anchor states in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa.

First, President Ruto comes into office at a time when the East African Community has admitted a new member—the Democratic Republic of Congo. The inclusion of the DRC brings with it the challenge of the unending conflict of the Eastern DRC where the M23 and other rebel groups continue to cause havoc and destruction. Second, the conflict in Ethiopia between the Tigray Defense Forces and the Ethiopian government has been re-ignited once again, with reports of each side violating the ceasefire agreements signed earlier on. Third, South Sudan has recently extended the tenure of the transitional government for another two years, meaning that the elections scheduled for December will be postponed. The fledgling Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity still faces an uphill task in bringing order and peace to the country. Fourth, Kenya remains a key player in Somalia, with its troops still forming a key part of the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).

DRC and the emerging regional security complex

The security challenge facing the Eastern part of DRC is of great interest because it is inextricably linked to the emerging regional security complexes within the Great Lakes Region. Therefore, it has the potential to engulf the entire region if not well addressed. Furthermore, this is the first time the EAC is being called upon to mobilise an intervening regional force to be deployed in a member state.

This comes against the backdrop of a bitter exchange of words between Presidents Felix Tshisekedi of DRC and Paul Kagame of Rwanda over who is responsible for the re-emergence of the conflict waged by the M23. This unending blame game between Rwanda and DRC threatens to sour the goodwill among the presidents of the EAC. President Ruto’s predecessor, former president Kenyatta, had laid a smooth path for President Tshisekedi to join the EAC and cultivated a very close working relationship that saw Kenya make an entry into the DRC market. This also led the Kenya Defence Forces to joining the UN peacekeeping MONUSCO mission. Kenya assuming the command role of the regional force in DRC was a culmination of these efforts by President Kenyatta to portray Kenya as a reliable ally of DRC.

During the presidential election campaign in Kenya, President Ruto made comments describing DRC citizens as people who liked dancing a lot and wearing high-waisted trousers, and not involved in dairy farming, a comment that almost caused a diplomatic spat between the two countries. Therefore, as he takes his place in the EAC Summit, President Ruto has a lot to repair in terms of relationship building with his DRC counterpart who is a known ally of Raila Odinga, his competitor in the just concluded elections. Already, Ruto’s hands are tied by the EAC Heads of State Summit’s decision to nominate President Kenyatta as the lead of the East DRC peace efforts that he had initiated. President Ruto should therefore follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and emphasize the collective will and role of the EAC in addressing this complex security issue.

The restive Horn and IGAD competing interests

While President Ruto was preparing to be sworn in, the Tigray Defense Forces issued a press release agreeing to participate in the African Union-led mediation efforts. This was a departure from their past communications which were full of mistrust of the AU. At the time of writing, the African Union has organised a meeting of the parties to be held in South Africa.  Prior to this, fighting was reported to have resumed, with reports that Ethiopian forces had attacked and bombed certain areas within the Tigray region. Further reports indicate that neighbouring Eritrea has also invaded the border regions, further complicating the conflict.

In Somalia, the threat of the Al Shabaab terrorist group remains real for both Kenya and Somalia, and there is a need for greater collaboration between the countries’ two leaders. Kenya still has its troops stationed in Somalia under the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). Besides the Al Shabaab terror threat, Kenya and Somalia are still embroiled in a maritime dispute following Kenya’s rejection  of the ICJ ruling that favoured Somalia.

The Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) continues to face headwinds as there seems to be no clear indication as to when it will be fully implemented. The US’s withdrawal of support has dented confidence in the South Sudan peace process. Furthermore, the recent decision to postpone the elections until 2024 has thrown the prospects of a peaceful resolution of the conflict into doubt.

To address some of these challenges, President Ruto needs to visit some of the countries engaged in conflict. At the time of writing, President Ruto was scheduled to visit Addis Ababa, his first visit to a regional capital and the seat of the African Union. Second, he needs to visit Asmara to speak to one of the key actors in the Tigray conflict, President Isaias Afwerki who for the longest time has been treated as a pariah in the region. Subsequently, President Ruto should rally his peers to fully engage Eritrea on some of the regional security challenges.

Third, President Ruto should push the United States and the European Union to press the AU to treat the conflict with greater urgency. There have been reports that the AU, led by its Chair Moussa Faki, has been lethargic in responding to the crisis. These allegations were recently given prominence by former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to skip the planned mediation talks in South Africa. In a letter outlining his reasons for skipping the talks, Kenyatta urged the AU to provide “clarity on the structure and modalities of the talks”.

President Ruto should rally his peers to fully engage Eritrea on some of the regional security challenges.

In addition to this, President Ruto should urge the international community to prevail upon the AU and Moussa Faki to drop former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo as the lead mediator and replace him with former president Kenyatta. So far, the TPLF has expressed reservations about the role of Obasanjo whom they see as too soft on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This is because, as a former head of state, Kenyatta lacks the political influence he previously commanded as a sitting president to call to order all the actors in the conflict. Therefore, without the AU/IGAD backing Kenyatta as the lead mediator, his mission will not achieve the desired outcomes.

Fourth, President Ruto will need to approach the Somalia case with a lot of caution because of the fluidity of the politics in Mogadishu. He will need to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors and treat Somalia as an equal despite the internal challenges the country faces. On the maritime dispute, President Ruto has to find a working formula which will benefit both Kenya and Somalia and diffuse any tensions that emerge from it. There are signs that relations will be better; in a recent interview on Al Jazeera President Ruto was full of praise of Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, saying that he was ‘’more progressive and committed to fighting Al Shabaab”. This was a thinly veiled dig at his predecessor, President Farmaajo, whose tenure was riddled with diplomatic spats between Kenya and Somalia.

Kenyatta lacks the political influence he previously commanded as a sitting president to call to order all the actors in the conflict.

Fifth, President Ruto needs to be assertive on South Sudan leaders to fully implement the R-ARCSS agreement. Kenya seems to have taken its foot off the gas pedal when it comes to South Sudan. While Kenya continues to chair the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC) through Maj. Gen. Charles Gituai, key observers agree that Kenya has since fallen behind Uganda and Ethiopia as the key player in South Sudan. Will he reverse the trend and have Kenya regain its foothold in South Sudan? A big decision will be whether President Ruto will retain former vice president Kalonzo Musyoka as Special Envoy or whether he will replace him.

While Kenya is often praised for its role as an anchor state in a region engulfed in chaos, its regional foreign policy does not appear to be based on a coherent political strategy. This lack of coherent strategy in its foreign policy has made Kenya vulnerable to international and domestic sources of instability. As President Ruto begins his tenure and embarks on a regional tour starting with Addis Ababa, the seat of the African Union, will he follow his predecessor’s footsteps or chart his own course?