Among responses to the article on second tier powers was the question why, besides the big countries, no African country featured. A factor of consideration was leadership assertiveness beyond the specific country. There are African countries with assertive leadership in promoting perceived interests, Kenya is among them. President Uhuru Kenyatta is globally assertive. A democracy, despite occasional hiccups, Kenya refuses to be pigeonholed and has the ability to intrude into the international arena in ways that cannot be ignored.
This reality necessitates an examination of Kenya’s place in a changing world arena and how it previously positioned itself in times of global shifts. It seizes opportunities, sets the pace, and tries to export peace in the region as a way of safeguarding its interests.
Kenya was in the forefront of anti-colonial agitation in the 1950s, with the Mau Mau War that led to independence for many European colonies in Africa.
The Mau Mau War was for Britain what the Algerian War was for France and both Kenya and Algeria acquired the image of being “revolutionary”. The two forced a rethink of the practice of world politics in and outside the United Nations. In the process, apartheid South Africa became a pariah state. The Mau Mau way, asserted Nelson Mandela in 1990 in Nairobi, showed the way for ANC.
At independence, there were intense debates on what direction the new countries should take in both domestic and foreign affairs. Kenya led the way in defining position and the others in East Africa followed. Kenya’s choice was between upholding its revolutionary image and fending off new threats related to chaos in the neighbourhood.
First, in the Great Lakes, upheavals in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi sent many refugees to Nairobi and became a source of concern. Second, there was danger from Somali irredentism culminating in the Shifta War. Kenya chose a balancing act through its doctrinal blueprint, the 1965 Sessional Paper Number 10 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya; sounding socialist and acting capitalist. Two year later, Tanzania issued its own socialistic blueprint in the 1967 Arusha Declaration that led to serious Ujamaa experiments. Uganda followed Tanzania and issued its socialistic 1969 Common Man’s Charter and then expelled Kenyans because they supposedly were capitalistic.
The balancing act was there in the 1970s providing ways out of tricky situations, what Munyua Waiyaki called dynamic compromise, for itself and Africa. It not only played peace maker in Congo and Angola, it also managed to persuade the quarreling Cold War antagonists, the capitalists led by the United States and the socialist/communists led by the Soviet Union, to put their ideological differences aside and support Kenya’s offer to host UN environmental headquarters. The only one outside New York and Geneva, Kenya fights very hard diplomatically to fend off Euro attempts to remove the environmental headquarters from Nairobi.
Kenya intensified its peacemaking role in the 1980s because it was in its interest to stabilize the region and reduce underdevelopment. Chaos in the Great Lakes had made Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eastern Congo security threats. The fighting in Southern Sudan and instability in Ethiopia and Somalia meant burdening Kenya with additional security challenges and refugees. By hosting large refugee camps, Kenya appeared like the refugee capital of the world.
It redoubled the effort to export peace, sponsor peace processes and ensure that agreements bear fruits. Its peace involvement in Uganda and South Sudan had benefits. It thus took the unexpected action of inviting Sudan’s President Bashir to Nairobi to witness Kenya’s 2010 Constitution as a way of ensuring that Sudan did not renege on the CPA for South Sudan. And it worked.
Ensuring peace calls for opening up and advancing security in the region and one way of doing that is a massive infrastructure undertaking. The Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia, LAPSSET, is just one of those commercial and security projects whose effect would be advance regional peace by removing obstacles to economic activities. China, presently the best infrastructure developer has the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, which links Europe to China by land and sea. While the sea connection from Asia passes by Kenya, Djibouti, and Egypt to Europe, it is Kenya bit that is of interest because it relates to the LAPSSET whose ultimate destination is reportedly Doula in Cameroon.
This makes Kenya critical to continental infrastructural changes. Ability to coordinate activities between Doula and Lamu needs geopolitical skills.