Last week’s visits by high profile leaders have elevated the profile of Kenya’s President William Ruto, helping him to also dodge a domestic political bullet.
The Kenyan President has often said he inherited an economy that was at its knees. And his foreign policy wasn’t exactly known and experts say he has walked in the dark all these days of his leadership.
Ruto, however, walked in the sun as high profile visitors came calling in one week, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Others were International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, all touring Nairobi.
Days earlier, Kenya had also hosted a governance forum hosted by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
State House said the power men and women came to talk business, trade, peace and security.
Conflicts in Africa
President Ruto himself told a press conference on Wednesday, after hosting the Japanese PM that he emphasised the need to refocus attention on the forgotten conflicts in Africa.
“I expressed agreement with the recent G7 ministerial statement, which noted the urgent need to reinforce peace and security in the Horn of Africa, meet serious humanitarian needs, and build resilience in the region,” he said.
Mr Kishida is the first Japanese PM to visit Nairobi since 2016. This time, the man who has been vocal against the Russian invasion of Ukraine said he was coming to talk about Sudan, too, where rival factions of security forces have been fighting since April 15.
He met President Ruto, who has also been vocal, warning the rival factions this week of consequences if they continue fighting.
Discussed Sudan situation
“Prime Minister Kishida and I also discussed the ongoing situation in Sudan and underscored the need for the international community to support Kenya’s, Igad’s and the African Union’s ongoing diplomatic efforts aimed at the resolution of the conflict,” Dr Ruto told journalists.
“We agreed to call on all parties to end hostilities immediately without pre-conditions and ensure the safety of all civilians, including diplomatic and humanitarian personnel.”
In Nairobi, Dr Ruto’s diplomats say he has turned over a new leaf on foreign relations. But his critics say he is still at baby steps. Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Cabinet Secretary Dr Alfred Mutua said Kenya’s foreign policy has changed.
“We are now focused on trade and partnerships,” told The EastAfrican. “And this is seen in the engagements between our President and the guests he hosts, and in the visits he makes abroad. We are also focused on climate change and the need for peace in our country and the region and beyond. We have received various requests from world leaders to help with the issues of Sudan.”
Those visiting also think Kenya’s own successes in certain fields is worth admiration.
“Kenya is a climate champion, producing more than 90 percent of its electricity through renewables, with ambitious national climate goals,” German Chancellor Olaf Schoz told The EastAfrican. “It is also a leader in upholding the international order based on the UN Charter and international law, which is particularly important for our two continents. We want to contribute to making the region stable and help it prosper. Growing global challenges like climate change already affect East Africa severely, particularly in the form of massive droughts. We seek to address these challenges together.”
According to Dr Mutua, the world recognises Kenya’s position in the region as a potential stabiliser, what he called “an anchor nation.” But it seems domestic political problems are also influencing the move. Criticised for winning by the tightest margin, President Ruto has been battling continual opposition challenge on his legitimacy, even though the Supreme Court validated his win back in September 2022.
“Running a government is like tending to your garden. If you want good results, you must dig, sow, weed and harvest. We are now at the sowing stage and all these engagements you see today will bring fruits to our great country,” Dr Mutua said.
Democracy and rule of law
Nearly every guest in Nairobi has been told of Kenya’s democracy and culture of rule of law, a debatable praise but which Nairobi wants its visitors to see. A planned opposition protest scheduled for Thursday was cancelled on Wednesday, shelving what would have been running battles between the police and protesters. At a meeting with his Canadian counterpart, Dr Mutua drummed up Kenya’s democratic credentials.
“President William Ruto was duly elected in conformity and consistent with the dictates of our constitutional dispensation,” he said at a joint press conference with Ms Joly.
“We are not here to debate the election of President Ruto; that decision was settled by Kenyans and by the country’s judicial institutions in 2022. In the same vein, it is vital that political players in Africa respect electoral outcomes, as a way of entrenching democracy and fostering post-election stability in the continent.” The argument about local politics on international stage, argueds Prof Macharia Munene, a Kenyan historian and academic on international relations, shows that Nairobi wants to reap legitimacy from the attention of the big men and women visiting.
“President Ruto would like to be recognised internationally. He is competing with his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, whose name and personality made him likeable abroad,” Prof Munene said.
“But there is a domestic problem. He is fighting for legitimacy. We know he was approved by the courts, but many registered voters didn’t back him and opposition is digging in. He is telling guests that elections are over because they are concerned of potential chaos as the opposition cannot be ignored. So they are on the defensive, locally and internationally.”
The visits to Nairobi, and his trips abroad, can, nonetheless, help him, Prof Munene argued.
Soon after he came to power, he made some blunders, including the infamous withdrawal of recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which was soon rescinded. Ruto would later accept credentials of the new SADR envoy to Nairobi, Ali Ami Mohamed Limam.
So far, Ruto’s vocal stance on Sudan, and Kenya’s previous position in defence of Ukraine, seems to have won him admirers in the West.
“Those will play into a wider geopolitical interests, especially the rivalry between the US and China. But he would like to keep the admirers because he is not doing well domestically with the economy battered,” Prof Munene said on Friday.
An elevated image abroad can be a card to use at home to gain leverage. But decisions agreed with outsiders may also be problematic at home. This week, Ruto promised to address a double taxation issue with Japan, which Kenyatta had granted waivers in projects they run in Kenya but which a court later struck out.
“First, issues concerning the Kenya – Japan revenue collection impasse are taking place within a larger policy conversation about the processes around tax treaties in the country.
“A civil society organisation (CSO), Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA) has challenged 10 double taxation agreements based on technical and procedural deficiencies in their application,” Leonard Wanyama, the Regional Coordinator, East African Tax and Governance Network (EATGN), told The EastAfrican.
“Constitutionally, any treaty with public finance implications to Kenya cannot or should not be contemplated without the input of parliament.
“It would also be good to know whether a cost benefit analysis of the Japanese tax waivers will be presented to legislators for their consideration.” Part of Ruto’s solution could lie in amendments on the Treaty Making and Ratification Act, or a general policy on double taxation, he argued.
It was clear this week that President Ruto is willing to see the good side of the visits. Among his guests was Amina J Mohammed, the Nigerian diplomat currently serving as the UN Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nation. Four weeks ago, she fought a potential controversy after leaked cables showed her telling her boss she doesn’t ‘trust’ President Ruto.
Those visiting also think Kenya’s own successes I certain fields is worth admiration.
“Kenya is a climate champion, producing more than 90 percent of its electricity through renewables, with ambitious national climate goals,” German Chancellor Olaf Schoz told The EastAfrican.
“It is also a leader in upholding the international order based on the UN Charter and international law, which is particularly important for our two continents.”
“We want to contribute to making the region stable and help it prosper. Growing global challenges like climate change already affect East Africa severely, particularly in the form of massive droughts. We seek to address these challenges together.