Ethiopia, DRC, Uganda…Can Ruto take on Kenyatta’s roles in East Africa?

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Thursday, 25 August 2022 06:30
Uganda's Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, sit during a photo session at the 8th Northern Corridor Integration Projects Summit at Safari Park Hotel, in Nairobi December 11, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Congratulations messages from regional heads of state came in quickly after William Ruto was declared winner of Kenya’s presidential election, despite protests from Raila Odinga’s camp who lost by a small margin. If Ruto’s victory is not overturned by the supreme court, will he be able to fill in the role of Uhuru Kenyatta as a major player in the region in conflict resolution and promoting trade?

Ethiopia’s Ahmed Abiy congratulated Ruto minutes after he was declared winner. In the next 12 hours, messages came from Somalia, Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe heads of state.

In the region, it’s only the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi, preoccupied with hosting South Africa Development Community (SADC) heads of state summit in Kinshasa, who hasn’t sent a direct message to Ruto. Instead, he congratulated Kenya on a peaceful election and expressed hope that the process will be completed peacefully.

A common thread ran through the congratulations messages: presidents said they are eager to work closely with Ruto on regional issues. “We look forward to working closely with you on common bilateral and regional interests,” Ahmed Abiy said on Twitter.

“I wish to reassure you of Uganda’s commitment to continue partnering with Kenya in advancing regional and continental agenda through the East African Community, African Union and other multilateral platforms,” Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who is seen as a close ally of Ruto in the region, said on Twitter. Museveni later revealed that he had a phone call with Ruto on the evening of 15 August, the day he was declared winner.

Kenyatta’s stellar performance

Regional diplomacy is  an area where outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s performance has been exceptional. Therefore, the region will be looking up to Ruto to live to his predecessor’s profile. In its manifesto, Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance promised a creative and robust foreign policy whose pillars will be economic and commercial diplomacy.

“Kenya Kwanza will strengthen Kenya’s role as an anchor state in regional, continental, and global affairs,” says their manifesto. “We will continue to lead efforts to advance regional stability and peace, aid global initiatives to counteract violent extremism and cooperate with other countries as a reliable ally or neighbour.”

Noah O. Midamba, a security and foreign policy analyst and former vice chancellor of KCA University in Nairobi, tells The Africa Report that the new administration will follow Kenyatta’s foreign policy.

“I don’t think the new administration will change,” Midamba says, referring to Kenyatta’s performance on handling regional issues. “President Kenyatta is going to be distinguished for his international approach, very active on UN issues, on climate issues and also projecting Kenya’s image everywhere.”

However, Midamba notes that the new administration will take some time dealing with some domestic issues, such as administration organisation, corruption, and the debt issue with China.  “But I am also expecting the new administration to be very active, maybe not to the level of Kenyatta,” he said, in reference to regional diplomacy.

From South Sudan’s 2013 civil war that pitted President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar, to Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame squabble, to the recent eastern DRC armed conflicts, Kenyatta stepped forward to play the mediation role.

Pacifying DRC

One of the immediate regional issues that Ruto will deal with is the DRC. Kenyatta has been the region’s principal mediator in trying to bring together the government and tens of rebel groups to discuss how to end perennial fighting that has lasted decades in eastern part of the country.

He hosted regional leaders between April and June twice in Nairobi, leading to a commitment of deployment of regional troops in eastern DRC to pacify the region. M23 rebels who captured the border town of Bunagana in May and DRC accuse Rwanda of supporting features prominently in the DRC peace matrix.

When regional leaders agreed to deployment of troops from EAC member states in a heated 20 June meeting in Nairobi, in which Tshisekedi and Kagame had bitter exchanges over M23, Tshisekedi asked Kenya to take the deployment leadership role. The troops were supposed to be deployed at the end of July as per the time that had been drafted. However, it didn’t happen. Ruto will have to decide whether to fulfil Kenyatta’s pledge.

“President Kenyatta had a personal relationship with Tshisekedi and was able to move things very fast,” Midamba tells The Africa Report. It was under Kenyatta’s tenure as chairperson of East African Community that the DRC was quickly admitted into the bloc in March.

Ruto’s first task will be to win the confidence of Tshisekedi’s administration because in February, while on the campaign trail, he ridiculed the DRC, noting that it is made up of singers who don’t own any cows. He was trying to explain the country’s vast market potential of 90 million people. The remarks triggered uproar from his competitors as well as from the DRC, prompting him to apologise.

Beyond peace building, Kenya’s new administration will have to deepen business ties with the DRC. Under the Kenyatta administration, Kenya’s commercial banks have ventured into the DRC. East Africa’s biggest bank in terms of assets, Equity Bank, entered the DRC market in 2019 by acquiring a local bank. It’s now the second largest commercial bank in the DRC.

Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), which is also finalising steps to buy Trust Merchant Bank, another local bank, is following suit.

Ethiopia: peace and business

For Ethiopia, Kenyatta has been a critical voice in urging Abiy’s government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels to dialogue to end the civil war that has been ongoing for the past two years, albeit at a less intensity since March when the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement. Both sides have expressed willingness to dialogue and Nairobi has been discussed as a possible venue, meaning the new administration will play a key role.

Kenyatta, who has been passionate in seeing the expansion of Kenya’s big businesses in the region, flew to Ethiopia to witness the formal award of a telecom operating licence to a consortium led by Safaricom. It was the first foreign telecom company to be awarded a licence to operate in the country.

Museveni-Ruto friendship

Ruto has been a close friend of Museveni and the duo’s friendship played into the campaign season. Ruto was blocked from flying to Uganda in August last year for a meeting, with Raila Odinga’s proxies accusing his party of trying to import Museveni’s dictatorship into Kenya. There were also allegations, days before voting, that pre-ticked ballot papers for Ruto would enter Kenya from Uganda on voting day.

Midamba says that was just politicking, and with the political season over, the new administration will re-assess and re-align common interests between the two countries and take them forward.  “They will leave politics out and look at practicalities,” he tells The Africa Report.

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