As Kenya’s new peace envoy, will Kenyatta maintain Nairobi’s reputation in putting out regional fires?

By Mwangi Maina
Posted on Tuesday, 25 October 2022 11:58

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta is greeted by Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at the Adan Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu, Somalia June 9, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

For the better part of the 21st century, Eastern Africa has enjoyed relative calm and during this period, Kenya came to play a central role in mediation with South Sudan, bringing to the fore Nairobi's diplomatic influence. To this day it has largely remained a mediator and propagator of regional stability. However, from a worsening drought, threats from Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, the escalating conflict in Ethiopia, to the on-going tensions between DRC and Rwanda, will Kenya’s new special peace envoy, former president Uhuru Kenyatta, be able to put out the regional fires?

Before Kenyatta’s term came to an end, the East African Community (EAC) had appointed him as mediator in the DRC.

Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, endorsed the country’s peace exploits in the region and appointed his predecessor the special peace envoy for the Horn and the Great Lakes Region.

The just-concluded general elections sent a very powerful message around the world: the stability in the country gives others confidence

His appointments, followed by visits from the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohamed at State House in Nairobi on 5 October, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken, former US special envoy for the Horn David Satterfiel, and the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer, attest to the critical role Kenya plays when it comes to quelling regional and continental fires.

DRC peace exploits

Félix Tshisekedi’s government – which took power in 2019 – has been facing growing challenges by active rebel groups in the Eastern DRC.

Subsequently, the amalgamation of the DRC with the East African Community (EAC) bloc led the security situation in eastern Congo to become a concern for every member, especially Kenya.

Last year, Kenyatta used his diplomatic power as the EAC chairperson to arrange not one but two meetings between the DRC and Rwanda.

Nairobi has been instrumental in trying to broker a long-lasting peace solution between the Tshisekedi administration and the rebels.

He convened a meeting between Kinshasa and the different militias operating in that region in April 2021. The meeting presumably read a riot’s act on those present, giving an ultimatum of cessation of hostilities or risk of deployment of a regional standby force.

As a current member of the UNSC and the AU-PSC, Kenya has good diplomatic leverage to intervene in peace in Ethiopia

Following Kenya’s lead in the negotiations, the region is finalising the deployment of a force drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, South Sudan, and Tanzania.

Kenya’s commanding role of this force is telling of Nairobi’s influence in quelling regional conflicts.

AU mishap

Upon taking on his new role as a peace envoy, Kenyatta’s first stop was supposed to be in Pretoria on 9 October to facilitate AU-led peace talks between the Ethiopian government and Tigray rebels.

However, this engagement fell through due to poor planning from the side of the AU, which caught the former leader by surprise.

Even so, this engagement has once again been followed through as all warring parties are set to meet in South Africa on Monday 24 October in South Africa. Kenyatta will be facilitating the discussion alongside other leaders.

Promoting peace and security

Under Kenyatta’s administration, Nairobi moderated various peace initiatives in the region, including chairing the African Union Peace and Security Council – the decision-making organ of the AU for the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts in the continent.

Kenya is the only country in the region with a track record of fostering regional peace and stability.

Notably, just like his predecessor – Kenyatta pushed the official stance of neutrality in conflicts – the ‘do not rock the boat’ policy – with the rest of East Africa. This may explain why, under his presidency, there were more peace meetings held in Nairobi than in any other capital in East Africa.

Ethio-Tigray conflict

As Africa’s representative at the UN Security Council and a key ally of the US, pundits argue that Nairobi is well positioned to offer a neutral platform for negotiation and foster the restoration of peace and security in the region, especially in Ethiopia.

Washington has heavily invested in the Ethiopian conflict and chose to engage Addis Ababa through Nairobi.

Raudhat Saddam, a research assistant at the HORN Institute, argues that Kenya is suitably placed to exercise influence in this situation for several reasons.

“First, Kenya is the only country in the region with a track record of fostering regional peace and stability. As a current member of the UNSC and the AU-PSC, Kenya has good diplomatic leverage to intervene in peace in Ethiopia,” Saddam said in a piece he wrote for the Horn Institute.

He further notes that the war and instability in Ethiopia would directly impact Kenya’s national security as more refugees and asylum seekers cross the border into Kenya.

Washington’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer tells The Africa Report that the US and Kenya have agreed to work closely together to bring an end to the fighting and promote a lasting peace in Ethiopia.

Confidence in Nairobi

Warring parties in both Ethiopia and DRC have demonstrated confidence in Kenya as the chosen host of peace talks with Kenyatta at the helm of such initiatives.

Looking at the structure of Kenya and its position in an African context, Kenya is the sixth largest economy in the continent and the third in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Taking Kenya from a broader [perspective], [its] democracy is maturing. The just-concluded general elections sent a very powerful message around the world: the stability in the country gives others confidence,” says Noah Midamba, a senior associate at Global Center for Policy Strategy.

Midamba adds that Kenya’s role in destabilising Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia makes the country an undisputed leader of East Africa.

At the global stage, Kenya took a bold stand when the superpower nation, Russia, invaded Ukraine when the rest of Africa was quiet.

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