This month, Kenya started its two-year term on the United Nations Security Council. Although often taken for granted by its neighbours and international partners, Kenya contributes significantly to the prosperity and stability of its region. Furthermore, in this moment of turmoil in the Horn of Africa, Kenya has a great deal to offer – it can point to decades of domestic stability and growth, a political model based on accommodation and government cohabitation, and a vibrant, educated youth driving innovation. Europe should seize the opportunity of Kenya’s term on the Security Council to help foster regional multilateralism, encourage dialogue and reconciliation to move domestic political transitions forward, and tip the balance in favour of a sustainable regional cooperation order in east Africa and the Horn.
From a foreign policy perspective, as the commercial hub of east Africa, Kenya provides landlocked countries such as Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi with access to the Indian Ocean. In recent decades, it has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflicts in neighbouring countries and has held several rounds of peace talks on Sudan and South Sudan as well as Somalia. Kenya is also the country in the region most impacted by instability in Somalia, becoming a regular target of Al-Shabaab attacks, which led it to contribute troops to AMISOM – the African Union Mission in Somalia. As an illustration of Kenya’s importance in the region, President Uhuru Kenyatta was the first African leader to receive a call from President-elect Joe Biden.
On the domestic front, Kenya has also performed better than its neighbours in terms of governance and economic development, despite performing poorly on corruption. One of the fastest-growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya ranks among the top three on ease of doing business and innovation. A multi-ethnic and multi-faith country, Kenya has a vibrant media environment and is a mature democracy, with a large number of political parties representing a range of interests. Ethnic politics still matter the most, but its young population identify themselves as Kenyans first and increasingly vote according to their convictions rather than their tribal affiliation. While Kenyatta and his vice-president, William Ruto, were indicted by the International Criminal Court in connection to the post-election ethnic violence in 2007, following due trial the ICC dropped the charges. Furthermore, Kenyatta has announced he will not run for re-election after the end of his second term in 2022, in line with the Kenyan constitution and African Union rules.
In the long term, however, Kenya’s stability and prosperity will also depend on peace and security in its wider neighbourhood. Against this background, the outbreak of conflict in northern Ethiopia, the fragile political transition in Sudan, and the recent disputed electoral process in Somalia could increase instability and conflict. Closely intertwined conflicts can further aggravate tensions across the region, such as disputes between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile waters, between Ethiopia and Sudan over their border, and tensions between Somalia and Kenya. These undermine good neighbourliness and prevent the regional security cooperation order from working. Unlike regional actors such as Egypt and Ethiopia, Kenya does not have a tradition of asserting its influence beyond its immediate borders and in the last 15 years has opted to largely rely on Ethiopia to guarantee the stability of the region. Nevertheless, the deteriorating regional situation coupled with its new role on the Security Council now provides Kenya with the opportunity – and the responsibility – to play a more active regional role.
Furthermore, the Security Council seat will give Kenya and its diplomacy a wider international platform, particularly in the Arab world, which follows dynamics in the Horn of Africa closely. Kenya will now have to take a stronger interest in, and vote on, Middle East and North Africa issues such as Libya, Yemen, and Iran. At the same time, key Arab Gulf states, which have so far mostly dealt with Horn countries that are geographically nearer to them, such as Ethiopia and Eritrea – or are members of the Arab League, such as Sudan and Somalia – will benefit from exploring the possibility to also engage more politically with a country like Kenya. Being one of the most innovative, developed, and politically vibrant African countries, Kenya has a role to play in deepening African-Arab ties. In this regard, the United Arab Emirates is also expected to join the Security Council in 2022, thus giving both Nairobi and Abu Dhabi the opportunity to develop a closer partnership and common understanding on a number of regional and multilateral issues.
In conclusion, Europe has long viewed Kenya as a development partner and been most interested in its domestic politics rather than its regional role. Due to the international situation and the deteriorating regional developments, the time has now come for Europe to put geopolitical considerations at the centre of its relationship with Kenya. In this regard, Kenya’s seat in the UN Security Council will enable the European Union and European members on the Council to double down on their engagement with Kenya on regional peace and security. In the immediate term, there are several areas in which to explore cooperation.
Firstly, the Horn of Africa is a region where multilateralism has been weakening because of divisions among permanent members of the Security Council. The African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – the Horn’s regional organisation – are also finding mediating regional crises in the Horn of Africa more challenging than in the past. As the regional representative on the Security Council, Kenya will have the opportunity to bridge these gaps and strengthen international support in the Council for African-led peace and security efforts.
Secondly, although conventional military means remain a key component in maintaining peace and national integrity, recent developments in the region have highlighted that dialogue and national consensus building should prevail for creating political arrangements that can deliver stability. In this regard, Kenya currently has an effort named the Building Bridges Initiative, which is a constitutional reform process based on negotiations, cohabitation, and the need to avoid a “winner takes all approach” and ethnic antagonism. This sets a good example for other political transitions taking place across the region.
Finally, just as Emperor Haile Selassie and President Jomo Kenyatta paved the way to regional integration in 1964, cooperation between Kenya and Ethiopia remains central for any regional order to succeed. Europe is the largest donor to IGAD and so should continue to finance its activities and encourage Kenya and Ethiopia to work together on a number of regional issues, in a way that also enhances the sovereignty and stability of Somalia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.