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February 17, 2019

OKWEMBA: Rethinking Kenya's diplomacy ahead of UN seat bid

The pride of a people is held high among nations and is judged by the level of diplomacy held by the state.

In the recent past, there have been efforts by Kenya to secure important positions and promote certain agenda at the multilateral level — the African Union and the United Nations.

Most notable remain the campaign for the seat of the chairperson of the African Union Commission, and the infamous shuttle diplomacy campaign that sought to postpone action for a period of 12 months against the Ocampo Six following the 2007-08 post-election violence to allow for local trials. In both cases, the result did not return the favour of Kenya’s intentions and efforts.  A notable success, however, was that Kenya co-chaired and led the negotiation process that culminated to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals passed in September 2015. A pending and looming challenge ahead, is to secure the non-permanent membership to the United Nation Security Council (2021-22), as expressed by Foreign Affairs CS Monica Juma in the first media briefing on March 8.

As Kenya prepares for this, we must ask, what have we learnt from the other attempts that can augment our creative diplomacy approach this time around? While the answer to that question is in the minds of the thinkers and strategists in government, a few factors can be analyzed to shape and direct the diplomatic paintbrushes to colour the world once again with Kenyan beauty, pride and wits.



There are 10 slots for the non-permanent seat, (five of which are elected each year by the General Assembly for a two-year term), with three going to African countries. Kenya has been a member of the United Nations since December 16, 1963 and has served in the Security Council non-permanent seat for four years cumulatively — between 1973-74 and 1997-98. By June 2020, Kenya will need to have bagged two-thirds of voting member states, or at least 129 votes, if all 193 UN states cast a ballot. Currently, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivore and Equitorial Guinea are the African Group representatives at the Security Council. It is worth noting that within the African countries, Nigeria and Egypt have served the longest for 10 years, while Liberia and Equitorial Guinea have served for only a year.

There are 68 countries that have never been represented at the Security Council, out of which 11 are African. It is not known, yet, which other African countries have expressed interest to the non-permanent seat 2021-2022. However, Afghanistan (for the Asia-Pacific region), Ireland, Canada and Norway (for the Western European countries) have already launched their campaigns to secure two slots.



This year marks a century since the end of the World War I, the period that marked a transition from a multipolar order to a bipolar order. There is likely to be a change from unipolar to multipolar system with the emergence of new powers and balance of power in the international order.

Henry Kissinger, in a recent interview, noted (in reference to the declining role of America in world politics), “I think [President Donald] Trump might be one of those figures who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”

In view of this, Kenya’s leadership should begin by consolidating regional support. The East African integration process has had challenges, which could cost the country political progression in the global community. While focus has previously been put on tangible infrastructure, much remains to be done in the intangible infrastructure and software that keeps the community together. The varying socio-political systems in the member countries inhibit the very idea of a political federation, maybe a community premised on development cooperation could prosper and perhaps an initiative to integrate the East Africa Community with the Inter-governmental Authority on Development to unite the greater Horn of Africa Region as one bloc, with the help of Ethiopia’s rejuvenated leadership. This could be similar to the efforts to establish a Free Trade Area among the EAC, Comesa and SADC blocs.

Alternative financing of the African Union Peace and Security Operations must be solved to distance the continental from donor fatigue and seek “African Solutions for African Problems”. Kenya must augment the Silencing the Guns Initiative of the African Union Commission to support the Africa Peace Fund in ending conflicts in the continent by 2020, and realising financial predictability and sustainability.

This support could go along way to enhance the capacity of the country in innovative resource mobilisation for peace operations, a concern facing the UN, peace operations and missions as well. Perhaps through the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, the government can mobilise finances to support the fund in return for stability and economic advantage, especially in Somalia and South Sudan.

The Group of 77 (G-77), with 134 members, is the largest grouping of developing countries in the United Nations where it provides the means for the developing countries to articulate and promote their collective economic interests, and enhance their joint negotiating capacity.

Kenya could lobby support through Egypt (current African country chair) and develop a two-year engagement framework with the next two chairs for 2019-2020. This can be done through the UN Conference on Trade and Development, where the office of the Secretary General headed by Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, can assist in promoting the South-South trade links through Kenya’s leadership and programmes.

A key agenda for the developing countries is the UN reforms; a common approach between the African Ezulwini Consensus and the G-4 (Germany, Brazil, Japan, India) must be negotiated. The contrasts have led to unending cycles of compromise leading to a divided and weak reform agenda.


Okwemba is the managing director, Centre for International and Security Affairs,  a Nairobi-based think tank 


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