On November 15, Belgium celebrates King’s Day. We honour His Majesty King Philippe, our head of state. A state that has undergone tremendous change since its foundation in 1830. What used to be a centralist structure administered on the basis of one language morphed during the 20th century into a federal state with three official languages. Federated entities now enjoy fundamental competencies such as education and research, public works, agriculture and environment.
This devolution did not take place to fulfil some political ambitions but out of a necessity to accommodate different views and needs expressed by different communities more and more conscious of their respective identities, nestled in a territory roughly the size of Tana River county. This is probably why Belgium feels very much attuned to the devolution process in Kenya.
The subsidiary principle, according to which a competency should be exercised at the most adequate level, the reliability of financial transfers from the national level to the federated entities according to their needs but also on the basis of their contribution to the wealth of the nation, mechanisms of consultation and dispute settlements to prevent competence overlap and defuse tensions between the different levels — are all at core of the Belgian federal system.
This system is not perfect and constantly evolving. As Kenyans know, devolution is a day-to-day learning experience for politicians where empathy for the interlocutor, dedication to serve the population and the sense for compromise make a crucial difference. I can only praise President Uhuru Kenyatta and Honourable Raila Odinga for shaking hands and finding a middle ground to overcome longstanding grievances.
Belgium established diplomatic relations with Kenya in 1963. They enjoy since then, cordial relations made up of cooperation in education and research, cultural exchanges and trade. Today, the support of my country to Kenya primarily focusses on the creation of non-commercial infrastructures such as water pumping and distribution, pedestrian bridges, medical waste treatment or firefighting trucks.
I was recently in the hills of Kajiado county to see for myself how a Belgian soft loan for digging waterholes can make a crucial difference for the local communities, especially for women and girls who are usually assigned to fetch water no matter the distance, to the detriment of their own education.
Today the mwananchi is asking himself or herself questions about the loans taken by the government, which is perfectly understandable. But loans are not all the same. If a project represents a real investment, for the public good, and without imposing a burden on future generations, it is worth it. This is, of course, a judgement call that every public decision-maker has to make, be it Europe or Africa.
The capital of Belgium, Brussels, is the headquarters of the European Union. After 60 years of peace and success uniting a continent once divided, the EU is facing tough challenges, like everybody else in this fast- changing world where populists or nationalists and their ‘easy’ solutions and aggressive posturing bring us closer to a new catastrophe. How can our memory be so short?
A few days ago, we commemorated the centennial of the end of World War I, a conflict where thousands of Africans were drawn into by the mere fact of being colonised by the warring parties.
In Belgium, entire towns were wiped out, hundreds of thousands of young men from the allied forces died in the Flanders fields, the same fields which a century later still regurgitate dangerous explosives. Across the world, putting aside egos and engaging in dialogue has never been more important. “Try to see it my way,” used to sing a famous British band; “we can work it out.”
I want to commend the Republic of Kenya, a key regional actor, for its mediation in South Sudan and for the price paid by its soldiers in Somalia. The European Union wants to partner with Kenya in maintaining international peace and security in Africa. Soon, Belgium and Kenya will both sit on the UN Security Council. With the sense of dialogue and compromise that characterises our leaders, this will represent a great opportunity to contribute to a safer more peaceful world.
Long live to His Majesty King Philippe and to the bonds of affection between our nations!
Ambassador of Belgium to Kenya