KIBII: Tower of Babel that’s becoming Kenya’s foreign policy comms

The confusion by different ministries and agencies is becoming too common to be excused as to “err is human”.

In Summary

• Foreign Affairs communication started off on the wrong foot at the onset of President William Ruto’s administration.

• The trend points to two problems. Turf wars between political appointees and the bureaucracy and poor coordination. 

Prime Cabinet CS Musalia Mudavadi, PS Sing'oei Korir and State House Spokesman Hussein Mohamed follow proceedings at the COP28 summit in Dubai on Friday, December 1, 2023.
FOREIGN POLICY: Prime Cabinet CS Musalia Mudavadi, PS Sing'oei Korir and State House Spokesman Hussein Mohamed follow proceedings at the COP28 summit in Dubai on Friday, December 1, 2023.
Image: PCS

Genesis 11:1-9 tells the story of the Tower of Babel and how the Lord came down to confuse the people’s language so that they would not understand each other to complete the tower.  

It would seem the same has befallen the Kenya Kwanza administration, particularly its communication. It is chaotic.  

As they build a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens through the one-government approach, the confusion in communication by different ministries, departments and agencies is becoming too common to be excused as to “err is human”.  

Some cases, such as that of El Niño rain miscommunication, have led to poor preparedness and awareness, leading to loss of lives. Unfortunately, that has metamorphosed into a blame game between the two levels of government.  

I focus on foreign affairs communication, which started off on the wrong foot at the onset of President William Ruto’s administration.   

The tweet on the reversing the recognition of Sahrawi Republic was the first diplomatic gaffe by President Ruto on September 13 last year.  

Following his inauguration, which President Brahim Ghali attended, Ruto’s Twitter handle posted, “Kenya rescinds its recognition of the SADR and initiates steps to wind down the entity’s presence in the country”.   

This was after meeting Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.    

The communication was a departure from Kenya’s long-held position, as later clarified by then Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau. 

Despite the President expanding Kenya’s footprint across the world now on the 43rd international trip, this has been followed by a trail of gaffes.   

This week, Korir Sing’oei, Foreign Affairs PS, the custodian of Kenya’s foreign policy, in an X post misidentified Albania PM Edi Rama, who he met, with President Bajram Begaj.  

On November 10, Prime Cabinet Secretary/ Foreign and Diaspora Affairs CS Musalia Mudavadi had a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken only for his office to use the photo of Greece PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis in its social media update.  

Such mistakes, whether made by the bosses or their handlers, signal a lack of seriousness with the meetings and the deliberations and respect for their counterparts. Courtesy, savoir-vivre and etiquette are tenets of conduct of diplomacy.  

And as soon as PS Sing’oei fixed his mistake, he was on Tuesday cleaning some mess by Senate Speaker Amason Kingi.  

Speaker Kingi met Somaliland Representative in Kenya Amb (rank) Mohamed Ahmed Mohamoud, whom in the statement after the meeting he wrongly referred as “the Somaliland Ambassador to Kenya”.  

Kingi said they "explored new avenues for collaboration and partnerships between “our governments and their various institutions, including Parliaments of the two countries”.  

This was obviously courting trouble with Somalia, which considers the breakaway autonomous region as part of its republic. Kenya officially considers Somalia one entity with federal regions under autonomous administrations, which Kingi was departing from.  

And so, PS Korir responded on X, “Respectful Reminder that:1. Foreign policy of the Republic is a function of National Government. 2. Parliament's role in foreign policy is oversight on the exercise of foreign relations by national government.   

“3. It is Kenya's established and unchanging foreign policy, consistent with African Union, that only the Federal Republic of Somalia is the recognised State entity. 4. Somaliland, a region within the Federal Republic of Somalia, has a liaison office for commercial purposes in Nairobi. This office is not an embassy.”  

Kingi deleted the post but not before Somaliland media and bloggers ran with it.  

It was not the first time Korir was having to make such a clarification, both for individuals within the Kenya Kwanza administration and in the opposition, Azimio (Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o on Israel-Palestine conflict).  

In two instances, he had to clarify remarks made by Public Service CS Moses Kuria.  

Kuria (then Trade CS) caused a storm on February 24, when he called for the shutdown of China Square mall.   

Sing’oei responded by saying no lawful investment actor, whatever their nationality, should be apprehensive about discrimination.    

In May, Kuria called for the military invasion of Sudan to end the ongoing war.  

“The community of nations should militarily invade any country where armies overthrow government. Appeasement does not pay off. Military juntas do not become democrats simply because of the false principle of non-interference. The AU (African Union) can marshal a strong enough army to bomb Khartoum to smithereens,” he tweeted.  

Korir responded saying the tweet did not reflect Kenya’s position.  

“...We continue to work with all parties towards a peaceful resolution of the Sudan crisis,” he said.  

The mess extends to State House as well as the Ministry of Interior.  

Diaspora Affairs PS Roseline Njogu was forced to issue a clarification on the gazettement of multiplied permanent residence fees for children of Kenyan citizens.   

PS Njogu said she had engaged Immigration and Citizen Services counterpart Julius Bitok, who said the entry was done erroneously and measures to rectify the Gazette notice had already been taken.  

In the Executive Order 2, 2023, State House indicated Kenya’s mission in Indonesia had been downgraded to a consulate, which upon clarifying from contacts in Jakarta was not the case.  

The President in the Executive Order listed the mission to Jakarta as a consulate headed by a consulate general despite Amb Galma Boru having been posted since November last year. This was just months after President Joko Widodo made a state visit to Kenya in August.   

State House didn’t issue a clarification on the matter or make it public.  

In Riyadh, the President’s handlers sent out an update that he was attending the Arab-Africa Summit, which had been postponed over the Israel-Hamas war, while his purpose of the visit was the Saudi-Africa summit.   

Again, in the notice of reorganisation of government by Head of Public Service Felix Koskei on October 4, the nomination of the consul general to Hargeisa was listed under the section “Nomination of Ambassadors and High Commissioners” alongside that of nominee to Mogadishu, again causing Somalia to protest.  

There are many of these cases, with some legislators making reckless comments on foreign issues.   

While it is not expected officials report to work to make such mistakes, the trend points to two problems. Turf wars between political appointees and the bureaucracy and poor coordination.  

Political appointees came with droves of appointees operating in exclusion of the bureaucrats who believe they understand how things work and actually run MDAs. And through some recent letters from State House, it is clear ministers and even independent offices such as that of the Inspector General of Police are being directed what to do.  

Two, the sensitivity of the Foreign Affairs ministry needs better coordination and coherence in operations and communication. But unlike before, key offices are now in different locations each with a set of communicators: Mudavadi at Railways offices, Korir at Old Treasury and Njogu in Upper Hill. In such as scenario, there must be a centre of communication.  

In a previous commentary here, I proposed the naming of a Foreign Affairs spokesperson, preferably an insider with experience in international relations and diplomacy. There is a need to systematise diplomacy and international relations within the communication framework.  

Many of the cited cases are captured from social media, which is within the realm of digital diplomacy.   

With the development of computer-mediated communication, digital diplomacy is here to stay because as communication expert David Bollier notes, “the internet and other information technologies are no longer a peripheral force in the conduct of world affairs but a powerful engine for change”.  

Among the diplomatic conducts tied with communication include events, images and perceptions among international actors, diplomatic transactions and agreements as well as networks, which are better captured through New Media.   

It, however, should reinforce the traditional diplomacy and its communication, rather than create more problems. Otherwise, it will be counterproductive, and Kenya’s foreign policy “will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:9) .

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