Kenya: The Diplomatic Intrigues Behind Kenya's UN Security Council Win

The UN Security Council meeting on Libya in November 2019. But it has been largely silent on Libya for several months.
opinion

On Thursday, Kenya was elected to serve a third term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the period 2021-2022.

However, the campaign towards this historic feat was unlike any other. It was a diplomatic roller-coaster replete with adrenalin and sharp twists and turns.

As Kenya relishes the hard-won victory, it is worthwhile to reflect on the highlights of the tough journey to better appreciate how the country's diplomatic capability was systematically deployed to surmount formidable odds.

Kenya had offered its candidature for the non-permanent seat at the council for the 2013-2014 and 2018-2019 periods, but had to withdraw on both occasions in favour of Rwanda and Ethiopia, respectively. This was on the understanding that the 2021-2022 term would go to Kenya.

But when Kenya declared its candidature in 2017, Djibouti, which had been part of the initial consensus, surprisingly expressed interest in the same seat in January 2018.

For the next 19 months, Kenya engaged Djibouti in intense consultations to find the consensus that would best serve Africa's interests.

When no breakthrough was forthcoming, the African Union Executive Council of Ministers, during its meeting of July 5 last year, decided to delegate to the AU Permanent Representatives' Committee the responsibility of endorsing the African candidate.

After a series of sessions, the committee, on August 21 last year, took a vote. Kenya won, surpassing the required threshold of two-thirds majority and was declared the AU-endorsed candidate.

With the Djibouti permanent representative crossing the floor to congratulate his Kenyan counterpart and expressing confidence that Kenya would ably represent Africa, it was clear that the June election would be just a formality.

But Kenya was in for another surprise as Djibouti made an improbable turnaround and declared that it was still in the race. Kenya had to reassemble its diplomatic resources and brace itself for an energy-sapping campaign.

The campaigns were off to a great start, with a hugely successful launch on November 7, 2019 in New York. An elaborate strategy that would see Kenya touch literally every capital before the June elections was drawn.

A series of visits by the President, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary and Chief Administrative Secretary, Special Envoy, ambassadors in New York and in Addis Ababa and myself ensued, often capitalising on regional and multilateral gatherings.

Unknown to many, part of the motivation for the multiple global meetings and heavy agenda for global travel was to garner support for Kenya's bid. As fate would have it, the implementation of the strategy came to an abrupt halt in March as Covid-19 struck.

The regional and multilateral events that the country intended to use to reach out to many countries were cancelled. Planned exchanges of visits were no longer possible. Once again, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to go back to the drawing board.

The novel coronavirus, paradoxically, became a key element of Kenya's campaign strategy - our modus operandi was always to look for a silver lining. The government used its advantages as a member of the Bureau of AU Heads of State and Government, AU Peace and Security Council and President in Office of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) to engage global leaders on solutions to the pandemic.

Additionally, Kenya was able to pull off a successful virtual summit of OACPS as well other Covid-19-related webinars at regional and global levels. This raised the country's profile and kept our brand and agenda alive throughout the world.

The past two weeks of the campaign were marked by outreach to all capitals around the world through letters as well as telephone and video calls. Social media messaging on different platforms was also triggered, targeting the voters.

Two teams of specialist data technologists were brought into the Foreign Affairs ministry and another at an undisclosed location to facilitate intelligence.

Meanwhile Kenya's missions abroad were activated to cause opinion editorials showcasing Kenya's capacity to deliver on its 10-point agenda to be published in widely read dailies and periodicals in all their countries.

In less than two weeks, articles on Kenya appeared in more than 40 countries and in more than 15 languages, including all the UN languages. These articles are estimated to have reached hundreds of thousands of people on all continents.

By the time a virtual reception for all the Permanent Representatives based in New York and addressed by President Uhuru Kenyatta took place on the eve of the June 17 elections, Kenya was confident of a win.

Managing the elections in New York is an alchemist, diplomatically idiosyncratic practice known to very few. But Kenya has the know-how and the experience.

We knew we would not have outright victory in the first round. But we needed the readout of it to recalibrate and direct our strategy. What we had to do was ensure we were ahead after the first round, as we eventually did. We had 113 votes to Djibouti's 78.

Through our analysis, we established who, more or less, the 78 were. We now knew what we had to do. We mined those 78 countries for the 16 votes we needed. A mad rush of global politicking and diplomacy, headed by President Kenyatta and the Foreign Affairs CS, and coordinated out of the Foreign Affairs ministry headquarters by the Principal Secretary and the Special Envoy.

By start of voting on Thursday, we had our 16 confirmed. This followed a spirited effort to touch all capitals within 12 hours to retain the 113 votes we had already and to get a slice of Djibouti's votes during the second round of elections. This audacious effort paid off as Kenya received 129 votes, cutting Djibouti's to 61.

Kenya was able to come through successfully because it: ran its own race selling its agenda and showcasing its credentials to deliver on it; exercised extreme restraint from engaging in altercations, notwithstanding many provocative actions by other parties; systematically deployed an array of diplomatic arsenal, including and particularly, soft power that ensured continuous visibility on the world stage.

Deploying its global footprint of ambassadors and High Commissioners to incredible effect from Australia and the Pacific as the day unfolded, through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, to North and South America and the Caribbean as it ended.

What is certain from this historical experience is that when Kenya puts its diplomatic mind on some course, our foreign affairs capabilities are formidable, world class and like our athletic prowess, world-beating.

The writer is the Principal Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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