Kenya: How Covid-19, Other Realities Could Alter Kenya's Focus at UN Security Council

26 September 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to fulfill the pledges Kenya made when campaigning for the UN Security Council seat.

But the Covid-19 pandemic and other realities, since Kenya won a non-permanent seat in June, may alter or even condense the promises, foreign policy experts say.

In the run-up to the contest for a seat on the UN's most powerful body, Nairobi listed 10 areas of focus if it won the seat.

They included building bridges for consensus with other countries, strengthening peace and security in Kenya's neighbourhood, cooperation for counter-terrorism, empowering youth and women as well as sustaining humanitarian response to crises.

Other pledges were defending climate change agenda, civil liberties and justice as well as sustainable development.

On Wednesday, President Kenyatta said Kenya will be ready when it sits in the council from January next year.

"We will work closely with all member states to ensure the council discharges its mandate in an inclusive, responsive and consultative manner because peace is a collective effort," he said in a pre-recorded address to the UN General Assembly.

Key challenges

But even the President listed the immediate problems that have somewhat weakened the capabilities of the UN and "redefined the imperative for multilateral action."

They included the Covid-19 pandemic, which wasn't there when Kenya launched the campaign last year in June.

The President also listed climate and "biodiversity crises" such as the locust invasion, tensions between powerful member states and economic inequalities plus what he called the crisis of legitimacy and governance in a digital world.

Given the new realities and lessons from the campaigns, some experts told the Nation that Kenya may be frustrated were it to go for all the ten targets separately.

"The campaign agenda has to be condensed into a few achievable priorities and milestones. We have immediate crises now ,such as Covid-19, which demand urgent attention by the whole world," said Prof Peter Kagwanja, Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Policy Institute (API).

"There is a campaign moment and the implementation moment. That is why it is important to define exactly what Kenya is going to do. Kenya cannot abandon Pan-Africanism. It is the only safe ideological framework. It won because it made the right ideological choice," he said.

Easy pickings

At a round-table in Nairobi, some experts suggested Kenya should go for the easy pickings, while still keeping its agenda intact.

"There is no place in the world at the moment which is as hot as the Horn of Africa geopolitically. It presents a unique agenda, so how should Kenya go about it?" Dr Hassan Khannenje, Director of the Horn Institute of International Strategic Studies in Nairobi, posed at a forum organised by API in Nairobi.

Kenya competed with Djibouti in the race but the latter already hosts military bases for all major powers in the world. To sustain its influence, Dr Khannenje suggested Kenya may want to focus on its history of mediation.

"Kenya is increasingly being challenged and playing less of a role in the Horn. Kenya should help resolve the Nile dispute. It is a prime time crisis," he suggested.

Kenya is already Africa's high-level envoy to the dispute pitting Ethiopia and Egypt, and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (Gerd), which Cairo thinks may affect its main source of water in future.

In the campaigns, however, the Nile issue did not feature in Kenya's pledges.

Experts believe it may have played in Kenya's luck as the US, and later the African Union, attempted to mediate. Its persistence, they argued, can be a good door for Kenya to stamp its influence, that is if it helps.

Rules issue

The non-permanent seat may not be as influential as the permanent ones with veto powers.

But Kenya's election means it could front a suitable agenda and even hold the presidency of the council, which determines crucial decisions on peace and security.

President Kenyatta told the audience Kenya will go for a "rules-based international system" which he argued are needed for the UN to "transcend our challenges and secure lasting peace and prosperity for all".

In its contest against Djibouti, however, the issue of rules and obedience came up. Djibouti ran despite losing an AU endorsement. There are those who think the UN Security Council contest tested Africa's solidarity and whether its future rules will be respected.

Diplomats in Nairobi, however, say Djibouti's contest reflected democracy and that the two countries have since reconciled in order to work for a secure region, both at the UN and in the African Union.

Amisom funding

Ms Wangeci Chege, a law lecturer at the USIU-Africa and consultant on governance, said Kenya should specify its goals in the council but must learn from the past.

"Experience from past crises is important but no two issues are the same. We must stand up to the call for investigative capacity. It is much easier to deal with crises if we investigate them," she said, referring to the mistakes in Libya.

"Kenya will now have a chance to sit at a table to push for more financing of combat troops," she said referring to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), which Kenya is a part of.

Nairobi has continuously asked for the UN to pass a policy that will provide for funding of combat troops. It failed in the past over fears it could set a bad precedent.

On Wednesday, the President said Kenya will continue with "meaningful triangular" consultations among the UN, AU and troop contributing countries in a bid to find a solution.

"It has been our experience that cooperation among various stakeholders, a clarity of mandate, appropriate training and equipping of troops ... as well as periodic reviews of the effectiveness of missions, greatly strengthen peacekeeping operations."

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