Kenya’s Shift in Foreign Policy Signals Leadership Intent Across Africa and Beyond
Under President William Ruto’s administration, Kenya is strategically recalibrating its foreign policy approach, aiming to take on a prominent leadership role across Africa and the Global South. This significant shift is underscored by its proactive involvement in the proposed mission to address the ongoing crisis in Haiti, showcasing Kenya’s deepening interest and commitment to global issues.
Following the tragic assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, the nation has been grappling with heightened gang violence, posing severe threats to its political stability and security. Disturbing statistics between January and August this year reveal the staggering toll: 2,439 Haitians lost their lives, 951 were kidnapped, and 902 suffered injuries. Responding to this crisis, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2699 on October 3, endorsing a multinational mission, spearheaded by Kenya, to assist the Haitian National Police in combating criminal gangs perpetrating violence and other illicit activities. While this mission operates under UN authorization, it does not fall under the official UN peacekeeping missions. Kenya plans to lead the mission by deploying over a thousand officers, supported additionally by personnel from the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda.
The prospect of an African nation intervening in a Caribbean state might raise eyebrows due to geographical distance and historical absence in security affairs. However, this forthcoming deployment aligns closely with President Ruto’s overarching foreign relations agenda.
President Ruto’s tenure has witnessed Kenya taking a more assertive stance in regional and global politics, aspiring to carve out a leadership position in advocating for African interests. Notably, Kenya hosted the inaugural Africa Climate Summit, culminating in the Nairobi Declaration, a pivotal document consolidating the climate priorities of participating African nations. Additionally, Ruto recently announced Kenya’s decision to waive visa requirements for visitors from all countries, effective January 2024, with the aim of boosting tourism and international connectivity.
The proposed policing mission in Haiti presents an opportunity for Kenya to further cement its status as a champion of African interests. Despite limited historical collaboration between African nations and Haiti, the connection lies within the substantial Haitian diaspora, tracing back to Haiti’s 1804 revolution and subsequent struggles exacerbated by foreign interventions, including a UN-led mission from Brazil (2004-2017). For Kenya to fulfill its foreign-policy objectives through this intervention, it must navigate away from the pitfalls of previous missions and steer clear of replicating past U.S. interventionist approaches.
In October 2022, Acting Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry solicited international support through a formal appeal, seeking intervention from global partners. However, skepticism looms among observers, including the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network and the Family Action Network Movement, cautioning against bolstering the unelected Henry government, fearing exacerbation of the nation’s political turmoil. These organizations have urged the Biden administration to withdraw U.S. support for the mission.
Meanwhile, questions within Kenya have surfaced regarding the mandate for intervention. Officially, Kenya volunteered to spearhead the security initiative, as stated by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfred Mutua on July 29, citing a request from the “Friends of Haiti Group of Nations.” Nonetheless, some observers speculate Kenya’s leadership in the intervention aligns with its pursuit of a favorable relationship with the United States. Notably, following the commitment, the U.S. pledged a hundred million dollars in support, followed by the signing of a defense agreement encompassing resources and assistance for security deployments.
Amidst conjectures, Kenya’s proactive approach to the Haitian crisis is indicative of Ruto’s unconventional foreign policy strategy, aimed at distinguishing Kenya globally and bolstering Nairobi’s position as a pan-African leader. Success in executing this strategy could potentially elevate Kenya’s influence in regional and international politics, challenging traditional regional powerhouses like South Africa and Nigeria. However, the success of Ruto’s foreign policy vision hinges, in part, on the outcomes of the Haitian mission, a formidable task.
Yet, challenges abound domestically for Ruto’s plan. Kenya’s high court extended an order in November 2023, blocking the mission’s deployment pending a final decision in January 2024, despite the parliamentary approval.
Public sentiment in Kenya appears divided, with concerns raised about Nairobi’s priorities, advocating for a focus on securing lives within Kenya’s borders, particularly amidst ongoing insurgencies and conflicts along the Somalia border and internal communal clashes.
Furthermore, Amnesty International has criticized the deployment, citing past human rights violations associated with previous interventions in Haiti and expressing apprehension about potential abuses by the Kenyan police. These concerns cast doubts on the ability of the Kenyan police force to succeed in Haiti where prior missions have faltered.
Nevertheless, the initial phase of training for the planned deployment in Haiti has commenced. In a preparatory visit, the director general of the Haitian National Police, accompanied by a delegation from the Haitian government, visited Kenya. However, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki emphasized that deployment to Haiti would only proceed when all necessary resources, potentially including additional UN funding, are secured.
Contrasting with former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s alignment with China in foreign policy, Ruto’s administration is keen on cultivating closer ties with the West, particularly the United States. Notably, several high-profile U.S. officials have visited Kenya this year, signifying the growing engagement between the two nations. Additionally, Kenya entered a sixty-million-dollar threshold program with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, focusing on urban development and growth.
Concurrently, Ruto’s administration is charting a new policy direction, emphasizing pan-Africanism and fostering South-South cooperation beyond the African continent. A successful intervention in Haiti, involving a learning process from past mistakes and aligning with the aspirations of the Haitian populace, could significantly bolster Kenya’s global standing and position Nairobi as a dependable ally to the United States, both regionally and internationally.
The prospect of Kenyan police deployment to Haiti remains uncertain. Should it materialize, close scrutiny of the mission’s outcomes is imperative. Effective intervention in stabilizing Haiti’s future, avoiding past errors, could potentially propel Kenya onto a more prominent global stage, marking a pivotal moment in its pursuit of greater influence on the world arena.