2023 unfoulded as a gripping chapter for Kenya, testing its diplomatic mettle under the leadership of President William Ruto.
It was a year that witnessed the ebbs and flows of alliances, the strain of regional conflicts, and the delicate dance between tradition and novelty.
Kenyan Foreign Policy recounts top significant FP events of 2023 that shaped Nairobi’s diplomacy and the minefields it faced testing the regional powerhouse diplomatic agility
The tale begins with a spark that ignited a diplomatic firestorm between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
A new Congolese political-military alliance, forged in the corridors of Nairobi’s Serena hotel, irked Kinshasa.
While Nairobi hurriedly distanced itself from the DRC opposition figure spearheading the coalition, the presence of the M23 rebel leader in the Kenyan capital stoked the flames of discontent in Kinshasa.
In response to the development, Kinshasa recalled its envoy to Kenya and Tanzania for consultations.
The envoy to Tanzania was recalled because Tanzania hosts the headquarters of the East African Community bloc, to which DRC is a member.
Kenyan ambassador-designate to the DRC was also summoned to explain why Nairobi permitted the launch of this coalition in Nairobi, especially considering former Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta’s leadership in the Nairobi process aimed at brokering lasting peace in eastern DRC.
Congolese spokesperson Patrick Muyaya strongly condemned the launch insisting that this “action will have consequences”.
The diplomatic row came ahead of the crucial December 20 presidential elections in the DRC, and will likely be revisited come January 2024 after the swearing in of President Felix Tshisekedi for his second term of five years.
President Ruto’s rookie-administration found itself navigating uncharted diplomatic waters, raising questions about its awareness and potential fallout in the region’s delicate Nairobi-peace process.
And now that Kenya and DRC are entangled in a diplomatic furore, perhaps it is good time to pull from our diplomatic archives the past remarks by Kenya’s President William Ruto (then second in command) who insinuated that DRC doesn’t keep cows as an investment and a jest about their choice of high-waisted trousers (wanavaa long’i kwa tumbo).
A diplomatic faux pas or a calculated move?
The narrative takes a turn to Sudan, where President Ruto’s aspirations to play peacemaker faced a resounding thud.
IGAD, in a well-intentioned move, assembled a quartet of nations—Kenya, Djibouti, South Sudan, and Ethiopia—to untangle the Sudanese knot.
The goal: Ruto as the leader explained, was to usher in peace and a ceasefire amid the chaos.
Yet, the first meeting in Addis Ababa became a political food fight.
Absences of key leaders and the Sudanese military’s rejection of Kenya’s leadership turned the mediation effort into a diplomatic quagmire.
It failed to lure the Sudanese parties into a tete-a-tete, and the absence of Djibouti’s head honcho Ismail Guelleh and his South Sudanese colleague added a dash of awkwardness.
To make matters worse, the Sudanese military squad gave the event a wide berth, labeling Ruto as a not-so-neutral mediator.
Despite Sudan’s beef, IGAD insisted on the Kenya-led mediation, sparking a diplomatic hot water.
In return, Nairobi flicked away the objections, pledging allegiance to regional and international decisions.
The diplomatic hiccups, coupled with murmurs from Juba, caught Ruto’s rookie administration with its pants down.
Behind closed doors, Ruto was slapped with accusations of ‘dethroning’ his South Sudanese counterpart, Salva Kiir.
Juba’s top diplomat James Pitia Morgan hinted in November that his country was ready to mediate Sudan’s chaos, but only if IGAD gave the nod.
Addressing the fourth estate in Juba, Morgan said President Kiir is capable of mediating the talks as he has been a member of the Sudanese Armed Forces, as well as the first vice president of Sudan, and that the Sudanese people know him as one of their leaders before the secession of South Sudan.
“It was South Sudan that was able to solve the issue of Darfur through the Juba Peace Agreement which was mediated by President Kiir himself. So, what is the difference between the ongoing crisis in Sudan and the one in Darfur?” asked the foreign minister
He added; “If President Kiir was able to solve that issue of Darfur, he still stands as the right person to solve the ongoing crisis in Sudan”.
The rhetoric was a pointed dig at Kenya according to foreign policy pundits.
Recently, when IGAD pulled the plug on Ruto’s mediation show at Khartoum’s request, it was South Sudan’s foreign minister who grabbed the mic first, announcing that IGAD had benched the quartet and tossed the peace mediation hot potato back to the regional bloc and the African Union.
The regional clique fumbled the explicit communication about Ruto’s mediation axing, perhaps to save face for the Kenyan leader.
Nairobi responded with vague statements, and Ruto’s PR squad kept their boss’s social media channels on mute.
Quizzed about IGAD giving the quartet the boot, Foreign PS Korir Sing’oei said “the IGAD quartet, having submitted its report, has discharged its mandate, and the assembly adopted the report whose basis formed several recommendations at the extraordinary summit”.
In early November 2023, President Ruto and Sudanese military bigwig Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had a meeting in Nairobi, their first tango since the Sudanese circus began.
Behind-the-scenes whispers suggested that the confab and a follow-up visit by Ruto’s spy agency chief Nordin Haji to Riyadh bearing a special message to Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman were all about the Sudanese conundrum.
The echoes of this Sudanese conundrum resonated with memories of a previous, more successful mediation under President Daniel Moi through his military official, General rtd Lazarus Sumbeiywo.
A process that culminated with the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in January 2005 in Naivasha signed by the Government of Sudan and the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Kenya’s relations with China, a key economic partner, showed signs of strain during 2023.
During his presidential campaign, President Ruto ran on an anti-China narrative, growing vocal in his criticism of Chinese loans, raising concerns about the country’s debt burden and the terms of the agreements.
The Kenyan leader went ahead and promised to deport Chinese nationals from jobs that could be done by Kenyans if he was elected.
“Let Chinese nationals’ roast maize and sell mobile phones. We will deport them all back to their countries,” William Ruto told an economic forum in 2022.
He insisted “all these activities are for Kenyans. Don’t worry about the foreigners engaged in these activities. We have enough planes to deport them”.
The University of Nairobi Botany and Zoology graduate presented himself as a defender of the “resourceful” ordinary people against the “dynasties” that rule Kenya, was critical of his predecessors (Uhuru Kenyatta) economic policies, promising to cancel the country’s estimated $70 billion debt if he won the election.
Fast forward, Ruto made his maiden trip to China in October as the Kenyan top honcho for the Belt and Road Initiative forum and he had to tread carefully since he wanted to portray Nairobi as the regional powerhouse and entice Chinese companies to invest in Kenya’s ICT and energy sectors, despite his obvious camaraderie with the West.
Experts in Sino-African relations claimed that the trip, during which Ruto sought to demand for a debt restructuring, was overshadowed by the Kenyan president’s growing fling with the west.
The Chinese were perhaps waiting for an opportunity to retaliate because Ruto’s early diplomacy appeared to “look West”, sidelining Beijing.
The President’s arrival in China to a rather lukewarm reception upon landing at the Beijing Capital International airport aboard an Emirates airline highlighted his dalliance with the West.
This was anticipated, according to Cliff Mboya, an expert on Sino-African relations, who told the Standard in October that Ruto’s connection with China differs from that of former President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“Ruto ran on an anti-China campaign, blaming Chinese loans for the current economic crisis. He has basically leaned West earning a lot of praise from American diplomats,” said Mboya
There had only been a red carpet laid out, and a guard of honour mounted by a Chinese military unit.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang received Ruto’s Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed, while the Chinese military put on a big display, and a group of dancers performed for him.
Ruto was received by the Chinese Transport minister Li Xiao-peng.
Mboya at that time said it is a general lesson in diplomacy that you get what you give in line with the principle of reciprocity.
The largest infrastructure boom Kenya has since independence is mostly driven by Chinese funding and the huge engineering and construction companies in the nation.
There is no doubt that China’s activities in Kenya have greatly contributed to the continent’s sustained growth over the past 20 years and provided hitherto untapped prospects for Kenyan business people to prosper.
And perhaps, the Kenyan ‘hustler’ number one, who was then the country’s deputy president, did not realise or take into consideration when he was running for the presidency last year.
As a result, he made certain remarks that Beijing deemed insensitive while also trying to outshine his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta.
But despite a rising national debt, Ruto sought $1 billion more loans in China. However, Kenyan Foreign Policy understands President Ruto did not receive even a penny from Beijing.
He was asked to emphasise Kenya’s ongoing adherence to the One-China policy in his first in-person meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
The policy issue came up in the talks even though the two leaders also covered trade, infrastructure development, and collaboration in the digital sector.
“Kenya is firmly committed to the one-China policy, supports China’s rightful position on human rights and other issues, and hopes to learn from China’s successful experience in development,” read a dispatch released by Beijing.
Taiwan is a diplomatic conundrum for Beijing, and China categorises it as its top foreign policy priority. Recent interactions between Kenyan and Taiwanese figures within Nairobi, and President Ruto’s engagements with leaders from Kosovo, a breakaway state in the Balkan prompted Beijing to react.
Kenya’s firm adherence to the one-China policy is not new. However, recent developments raised questions about the potential influence of these interactions on Kenya’s foreign policy.
Ruto’s regime had been seen as open to exploring broader diplomatic relationships even with unrecognised states.
Earlier interactions between former president of Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Richard Ngatia, and Chenhwa Lou, a Taiwan representative based in Hargeisa, Somaliland , hinted at a willingness to expand economic and diplomatic cooperation.
These discussions sparked interest from Beijing.
During the March and April meetings, the then-chamber president highlighted the importance of strengthening ties between Kenya and Taiwan.
Ngatia emphasised that Nairobi is an attractive destination for foreign investment, and Taiwanese investors can benefit greatly from the country’s strategic position, skilled workforce, and abundant natural resources.
President Ruto’s camaraderie with leaders from Kosovo, a breakaway state in southeastern Europe further drew attention to Kenya’s stance on non-traditionally recognized regions.
In particular, this interaction with a state that is not universally recognized raised eyebrows in Beijing.
For context, China currently claims Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China, whereas the current Taiwanese leadership maintains that Taiwan is already an independent country as the Republic of China and thus does not have to push for any sort of formal independence.
And just like Kosovo, and Somaliland- Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations (UN) or its sub-organisations, but it aspires to participate.
China opposes this and it argues, that only sovereign states can enjoy membership in the UN.
Beijing has succeeded in this endeavor.
President Ruto’s attempts to cut ties with Western Sahara, an African Union member state, Kenya’s recognition of Kosovan passports, and appointment of an ambassador to Hargeisa, Somaliland continue to spark a flurry of reactions.
For starters, Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous region in northern Somalia, has long sought international recognition as a sovereign state.
However, this quest has faced resistance from the international community, with no foreign power officially acknowledging Somaliland’s sovereignty, although some maintain unofficial political relations with the region.
Kenya has adhered to a policy that views Somalia as a single entity with federal regions operating under autonomous administrations, a stance it continues to uphold.
Nevertheless, an incident in June 2022 drew attention to Kenya’s delicate diplomatic dance.
At that time, Somaliland’s flag was inadvertently present during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s annual diplomatic address in Nairobi, leading to a formal protest and walkout by then Somalia’s Ambassador to Kenya, Mohamud Ahmed Nur.
In response, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated its recognition of the sovereignty of a unified Federal Somalia Government and the integrity of the Federal Somali state.
There is a common thread between the Somaliland issue and the broader international dynamics, notably involving Taiwan.
China maintains a strict “One-China” policy, which asserts that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.
This stance is rooted in historical and legal bases that China regards as unassailable.
It views the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China, actively pursuing Taiwan’s eventual reunification with the mainland.
This is the foundation of diplomatic relations China established with other countries including Kenya.
“The de facto basis for the one-China principle is unshakable. Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times. The earliest references to this effect date back to the year 230,” Beijing maintains.
It is against this background that the Ngatia-Chenhwa meeting in Nairobi might be revisited during President Ruto’s talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Notably, Kenya does not have official relations with Taiwan and considers the island part of China, in line with Beijing’s position.
It, however, hosts the Taiwan Trade Centre, Nairobi. Founded in 1970, TAITRA describes itself as “Taiwan’s foremost non-profit trade promoting organisation” that is “sponsored by the government and industry organisations” to assist enterprises in expanding their global reach.
In April 2016, Kenya deported two groups of Taiwanese to China after they were acquitted in a cybercrime case, a move that drew protestations from Taipei.
The Kenyan government said the people were in Kenya illegally and were being sent back to where they had come from.
Still in Beijing, an encounter with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on the sidelines raised the stakes in Ruto’s diplomatic game.
Kenya’s recognition of Kosovan passports in March this year and its openness to recognizing Kosovo as an independent state raised eyebrows in Serbia, a nation staunchly opposed to Kosovo’s sovereignty.
Sources in Beijing indicate that President Vucic lobbied fervently against Kenya’s decisions and appealed to President Ruto not to recognize Kosovo.
He also expressed optimism that Ruto would soon visit Serbia.
Vucic stated, “I had a lengthy talk with President Ruto, and I believe we had a good understanding of one other’s positions on upholding international law. You should never talk in another person’s name, but as for us, I believe we did a wonderful job, and we anticipate that he will visit Belgrade soon”.
Given the hostilities between Serbia and Kosovo and Kenya’s increasing position, the encounter was unquestionably crucial.
During the UN General Assembly in September, President Ruto met with Vjosa Osmani, the president of Kosovo.
Kosovo is a self-declared state, which makes the situation more complicated.
President Ruto was pictured in a family photo taken at the State Banquet at the Great Hall of the People, standing behind Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
Kenya’s foreign policy is being scrutinised, and the year 2023 has prompted concerns about the country’s diplomatic trajectory under President Ruto.
Kenya’s once-steady image as a regional mediator and reliable partner is being put to the test.
The Sudanese and Congolese incidents highlight the complexities of conflict resolution and the difficulties of reconciling regional leadership with domestic priorities.
President Ruto’s diplomatic debut has showcased a willingness to engage with global players, but it has also revealed potential pitfalls.
These diplomatic events are likely to continue in the coming year, with ramifications for Kenya’s regional influence and economic partnerships.
Lessons from the challenges of 2023 will define the nation’s diplomatic stance in the years to come as President Ruto’s administration matures in the arena of international affairs.
Your support empowers us to deliver quality global journalism. Whether big or small, every contribution is valuable to our mission and readers.