Kenya: We can still lead the entire Eastern Africa region

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NAIROBI (HAN) June 25.2016. Public Diplomacy & Regional Security News. By P. ANYANG’ NYONG’O. Is Kenya losing her lead in the Eastern Africa region? Is the empire really falling? Is Kenya no longer the preferred destination for direct foreign investments in the region? I don’t think Kenya is losing her lead in the region, nor is the decline in the flow of direct foreign investments an irreversible trend. Let me explain.

The Eastern Africa Region comprises the East African Community states (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi). These five countries are also members of IGAD, which brings in Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. A group of countries grouping itself as the Great Lakes Region takes into account the ECA countries plus the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Recent events involving the building of the trans Eastern Africa railway and pipe lines have led some to comment that Kenya may soon lose out to Tanzania and Rwanda as the epicenter of the economies of Eastern Africa. That may be true only if Kenya does nothing to re-engineer her geo-economic strategy. If she does re-engineer, coming back as a top player in the region is Kenya’s for the taking, notwithstanding Uganda’s preference to align her access to the Indian Ocean through a railway link with Tanzanian ports.

Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia are relatively stable political systems in the region; but the stability of Ethiopia depends on how long the authoritarian state will remain developmental with the people foregoing democratic freedoms in exchange for economic dividends. Otherwise all the other states in the region are volatile politically. The extreme case of volatility is Somalia which has been “a failed state” ever since the collapse of the government of Siad Barre. That leaves only Kenya and Tanzania as long term havens of peace and political stability in the region. But Kenya may lose her head-start against Tanzania if she fails to re-engineer rapid economic growth with equity, a necessary pre-condition for peace and stability.

Notwithstanding her own internal political and economic problems, Kenya is still a relatively much stronger state within the region. Although Afrobarometer may put Kenya lower on democratic governance than Tanzania, the dynamism of civil society in Kenya is a better guarantee for building democratic institutions than Tanzania. The other member states within the region still look up to Kenya for leadership, a role she has not played very well since the Jubilee government came to power. To maintain her political leadership, Kenya should pay keen attention to the following.

First, Operation Linda Nchi, Kenya’s military entry into Somalia, should have long been abandoned. Although now part of EMISOM, the military presence should be re-evaluated, taking into account the ignominy of the sugar/charcoal trade, the losses to Al Shabaab, the implications to

our economy and the need for a reconstructed EMISOM. In this regard we should engage with a small group of experts who should give us a more informed perspective and data regarding the issues at hand. We need to make public the UN Report on the charcoal and sugar smuggling and its implication on our military relationships (if any) with Al Shabaab. A policy of withdrawal cannot be advanced without this well researched narrative, openly interrogated so as to avoid any future misadventure.

Second, our close relationship with our partners in the East African Community needs to be re-engineered notwithstanding the recent goofs on the railway and pipeline collapsed “deals”. Our approach was presumptuous and poorly researched, making wrong assumptions regarding Museveni’s regional options after succeeding to get back to power with the acquiescence of the West. Uganda is our biggest trading partner in the region. We also have much deeper cultural and historical ties with Uganda than any other East African Community country. Tanzania and Southern Sudan follow very closely. Uganda is currently in a political transition. Museveni’s government is on its way out after the next five years when NRM is bound to implode more successfully. We must position ourselves strategically to be on the right side of history as Uganda changes. Let us invest much more into the change process in Uganda by providing leadership in the region and linking up with external powers to craft a new democratic alternative to the botched elections meant to keep Museveni in power. Let us keep our friendship with Tanzania and reach out to Ethiopia and Southern Sudan with much less benign neglect that is apparent in our regional politics.

Third, the above points imply that we need to have a national approach to regional and international politics and abandon the present sectarian approach to foreign relations. Our foreign embassies are a terrible embarrassment in international diplomacy. Polarized within on ethnic and sectarian lines, few can take advantage of the tremendous academic and intellectual resources of Kenyans abroad. Locally the ministries in charge of external trade and foreign affairs are oblivious of the intellectual resources they can use here at home. These critical departments of state are run like any other “traditional” ministry, with near total reliance on career civil servants. There is nothing particularly wrong about this if one is satisfied with governing without innovation.

Four, external powers, or so called development partners, are increasingly becoming inward looking, and quite rightly so. Almost every country on the face of this earth is currently facing tremendous challenges on the domestic front. Look at Britain with the dilemma of quitting or remaining in the EU. Either choice has tremendous consequences. Britain

cannot therefore go on a thin limb trying to solve major regional problems for Kenya when her own is equally daunting. How about the US with the rise of Donald Trump. Even if Trump does not become the president of the US, he will have already awoken “trumpism” as a strong right wing ideology to influence US domestic and foreign politics now and in the future

And finally, from their common interest in “security”, the USA, EU and Great Britain don’t really put much premium on politics in the region. The democracy docket is empty. Only the Scandinavian countries still take democratisation in the region seriously. The democratization gains that led to the passing of the new constitution need still to be on the agenda of building a modern Kenyan nation which is both democratic and developmental. For a brief period of time the NARC government had the potential of building this national democratic and developmental state; but the process, unfortunately, aborted. We need, however, to continue in pursuit of this mission, for it is only such a state that will provide real political and economic leadership in this Eastern African region.

Remember the Maoist dictum: countries want independence, nations want liberation and people want revolution. The new constitution provides a political framework for our nation to be truly liberated from the shackles of authoritarian rule that has bedeviled us since independence. The process of national liberation is full of ups and downs, zigzag twists and turns, and terrible disappointments at times. One of the disappointments is the President’s lone ranger regional politics that has landed us into the current apparent isolation within the region. The patriots of the struggle for the second liberation need to strive to take over this leadership from the President and steer Kenya into a progressive mode for leadership within the region. That is where John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania has beaten us. We must re-engineer our domestic politics into a progressive mode to lead a region that is in need of emulating progress not stagnation. After all, foreign politics is simply domestic politics carried out in the international scene. As long as our domestic politics is primitive our foreign politics will remain primitive as well.

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