Narrow Lead in the Kenyan Candidature for the UN Security Council

By Wilfred Nasong’o Muliro

The writer teaches International Relations and Security at Technical University of Kenya (TUK).

18 June 2020
(PHOTO CREDIT: Kenya Ready to Serve mfa.go.ke | GRAPHICS: Sketch Camera)

So far, the diplomatic barometer indicates that Kenya has a narrow lead ahead of Djibouti in its bid to represent Eastern Africa as non-permanent member of the UNSC over the 2021-2022 period.

In the Kenya –Djibouti contest, three outcomes are imminent. One, Kenya will sail through after various rounds of voting. Two, Kenya and Djibouti could share the seat following a split outcome where each gets one year of the two-year period. Three, Kenya loses to Djibouti. 

This is an unlikely but not surprising outcome.

Kenya’s strength is based on the fact that it has been formally endorsed by African Union. In fact, on 9th June 2020, few days to the 17th June vote, the AU reiterated its endorsement of Kenya as its nominee for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for the term 2021-2022. 

The continental argument is that for the protection of AU influence and legitimacy in future international affairs, the intransigence of Djibouti which insists on bypassing the position of African body should be corrected by voting for Kenya. 

Only by doing so is the African Union able to sustain its tradition of approaching top UN positions and matters with one voice.

Another selling point for Kenya is its visibility globally compared to Djibouti. 

This considers Kenya’s recent hosting and leadership of the 79 membership organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), its strategic position as a gateway to EAC promising economy, prominence through cultural diplomacy such as athletics and a history of contributing to global peace and security through UN and AU peace missions and regional mediation efforts.

Further, in terms of diplomatic fairness anchored on international relations principles of rotational and negotiated agreements, it is Kenya’s time to serve given that is 22 years since Kenya served on the UNSC (last 1997-98), while Djibouti last served in 1994. 

Persuasively, diplomatic tradition should disallow representation of Africa at the UN Security Council by three countries that are Islamic and French-speaking. Given that currently, Niger and Tunisia are at the UNSC representing West Africa and North Africa, respectively.

However, Kenya faces internal, regional and international challenges in its UNSC bid. Internally the recent political developments can potentially injure some of Kenya’s 10-point pledge for Africa at the UNSC for instance the point on “Justice, human rights and democracy; promotion of a useful environment for a just society.” 

For instance, the public accusations of the President by the Chief Justice have created a perception of the executive clawing back on democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism. 

Notably is the perception that the executive is infringing on the principle of separation of powers between executive, judiciary and legislature. Internal issues such as publicized cases of police brutality and night arrest of human rights defenders also threaten Kenya’s international image. 

Regionally Kenya has had strained relations with both Tanzania and Uganda especially during this COVID19 pandemic. 

This is in addition to its border conflict with Somalia. Kenya is also perceived as transactional and ‘greedy’ in its diplomacy; it has been a candidate for several positions ranging from AU Commission chairmanship, hosting of African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) to hosting UN Global Service Center. 

These portray Kenya as self-seeking, and it is made worse by case of Kenya’s bilateral trade agreements with USA despite AfCFTA ambitions.

Yet internationally, the conundrum of the two countries’ candidature to the UN Security Council lies in the fact that both states provide attractive opportunities to the global powers especially the UNSC permanent members. 

Both Kenya and Djibouti are strategically located on the Indian Ocean providing opportunities for global powers to establish trade, military bases and influence geo-politics. Indeed, both countries are allies to the global powers. 

Kenya provides an avenue for major powers to pursue trade interests and influence geo-politics in the Greater Horn of Africa region and the continent at large.    

Djibouti’s strategic location within the Red Sea Alliance region – a significantly emerging forum for Asia and Western powers- has attracted diplomatic relations with various states. 

Notably, Djibouti has become home to several military bases for powers such as USA, France, Japan, Italy and China. Perhaps this is a pointer to prediction from some quarters that Kenya and Djibouti could possibly share the seat.      

While Kenya appears to present a technocratic argument: climate change, gender equality, youth empowerment, bridging gap, human rights, peace and security. 

Djibouti presents political arguments that focus on Kenya’s conduct such as territorial conflicts with Somalia, unreliability as an international partner and violation of the spirit of sovereign equality of states and the practice of rotation of seats since Djibouti argues that it was the first to declare its candidacy in 2016.

If Kenya clinches the UNSC non-permanent member position, it is a chance of holding the rotational presidency, a position that opens extensive avenues for influence on matters that affect Kenya’s national interests and Africa. 

Kenya can get great power support and concessions whenever the five permanent members require backing of at least four non-permanent members to initiate veto Council decisions. 

The country could also leverage on its position in the UNSC to get a favorable outcome in its territorial conflict with Somalia currently before the International Court of Justice (ICJ)  

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