Kenyan foreign policy emphasises strengthening regional integration and fostering bilateral relations

It has been a busy few years for Kenyan diplomats. Between investment deals with China, a first visit from a sitting US president and efforts to broker peace in South Sudan, the country has gained a more visible role both in the region and internationally. This has not been achieved by chance.

The government has a carefully thought out vision for Kenya’s role in the world and has been eager to demonstrate this. In November 2014, it published the country’s first foreign policy framework since independence.

The document lays out the general terms of Kenya’s engagement with the international community and the principles behind its foreign dealings. According to the policy paper, the country’s mission is “to project, promote and protect Kenya’s interests and image globally through innovative diplomacy, and contribute towards a just, peaceful and equitable world” through five pillars: economic, peace, environmental, cultural and diaspora.

Peace Building

The government is looking to put flesh on the bones of this framework and, as part of its peace pillar, is actively playing up its role as a force for reconciliation and stability in the region. Indeed, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been taking an active role in trying to reignite the moribund peace process in its northern neighbour, South Sudan. In June 2015 Kenyatta announced his plans to resuscitate the peace process and end a 17-month civil war that has killed as many as 50,000 people and left more than 2m displaced.

The government was pushing for the consolidation of two long-standing peace efforts carried out by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Addis Ababa and by the Tanzanians in Arusha. Kenya is also encouraging the return of 10 prominent exiled politicians residing in Nairobi.

The return of five of the detainees to South Sudan to talk to President Salva Kiir was a major breakthrough by Kenya, although the impact on South Sudan has yet to be seen.

Regional Cooperation

Kenya’s diplomatic manoeuvring plays into a broader effort by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to improve regional integration and cooperation. This is not only as a means of creating peace and stability, but also as a way of fostering economic growth in Kenya and the wider African community.

The policy notes that, “Kenya continues to play a lead role in fast-tracking regional and continental integration so as to boost intra-African trade as part of the efforts to reduce economic marginalisation of Africa in the global economy. The overarching objective is the improvement of Kenya’s competitiveness for foreign direct investments and that of its export products, increase of market access and developing its attractiveness as a leading tourist destination.”

To this end, it is hardly surprising that Nairobi is pushing hard for the goals of regional bodies such as IGAD, COMESA and the EAC. COMESA, the 19-member regional trading bloc, which is the largest in Africa, has had a positive impact on Kenya’s trade situation. The bloc accounted for almost 11% of the country’s total trade in 2013 and provided a market of more than 480m people for its goods.

Kenya exported around $1.6bn worth of goods to COMESA members in 2013. The country has a healthy trade surplus of $1.1bn with COMESA, while it runs a trade deficit of $8.96bn globally. Following the signature of the EAC economic partnership agreement with the EU, and the rollout of the Tripartite Free Trade Area with the EAC, COMESA and the Southern African Development Community, the potential benefits for Kenya’s participation in these forums is likely to increase exponentially.

Boosting Trade

These regional communities are a key means of bolstering export-led growth in Kenya – something that is increasingly helping to drive the country’s foreign policy.

The foreign policy framework, which is set out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, states that, “Kenya seeks to diversify its economic relationships and partnerships with increased focus on the emerging economies and economic zones. These efforts collectively have sown the seeds of Kenya’s new era of economic diplomacy which seeks to promote a pragmatic approach that best illustrates commitment to strengthen relations with all countries and regions based on shared mutual interests.”

China Ties

Given this explicit goal, it comes as little surprise that the country has been strengthening ties with China. Trade between the two countries has risen dramatically in the last five years. In 2014 total trade between China and Kenya reached $5bn, an increase of over 50% on the previous year.

Relations between the two countries have been supported by diplomatic visits that have gone to the very top of the state. In 2013 President Kenyatta visited Beijing and a year later the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, came to Nairobi.

Both high-level visits were cemented with a raft of investment deals. In 2013 the two countries signed agreements worth $5bn. These included the construction of a railway from Mombasa to the border town of Malaba, a 50-MW solar power plant in Garissa, which will be one of Africa’s largest, and wildlife protection programmes. At the signing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the deals would help foster further development in the East African nation and enhance future cooperation between the two countries.

A year later, when Li Keqiang visited Kenya, a number of additional deals were signed, including a $2bn fund to establish a China Africa Development Bank, KSh5.1bn ($56.1m) for a China Africa Research Centre and plans for an industrial park. While trade and investment flows favour China currently, the imbalance has the potential to shift dramatically over the coming years.

With the East Africa nation sitting on crude oil reserves with early and unproven estimates ranging as high as 1bn barrels, and China currently the world’s largest importer of oil, the relationship could see a stark change in a short period of time.

European Partners

Kenya also maintains strong ties with Western countries, including the EU. The country has a long history with the UK, its former colonial power, while the EU on the whole serves as a long-standing strategic ally and a major trade partner. Eurostat data published in January 2013 shows that trade with Europe represents approximately 17% of Kenya’s overall trade. Trade volumes are also likely increase in coming years, following the signing of the EAC Economic Partnership Agreement.

US Relationship

The US established diplomatic ties with Kenya in 1964, following its independence in December 1963, and the two nations remain close allies. The US has signed trade and investment framework agreements with both the EAC and COMESA. Trade relations are particularly anchored on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act regime, with Kenyan exports to the US steadily increasing in the last few years.

President Barack Obama’s two-day visit to Kenya in July 2015 was the first by a sitting US president to the East African nation. As well as spending time with his Kenyan family, President Obama held talks on trade, investment, and security and counter-terrorism in Kenya.

The country remains open to dealings that will foster growth at home and stability in the region. As the tag line for its foreign policy framework document says, its diplomacy is focused on “A peaceful, prosperous and globally competitive Kenya.”

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The Report: Kenya 2016

The Guide

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Country Profile chapter from The Report: Kenya 2016

Country Profile chapter from The Guide

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