Surrounded by regional turmoil and managing complicated domestic politics, the pressure is rising on Kenya, a critically important economic and security partner to the United States, to help shape a future in which its citizens can thrive. It will take deft diplomacy and real leadership for Kenya to navigate through the months ahead, and Washington should look for ways to help it succeed.
Kenya’s neighborhood is growing rougher by the day. Ethiopia’s multiple internal crises threaten its stability, and its border conflict with Sudan and ongoing tensions with both Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could lead to war. Somalia’s current electoral impasse threatens to unravel decades of work toward a viable political dispensation to help bring order and accountability to one of the world’s most troubled states; meanwhile it is embroiled in a maritime boundary dispute with Kenya that is as much a symptom as a cause of the countries’ fraying relations. South Sudan’s failures of governance [PDF] continue to fuel endemic instability, while Uganda’s recent deeply flawed elections cast serious doubt on the trajectory of the country going forward, as its intractable government seems to be on a collision course with the demands for change of its youthful population. Tanzania to the south is a comparative bastion of calm, but the terrorist organization operating in northern Mozambique has made incursions into Tanzanian territory, raising ominous fears about the future of the east African coast.
Domestically, Kenya is gearing up for elections in 2022. Historically elections have been flashpoints for political violence, and a great deal of government effort in recent years has been devoted to avoiding a repeat of the past. Whether it is sufficient to overcome the country’s toxic ethnic politics, or the elite interests that often fail to respond to the desires and frustrations of young Kenyans, remains to be seen, especially in light of the challenging social and economic headwinds that COVID-19 has brought to the country.
For the United States, finding common ground with Kenya has never been more important. Kenya holds a seat on the UN Security Council for the next two years, and it should be a vital partner in addressing multiple peace and security crises as the Biden administration seeks to reinvigorate multilateralism and support for a rules-governed international order that can effectively tackle global challenges. But Kenya is certainly capable of going in the wrong direction. It took such a step earlier this week, demanding that UNHCR present a plan for closing the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, home to hundreds of thousands of primarily Somali and South Sudanese refugees. For years the Kenyan government has been concerned about security threats emanating from refugee camps, but by positioning itself at odds with the international community over norms around the treatment of refugees and forced returns, the Kenyan government undermines confidence in its own commitment to just and effective global governance. Kenya has painful experience with very real security threats, but lasting peace can be won only by driving an agenda that addresses the broader regional context. Kenya’s voice on the world stage can be an important part of a more assertive Africa, but only if its leadership is prepared to conceive of its role in that larger context, and to take a more strategic and less tactical approach to foreign-policy decision making.