Kenyans had been told that 50 countries had committed to support Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed’s candidature for the African Union Commission chairperson.
This came after President Uhuru Kenyata and his deputy William Ruto had rigorously campaigned in 52 African countries.
But when the votes were cast, she lost to the Chadian candidate.
After Mr Mahamat Faki had been declared the winner, aspersions were cast on Kenya’s neighbours, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the civil society, the French, and other imagined enemies for undercutting Amina.
Who betrayed Amina and why did she lose the coveted AU position after being hawked as the favourite to replace South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma?
In the sale pitch, Amina was lauded as “Kenya’s best choice,” “the most capable candidate” who will “transform” and “energise” the continental body. It was outrageously claimed that she was “instrumental in restructuring, reforming and rationalising Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and missions abroad.”
Amina was packaged as a high-flying international diplomat with degrees from the Kenya School of Law (KSL), Kiev University and Oxford University. She was also conferred a “doctorate” and a padded CV indicating she had drafted Kenya’s international treaties and agreements, municipal by-laws and sections of the current constitution.
It is not clear why she claimed to have a degree from the KSL, and whether she acquired a post-graduate diploma from there, completed her pupillage and was admitted to the bar to practise law.
Without questioning her “impeccable” resume, the President, his deputy and the cabinet mounted an expensive shuttle diplomacy to sell her as the silver bullet for AU’s woes.
A large entourage that included ministers, top government officials, politicians, public relations specialists and campaign strategists traversed the continent before landing in the Ethiopian capital to witness Amina’s anointment. The Addis debacle has undressed Kenya’s imagined status of “regional powerhouse” and “African superpower.” The irrefutable fact is that a divided house cannot have power in the region or on the continent.
Despite her extraordinary academic credentials and professional achievements, a damning dossier emerged weeks before the vote querying her integrity. Whether the claims were credible or not, they were never rebutted as they circulated like wildfire in Addis Ababa on the eve of the Summit.
The nature of the claims and the speculation that the dossier originated from her ministry severely damaged her reputation.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, the ruler is fitted with suits that are invisible to those who are thoughtless or inept. But when the Emperor appears before his subjects in one of his new suits, no one dares to say that they don’t see any clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent”. It took a child to cry out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” Kenya had its moment of being told it has “no clothes” in Addis Ababa when its candidate failed to secure the top AU position.
A critical analysis of the Addis debacle reveals a number of factors could have contributed to Amina’s loss. First, she was not endorsed and embraced by the nation. It was never explained to Kenyans why this position is crucial to its national interests, how the nation will benefit from it and why Kenyans should spend such a colossal amount on one person instead of paying doctors and university lecturers who are demanding better pay.
Most Kenyans wondered why hundreds of millions had to be spent to win a seat in an organisation hardly known to an ordinary Kenyan instead of spending it on alleviating the famine or equipping our security forces with better tools to fight terrorism.
While the President and his entourage were tirelessly rallying support for Amina, tens of soldiers had reportedly been killed by al-Shabaab terrorists in Kulbiyow, Somalia. The visit to Addis was not cut short to mourn the soldiers and even when he returned from the summit, the President flew straight to Mombasa to campaign for his re-election in August.
The election loss exposed Kenya’s poor grasp of regional and continental relations complexities. One would imagine that when seeking such a high-profile position, the government would have obtained comprehensive knowledge of the needs, interests and likely behaviour of her neighbours and other African governments.
From past experience, Kenya would have known that President Yoweri Museveni is a crafty neighbour who should be cautiously treated. His cunningness is displayed in the handling of the International Criminal Court. As one of the most visceral critics of the ICC, he did not mind fronting a Ugandan for appointment to the ICC bench while joining the chorus for mass withdrawal from the body formed to promote international justice.
It was also apparent that Kenya was being rewarded for its disrespect of other African governments. Take the case of Uganda. It had presented Dr Specioza Kazibwe for the African Union Commission chairperson position at the July 2016 Summit but she did not garner enough votes. Instead of supporting its neighbour candidate, Kenya stomped on her, shoved her aside and imposed its own candidate. If Kenya is in pain because Uganda abandoned Amina after the first round, it must understand Uganda’s pain.
Kenya must also understand the behaviour of the Southern African Development Community countries after backing Gabonese Jean Ping against the region’s candidate, Dr Dlamini-Zuma, in 2012. With its national, Erastus Mwencha, running for deputy AUC chairperson’s office, Kenya exerted pressure on South Africa to withdraw its candidate from the race on the basis that it would be awkward to have two Anglophone officials at the helm of the organisation.
When Dlamini-Zuma opted out of a second term, Kenya saw no sense in Southern Africa presenting a candidate to complete her term. It even had the impudence to sway South Africa and other Southern African Development Community (Sadc) countries to back her candidate instead. Why then would Sadc countries voting pattern surprise Kenya?
Kenya was also seen to be narcissistic in the way it went about selling Amina. After supporting Kenya’s national to serve two full terms as the deputy AUC chairperson, there are countries in the region and in the continent whose nationals have never served in the commission but saw this year’s election as their opportunity.
Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Ministry adopted a flawed strategy and conducted a disjointed campaign due to the discord in the ministry, alienation of Addis embassy staff and direction of the campaign from multiple command centres.
The ministry reportedly did not reach out to AU experts and Kenyans within the commission to share their tips on how to win the seat. The faulty Kenyan strategy assumed that Senegalese Aboudalaye Bathily was the main opponent, that the vote will boil down to an East African against West African, Anglophone against Francophone, and female against male.
A task force headed by Dr Fred Matiang’i to strategise and campaign for Amina was composed of greenhorns in African diplomacy. If the government had dropped its partisan spectacles, it could have incorporated former Foreign Affairs ministers and retired ambassadors who served in Addis Ababa in the task force; these individuals are not only respected but have built strategic networks with high-ranking officials across the continent.
Kenya was also punished for undermining multilateralism in South Sudan when in November 2016 it emotionally withdrew its troops and disengaged from the peace process without weighing the consequences of the decision. Although Kenya is one of the guarantors of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, it abandoned its responsibility.
As the Foreign Secretary, Amina must have played a role in committing Kenya to support the peace agreement, and later in its unilateral and arbitrary decision to renege on a regional commitment. This worried African countries that Amina would most likely serve and promote the interests of Kenya were she chair of the AUC.
Her previous spirited anti-ICC crusade also made a number of AU member-states apprehensive of how she will deal with future issues of impunity. Her feisty campaign to demonise the ICC put doubt on her respect of global institutions and raised suspicion that Amina will use her position as the AU chief diplomat to eviscerate the ICC and other international bodies that questioned the creeping “Big Man syndrome” in Africa.
All things considered, the loss could also be a blessing for Amina. She may have been a frequent visitor to the gleaming Chinese-constructed headquarters but was clueless that the AU is probably the most difficult organisation in the world to manage. If Amara Essy; former illustrious Ivorian Foreign Minister, Alpha Konare; former Mali President, Jean Ping; former Gabon Prime Minister and Dlamini-Zuma; former South African Foreign and Home Affairs Minister, failed to secure second terms, why did she want to drink from the poisoned chalice?
The organisation is in dire financial crisis due to the failure of its members to pay their dues and its over-reliance on external partners to survive. Its staff is mostly unprofessional, unqualified, unmanageable and uninspired. It continues to struggle to find solutions or manage crises in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Western Sahara.
The loss punctured Kenya’s bloated ego, tarnished its image and crushed its confidence. Kenya can avoid similar debacles in the future by not taking her neighbours for granted and treating them with respect. President Kenyatta and his successors must understand that a disunited government and country cannot expect international support.
He should further learn that foreign policy is about projecting national interests rather than personal goals. Once aspersions have been cast on our neighbours, a new team is needed in the Foreign Affairs ministry to right the wrong. It is not going to be business as usual in the region. Amina has burned her bridges and goodwill with Kenya’s neighbours.
Zubeidi Ali is a commentator on national and international politics.