Kenya’s UN seat comes amid erosion of Pan-African gravitas

Saturday June 27 2020

The UN General Assembly on June 17, 2020 electedD five new members of the Security Council for 2021 and 2022, with battles underway for the Western and African seats. PHOTO | STEPHANE LEMOUTON | AFP


The historic 5th Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 – and attended by Africa’s founding fathers like Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and Emperor Haile Selassie – adopted nationalism as the ideology to galvanise anti-colonial liberation and post-colonial nation-building.

Seventy-five years on, nationalism is becoming the proverbial child that devoured its own mother.

Kenya’s epic clash with Djibouti over a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22 mirrors the ideological clash between Pan-Africanism and resurgent micro-nationalisms. Even as Kenya won, what is the future of Pan-Africanism?

Upon coming to power, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta decidedly reoriented his country’s foreign policy towards Pan-Africanism. “The future of Kenya,” he declared in April 2013, “depends…on deepening our bonds with our brothers and sisters in East Africa and Africa as a whole.”

Kenya’s Africa-centred foreign policy has paid off. In a secret ballot in January 2020, the country was emphatically elected as the African Union candidate for the seat, winning 37 votes against Djibouti’s 13. In its campaign, Kenya cashed in on its Pan-African credentials and leaned heavily on the AU’s endorsement to clinch the seat.

In the past, with the AU endorsement, Kenya would not have needed any campaign. Djibouti initially conceded defeat. But in a subsequent letter to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, it denounced the AU’s process as ‘illegal’ and demanded that the African body reconsider its decision. It argued Nairobi had been in the Security Council in the past (1973-74 and 1997-98).


In the end, Djibouti defied the African consensus, refused to withdraw its candidacy and launched a parallel bid for the same seat. This divided the continent, brought “dishonour and disrepute to the African Union” and put the power of Pan-Africanism at stake when racism is on the rise globally.

However, on June 18, 2020, Kenya won 129 votes (67.5 per cent) in the second round of voting, beating Djibouti, which garnered 62 votes. In the first round on June 17, Nairobi had won 113 votes (58.9 per cent) against Djibouti’s 78, some 16 votes shy of the 127 votes it needed to be declared an outright winner.

As Kenya prepares to take its seat in January 2021, it is time to reflect on the continent’s two-track strategy to deepen democracy in African governance and maximise its influence in global governance. The continent’s progressive legal and normative framework around the AU is deepening democracy. Its robust system of voting has ensured the 54 member states present a single candidate for global positions and vote as a bloc in key global decisions, thus giving gravitas to the AU.

Kenya has had its lows in continental democracy. In January 2017, its candidate for the position of chairperson of the AU Commission, Amina Mohamed, lost to Chad’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat. Again, in July 2019, the country lost its bid to host the Secretariat of the newly launched Africa Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (CFTA) to Ghana.

The country has had its highs, too. In the 2011-2016 period, AU members backed lock, stock and barrel Kenya’s plan to pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in protest against perceived unfair targeting of Africans. And in 2020, Kenya swept to victory, riding on the crest of Pan-African support.

However, ethnic nationalism has returned to haunt Pan-Africanism. Somalia, which has sued Kenya at the International Court of Justice over a maritime boundary dispute, publicly supported Djibouti, citing ‘brotherly’ ties. Although Djibouti is multiethnic, 60 per cent of its estimated 987,698 inhabitants (as of June 2020) are Somali.

In its campaign, Djibouti push at the Horn actively tapped into the veins of an incipient “Cushitic Consciousness”. The coming of Abiy Ahmed Ali to power as Ethiopian Prime Minister in 2018 – the first-ever ethnic Oromo and Muslim to rise to the helm of the Ethiopian state in modern times – whipped imaginations of ethno-nationalism in the Horn to a frenzy. Although it is yet to gain traction, a new Oromo-Somali ‘Cushitic Alliance’ is becoming the alternative axis of politics in the Horn of Africa, manifestly challenging pan-Africanism around the IGAD and AU.

It is in this context that President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti hosted and chaired a meeting of the leaders of the federal government of Somalia and the breakaway republic of Somaliland on June 14 on the eve of the crucial UN Security Council vote. Also invited to the meeting was Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy. Kenya was not invited to the summit, despite having the third-largest bloc of Somali-speaking population, estimated at approximately 2.8 million – after Ethiopia (6.7 million) and Somalia (15.8 million) as of 2020. Also not invited was Eritrea, which has a long-running border dispute with Djibouti dating back to the June 2008 armed clashes.

Second, besides ethno-nationalism, also feeding Djibouti rebellion against the African consensus was ideologically-driven religious nationalism. This contest reignited the old ideological dilemma of reconciling Pan-Africanism and Pan-Islamism, which greatly disturbed Pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.

Djibouti’s push had the active support of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), both of which have African members. The OIC urged its 57 member states, including 27 African states, to stand in solidarity with Djibouti.

The Kenya-Djibouti contest also thrust to the fore the Francophone-Anglophone divide in Pan-African diplomacy. Djibouti was fully backed by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) or the Francophone Organisation, which has nearly 25 African member states. Finally, also fuelling Djibouti’s rebellion against the African democratic consensus was the resurgent global geopolitics and the spillover effects of political rivalries in the Gulf region.

Africa must hang together and uphold the integrity and procedures of the African Union or be hanged separately in the emerging post-Covid anarchy.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and CEO of Africa Policy Institute.