Kenya intends on opening up three more embassies in west Africa before the end of the year in a bid to extend its reach in a region Nairobi has often been accused of ignoring.
A draft diplomatic brief seen by the Sunday Nation vouches for spreading influence in the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which includes 15 members and occupies a quarter of the continent’s number of states.
The briefing says this will boost Kenya’s pan-African foreign policy currently marketed by the Jubilee administration as a way of promoting integration within the continent.
Diplomats at the Foreign Ministry say the government will also be responding to criticism that it had neglected serving Kenyans living in the vast region whenever they are in distress.
Currently, the region is served by one embassy stationed in Abuja in Nigeria.
“We are looking at opening up diplomatic missions in Ghana, Senegal and Mali as soon as possible,” said one of the officials involved in the drafting of the document.
Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal have full embassies in Kenya while Mali runs its affairs through its mission in Addis Ababa.
“We are looking at their markets and this falls in our Africa-centric policy so it is something we will be working on in the next few months.”
On Thursday, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma said Kenya will concentrate a lot more on expanding its influence in Africa, even though it will keep contacts with allies across the globe.
“Our foreign policy seeks to achieve a vision of a peaceful, prosperous, globally competitive Kenya. We seek this vision through a number of strategic pillars and focus areas, pursued within the core of our foreign policy, namely Pan-Africanism.
“We believe that our peace, prosperity and sustainability is inextricably linked to Africa.”
Critics have always charged that Kenya has routinely overlooked west Africa. In its 20 diplomatic missions across the continent, just one exists in the Ecowas region, in Nigeria.
And even that has no ambassador. Its last high commissioner, Tom Amolo, was promoted to Diplomatic Secretary and transferred back to Nairobi.
“There are quite a number of Kenyans living in west Africa and in need of support from the Kenyan Mission in West Africa.
"As to whether we need more embassies, I am not sure it would be sustainable to have them in all the countries,” George Mucee, the practice leader at migration consultancy firm, Fragomen-Kenya, argued.
“I think it would make more sense to have the mission remain in Nigeria but have outpost consulates in few key cities in some countries where Kenya has interests akin to how the Kenyan embassy in the US operates,” he added.
Opening a new diplomatic mission is expensive and can, on average, gobble up an average of Sh200 million in a year.
Mr Mucee suggests Kenya can strengthen its existing Abuja mission with a robust outreach programme.
When Kenya last year fronted a candidate, Juma's predecessor Amina Mohamed, for the AU chairperson; its failure to clinch the post was partly blamed on the absence of diplomats in west Africa who could have provided adequate situation analysis.
“The government must move with a sense of urgency to fix the diplomatic disaster that is apparent in west Africa.
"This is a country which a few months ago had a candidate for the prestigious position of head of the African Union Commission,” Kenya’s former Ambassador to France, and later to the US, Elkanah Odembo, said.
“When you consider that Ecowas has a membership of some 15 countries (more than 25 per cent of the countries in Africa), you quickly come to terms with Kenya’s diminishing influence on the continent,” Odembo, who now works in the region for a global agency, observed.
In 2014, Kenya and Nigeria signed a number of bilateral agreements on trade when then President Goodluck Jonathan visited.
Four years later, trade between the two is still low, a sign the agreements were never implemented.