Vital lessons from debacle in Addis

Sunday February 5 2017

Amina Mohamed

Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed addresses women leaders at Intercontinental Hotel on February 1, 2017. She lost the AU election to Chad's Moussa Faki Mahamat. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed attributed her failure to clinch the chair of the African Union Commission to “deceptive” appearances.

She was referring to prior commitments by African presidents to support her bid and who abandoned Kenya at the eleventh hour.

Ms Mohamed is partly right and partly wrong. Nothing changed, no one changed.

Instead, Kenya’s candidature was a clash of ethos and an indication of the fracture in the thinking between the country, its diplomacy and the other African nations, especially the francophone ones.

At a personal level, it is a reading of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s persona in the face of Africa’s political backwaters.

Kenya played affective politics with reptilian interlocutors.

President Kenyatta is affable, easy going, and sometimes “un-presidential” in his demeanour, perhaps with a pinch of naivety.

A relative newcomer on the continent, he came face to face with political caimans, wily old timers, some of whom came to power by force or by brawn: Denis Sassou Nguesso, Idriss Deby, Yoweri Museveni, Pierre Nkurunziza, and so on.

The old men could see through him.

Kenya’s diplomacy has been insular, for far too long removed from the continental front; unable to exert any meaningful influence.

West Africa has a more marked diplomatic signature on the continental and global map.


Interestingly, Kenya’s ‘soft’ mien might have atrophied its diplomatic lucidity vis-à-vis other more pre-emptive and assertive countries.

Is it possible that no one ever told Mr Kenyatta that the pledges he was getting from other leaders were just responses to his pleasantness?

How come our diplomats were unable to decode the thinking and motivation of African (mostly west African) diplomats and presidents?

Do our ambassadors genuinely interact with their counterparts?

Mr Kenyatta courted a cohort of African big men, so much fossilised in their club des vieux (the old timers’ club) whose first instinct is survival.

He courted the francophone leaders with alacrity. He should have known.

Many of their decisions are made in the masonic lodges.

President Kenyatta may also have relied on the overwhelming support he received from African leaders during the ICC indictments.

The ICC momentum has since evaporated.

He may have rattled his peers who, in the paternalistic way, may have felt that a younger Kenyatta was running too fast for their liking.

The language divide between French- and English-speaking Africa happened to fall into place.


It may have accentuated divisions, but there is very little that separates presidents with a penchant for clinging on from either of the language blocs.

Kenya must now play pragmatic and discerning diplomacy on the continent.

Its first major foray into the diplomatic continental scene has stonewalled.

Lessons are in order. Kenya needs diplomats who understand the nuances of African politics.

A diplomacy that captures the imagination of Africa, beyond basking in an over romanticised image of Kenya.

This is a diplomacy that allows its best diplomats to claim international repute.

Kenya should also invest in multilingualism. Its diplomats must know and practise the language of the interlocutor.

Mr Macharia is a Nairobi-based French-English translator and analyst. [email protected]