Kenya as a regional leader ?

"We are a society psychologically beholden to the western gaze. If white people say we are leaders, then that is definitely what we consider ourselves to be."

Ever since the Moi years, Kenya has never stopped styling itself as some kind of ‘regional leader’ in East Africa and further afield. However, the façade of “leadership” tends to wear off whenever the country is faced with domestic or international crises.

The self-styling started in the 1980s through to the 1990s when violence wreaked havoc in Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. These upheavals dislodged some pretty powerful and longstanding leaders including the late Jaafar Numeiry (Sudan), Mengistu Haile Mariam (Ethiopia), and the late Siad Barre (Somalia) and must have given Moi pause for thought, having faced a similar scare in August 1982. Moi was an extraordinarily skilled reader of the public mood, and whenever Kenyans became restless due to tough times politically or economically, he would seek to assuage our pain by pointing at the failings of our neighbours. Occasionally, he would even refer to these countries by name in his speeches, showing a startling level of disrespect. In order to get his compliance with their machinations, western diplomats would also massage his ego by referring to Kenya as an ‘island of peace in a turbulent region’, something that his court jesters quickly picked up on, promptly adding ‘prince of peace’ to the honorifics by which they would address him. Amongst our neighbours, Tanzania stood out as even more peaceful, but we clung on to the cold war era propaganda that defined them as ‘poor’ because of their socialist-leaning policies under Nyerere. So, we told ourselves that regardless of that, we were “richer” than them. Kenya thus became a self-styled regional ‘leader’ by its own estimation, never mind the small matter of not having any followers. To the Kenyan public, the die was cast by the diplomats because we are a society psychologically beholden to the western gaze. If white people say we are leaders, then that is definitely what we consider ourselves to be.

This neediness rears its head from time to time, precipitated by different crises at home and around the world. A recent crisis brought it into sharp relief and it can be examined through the prism of Kenya’s relationships with Somalia, one of the two neighbors with whom we share our longest borders.

When the drums of war were sounding between Russia and Ukraine early this year, and the UN Security Council met in February to discuss the situation, the Kenyan Ambassador Dr. Martin Kimani gave a strident speech berating Russia for their aggression. Kenya had a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) at the time, and it is certainly the Council’s duty to work for peace, but it was the content and tone of the speech that was notable. He strangely sought to offer Russia lessons drawn from the African colonial experience, bizarrely presenting our quiet acceptance of arbitrarily drawn international boundaries as something that Russia should seek to emulate. There probably isn’t any imperative to ‘correct’ or eliminate our international boundaries, but Kenya is probably the only African country that can find some source of pride in ‘toeing’ lines that were drawn on the basis of nothing but western imperial hubris. Equally disturbing to the close observer would have been the casual manner in which he suggested that this acquiescence was in pursuit of “something greater” than what existed before these boundaries. Suffice to say that praise from western voices was swift and fawning. Supposedly “objective” western journalists were suddenly star-struck, with The Economist’s East Africa correspondent, Adrian Blomfield, calling it “one of the best speeches delivered at the UNSC in recent years”. More tellingly, Richard Gowan, the UN director of the international crisis group said that Kimani “framed this brilliantly in terms of imperialism and colonialism”, confirming that Kenya currently struggles with cognitive dissonance around its colonial history. As a nation, we appear unable (or unwilling) to recognize that we are taking ‘anti imperial’ positions based on the foundations and from the perspective of western imperialism, rather than voicing our own aspirations.

As a result of Kenya’s ambivalent connection with colonial history and this distorted conception of leadership, we saw ourselves as a ‘patron’ of sorts exercising power, rather than helping neighbours back to their feet. For instance, Kenya’s engagement with Somalia on their governance and stability was unavoidable due to the extent and porous nature of our border which meant that none of their challenges could possibly be contained within their country without spilling over into Kenya. Following the ill- fated 1993 US military intervention in Somalia, Kenya assumed a sort of ‘proxy’ role for US interests in the horn. This role harked back to the “island of peace” narrative and responded instantly to the favourable western gaze. At different times over the years, Kenya had the Somali President living in Nairobi, and even the Somali Parliament conducting their meetings in the city. This coupled with a Kenyan military incursion into Somalia created a perception of occupation with all the resultant resistance, including terrorist attacks in Kenya. In such a context, perceived patron-client relationships between the two governments became a key election issue in Somalia, culminating in the ouster of Mohamed Farmaajo by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in May 2022. Given this basis for the election results, the relationship between the government of Kenya and the new Somali administration would have been complicated at best. The advent of new administrations in quick succession on both sides of the border now affords a great opportunity for the two countries to engage as equal partners, rather than with one side playing the role of a ‘client state’. However, this relationship demonstrates that the façade of “leadership” Kenya wears is neither new, nor coincidental. It has been carefully crafted and choreographed over the years to conceal the lack of genuine leadership. The choreography is perceptible to the attentive observer even in the elections we hold or ‘perform’ every five years.

The cracks in our façade are the reason why the 2022 elections ‘performance’ has resulted in so much angst. As alluded to in an earlier analysis, there hasn’t been any of the clear cut ‘waves’ and narratives that previous elections have depended upon. We had a contest between two candidates with basically equal access to state and financial resources, pretty much leveling the financial playing field. As the August 9th polls drew closer, tension grew right across the spectrum of observers who had gotten used to watching performances. Everyone was waiting for something to ‘give’ indicating the way the performance would end. The importance of this indicator cannot be overstated in a society like Kenya where people have gotten accustomed to performing the voting ritual under the belief that someone else dictates the result. This time, nothing came. To our bewilderment, we face a situation where the next president is determined by the number of votes as it should be in any normal electoral process. Here in Kenya however, we still haven’t attained that level of normalcy despite our claims to leadership.  So the tension, fake news and naked animosity witnessed after the polls was the cry of a society struggling to bear its most basic responsibilities, including choosing its own destiny through the ballot.

This particular performance is still incomplete, but we’re finding our way as a nation, and my hope is that we’ll be alright in the long run. In the meantime, we appreciate the support of all our neighbours through this transition even as we spare a thought for those who have been following us, thinking we were the leaders.

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