William Ruto starting badly in Africa: The Sahrawi blunder

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic President Brahim Ghali during President William Ruto's swearing-in at Kasarani Stadium on September 13, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

When it comes to foreign policy, President William Samoei Ruto has started on a sour note.

He had plenty of African Union goodwill as represented by the presence of AU leader Musa Faki and a total of 17 heads of state and government at his inauguration.

Among them was Western Sahara’s President Brahim Ghali; still struggling to liberate itself from both Spanish colonialism and Moroccan annexation.

There also were high level delegations to represent other countries, including Morocco’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita.

Morocco is in constant conflict with the African Union over its annexation of Western Sahara. Spain had failed in its obligation to decolonise Spanish Sahara, a condition of its admission to the United Nations.

Ruto is stumbling in his rush to undo Uhuru and is seemingly in competition with Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua as to who issues policy statements.

This leaves election losers happy with his inability to deliver on the promised ease of the cost of living, chance to recover.

Kalonzo Musyoka is preparing for 2027 but Raila Odinga is re-engineering himself to reclaim the ‘revolutionary’ image he lost in the handshake. Raila wants a constitutional ‘review’ to fix both the IEBC and the Judiciary. He calls for mass action against the Judiciary because it dismissed his election petition. He also demands the dismantling of the IEBC for failing to declare Raila the winner of the 2022 presidential election. With his proven ability to create un-governability, Raila’s pronouncements are trouble for Ruto.

Unrestrained lone ranger

Ruto is in this predicament partly because he has not constituted government, probably acts as an unrestrained lone ranger, and without good advice. The effect of this rushing, especially on matters of foreign affairs, is to portray him as confused. He received Bourita at State House and, at the spur of the moment, seemingly committed to do Morocco’s bidding and expel Western Sahara from Kenya.

He announced his agreement to Morocco desires in a confusing tweeter only to rescind after the damage was done. He caught most of the country unawares and plunged it into self-doubts about Kenya’s reliability as a champion of anti-colonialism and anti-irredentism.

Although Ruto had probably consulted one or two campaigners, his decision did not show that he is seriously thinking about the likely consequences of his presidential actions. One of the questions that has since cropped up is what it was that Bourita had offered Ruto in order to reverse Kenya’s long standing anti-irredentist policy.

At the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) one of the issues of contention was whether countries could expand at the expense of others or be made to shrink/contract.

Morocco and Somalia were in the irredentist camp and wanted to abolish borders to enable them annex neighbouring territories. While Morocco salivated for Spanish/Western Sahara, Somalia’s territorial appetite was directed at Kenya, Ethiopia and French Somaliland.

Somali irredentism led to a quasi-war, the Shifta War, in which Kenyan and Somali soldiers fought on Kenyan soil but neither country would admit that there was a war.

The OAU rejected irredentism and insisted on the sanctity of inherited borders and that countries could neither expand nor shrink. This became an OAU and then AU principle, binding African countries while liberating remnants of territorial colonialism, Western Sahara being one.

While rejecting Morocco’s claims, the OAU admitted Western Sahara into its membership and angered Morocco into quitting the OAU in 1984. The United Nations, the modern custodian of legitimacy, refused to recognise Morocco’s claims.

Since Morocco made little progress outside the AU, it needed to rethink its approach. After a 2016 UN decolonisation conference in Nicaragua, it seemingly shifted gear and mounted campaigns to be re-admitted to the AU and fight its battles from within the African continent; it was readmitted in 2017.

Kenya, due to its pro-Sahrawi’s stand and perceived Pan-Africanist influence, appeared to be in Morocco’s radar to undermine and possible lure.

Ruto’s electoral victory, and his fertiliser needs, seemingly offered an opening. Morocco acted and reportedly offered fertilisers, probably Sahrawian wealth. Ruto seemed to fall into the trap. His dilemma, then, is to extricate himself from the impression that he sacrificed principles and Kenyan dignity in exchange for Moroccan fertiliser.