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Kenya's year of diplomatic gaffes, loud criticism and clarifications

President William Ruto having bilateral talks with his counterpart from Rwanda Paul Kagame on the sidelines of COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh Egypt on November 06, 2022. [PCS]

President William Ruto has a reputation for being a diplomatic charmer, hosting high-profile events and guests since he was elected last year.

His more than 40 trips abroad have also intended to help cement his status as an astute diplomat (although he faces criticism domestically over the cost of the “too many” foreign trips he can’t seem to say no to).

The Head of State is equally infamous for diplomatic gaffes that have punctuated his presidency and the ambiguity of his Kenya Kwanza administration’s foreign policy. Few governments have had to make as many clarifications over their relationships with other nations as President Ruto’s in its first year in office.

In the last few days, the government has been fighting fires, some sparked from within. On Monday, Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen termed Rwanda an “autocracy”, stating that President Paul Kagame’s word was “the law” in the East African nation.

As he has done before, whenever Cabinet secretaries have made controversial statements about Kenya’s neighbours, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Korir Sing’oei issued yet another clarification.

“Each country within the EAC has a unique democratic praxis suited to their contexts. We celebrate this diversity of expressions and institutional arrangements. Rwanda is a brotherly nation and the Head of State of Rwanda, H.E. Paul Kagame, is an iconic leader whose bold leadership is admired at home and abroad,” he posted on X (formerly Twitter).

Mr Sing’oei’s comment was in response to a tweet by lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi terming Murkomen’s utterances “embarrassing”, which was among the “CS Murkomen cannot attack a sovereign friendly state and disparage President Paul Kagame just like that,” posted Abdullahi, calling for urgent workshops for government officials “to educate them on the basic tenets of the comity of nations”.

Human rights activist Boniface Mwangi, who endorsed Murkomen’s remarks as “truthful”, calling Rwanda a “dictatorship” with no freedom of speech and right to protest, among other rights abuses,  acknowledged on X that they could “affect foreign relations”.

The position that diplomatic ties could be strained is shared by lecturer Macharia Munene, a scholar in international relations.

“It (Murkomen’s statement) is insulting to our neighbours and it shows dysfunction in the government,” said Prof Munene. “It shows that whoever should be in charge, President Ruto, is not and it reflects badly on him as it does on Kenya as a country.

Machakos Deputy Governor Francis Mwangangi, also a foreign relations expert, concurs, calling the Cabinet secretary’s utterances “uncalled for”. “Countries are equal at the international stage, irrespective of their military and economic strength, and should respect each other,” said Mwangangi.

A day before Murkomen called Rwanda an autocracy, President Ruto was explaining to journalists Kenya’s position in its apparent conflict with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC had summoned Kenya’s envoy in Kinsasha to protest the creation of an opposition coalition that includes rebel groups in Nairobi.

Opposition figure Cornellie Nangaa, a former president of the DRC’s electoral commission, last Friday announced the formation of the Congo River Alliance, which comprises M23 rebels, that seeks to oust President Felix Tshisekedi from power. The DRC held its presidential elections yesterday.

Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura had been scheduled to issue a press statement on Nangaa’s briefing but called off a Sunday press conference on the same. In a statement, Foreign Affairs CS Musalia Mudavadi would distance Kenya from Nangaa’s press briefing.

Ruto spoke of Kenya’s reluctance to “arrest” (as he said Kinshasa had demanded) Ngaa for issuing a statement in Nairobi. 

“I cannot arrest anybody merely because they issued a statement in Nairobi. That is undemocratic,” the commander-in-chief said.

As the Kenya-DRC dispute unfolds, the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) is exiting the strife-torn eastern DRC, where it had hoped to restore calm, and will be replaced by troops from the South African Development Cooperation. The EACRF had a one-year mandate that the DRC opted out of renewing. Kinshasa has played down key successes secured by the EACRF, such as securing the Goma Airport against capture by M23 rebels. Senior government officials have openly criticized Kenyan troops leading the mission.

Ruto has previously sparked controversy with the DRC when he, in jest, claimed that the country was a potential market for Kenyan milk as they lacked “a single cow”.

But he has had more embarrassing moments, such as his first gaffe that saw him denounce the sovereignty of the Sahrawi Republic and break diplomatic ties with the nation, only to make a U-turn.

Others who have made controversial remarks include Public Service CS Moses Kuria, who proposed the invasion of Sudan, and Tourism CS Alfred Mutua who promised non-existent jobs for Kenyans in Canada.

For much of his presidency, Ruto has laboured to portray himself as Pan-African, rallying the continent to advance a unitary voice in combating climate change and securing greater financial autonomy. But critics have also faulted him for seeming like a poster boy of the West and lacking a clear foreign policy.

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