Climate Summit: Three leaders with divergent views converge at event

Ruto's controversial attempt to play down the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic's presence in Nairobi, reportedly influenced by Morocco, was announced via Twitter, sidestepping the conventional diplomatic protocol on cutting ties as outlined in the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

Dismissing the now-deleted tweet by Ruto about rescinding recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity now African Union, then foreign PS, Macharia Kamau, in September last year, clarified that Kenya would continue to maintain diplomatic relations with SADR and support its right to self-determination.

Implicitly criticising the new president's hasty decision, the note verbale from the ministry added, "It should be equally noted that Kenya does not conduct its foreign policy on Twitter or any other social media platforms, rather through official government documents and frameworks."

This dealt a blow to Morocco because it failed to get Kenyan endorsement for the occupation of Western Sahara.

Starting today (Sunday)- Nairobi will roll out a red carpet, mount a military guard of honour, and have flower girls present a bouquet for the presidential and high-profile delegations arriving at the JKIA for the African Climate Summit, and President Brahim Ghali of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic according to protocols and logistical guidelines seen by The Sunday Standard, is part of those to be accorded appropriate protocols.

This will be a significant visit, as it will be President Ghali's first appearance in Nairobi since the September 2022 attempt by President Ruto to rescind Kenya's recognition of Western Sahara.

His Moroccan nemesis, Prime Minister, Aziz Akhannouch as a head of government will also be accorded similar formalities and this will set the stage for a likely clash of diplomatic perspectives.

The three leaders, each holding differing views on the Western Sahara Conflict, are expected to participate in separate panels addressing pressing climate issues on the continent. The mere presence of the Sahrawi delegation in Nairobi is anticipated to reignite tensions between Morocco and Kenya, a pattern that has historically characterised their relations.

For context, the roots of this diplomatic tangle go back to the conflicting stances of Kenya's top leadership under the Uhuru Kenyatta administration. Even then, the division over Western Sahara's independence question was evident, with Ruto seemingly holding views that contrasted with those of his former boss.

A meeting between Ruto and the former Moroccan ambassador El Mokhtar Ghambou in Nairobi in 2021 highlighted his belief that the autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty was the most viable solution to the Sahara conflict.

Fast forward to President Ruto's ascendancy in September last year, his embarrassing attempt to play down Sahara's presence within days of taking office raised questions after his overnight meeting with the Moroccan foreign minister.

What underlying factors prompted this move? Was there a proverbial carrot dangled by Morocco?

Although Kenya's foreign policy is guided by various principles, the issue of transactional economic gains came to the fore.

Morocco is one of the largest global producers of fertiliser and this suggested a new shift in business engagements as Rabat was seen as a key source of the much-needed commodity for Kenyan farmers.

President Ruto, during his maiden inauguration speech, had announced that cheap fertiliser would be distributed nationwide.

Asked whether 'cheap fertiliser' was the carrot that was dangled for an overnight shift of Kenya's position on Western Sahara, the former Moroccan ambassador to Kenya El Mokhtar, laughed off the question and told this writer that Morocco's approach was not to dangle carrots but to do business based on a win-win model.

Down the memory lane- the first diplomatic divorce between Kenya and Sahrawi happened in 2005 when then President, Mwai Kibaki, received credentials from its envoy but was frozen seven months later.

A diplomatic war ensued over the matter after Morocco protested and Nairobi had to deploy the then Senate speaker Ekwe Ethuro to calm tensions. Kenya has not established full diplomatic representation in Morocco and has an honorary consul based in Casablanca.

But diplomatic sources say President Ruto is keen to do business with Morocco hence a diplomatic mission in Rabat will most likely be opened in the coming days.

In February 2014, Nairobi permitted Saharawi to establish an embassy in Nairobi signifying the start of diplomatic relations between the two African Union member states.

Kenya appointed an ambassador to the SADR government exiled in Algerian refugee camps for the first time in May 2022.

The Kenyan envoy to Western Sahara Peter Katana, with a residence in Algiers presented his credentials to President Ghali and noted that Nairobi had always stood in solidarity with the Sahrawi people in their quest for independence.

"Kenya's position on the question of Western Sahara is predicated on the fact that Kenya as a country owes its existence to a large extent on the principle of self-determination of peoples as enshrined in the UN charter. We have a historical parallel with the people of Sahrawi and we stand with them," read a statement issued by the Kenyan ambassador to Sahrawi.

Tensions remain high between Algeria and Morocco over their opposing stances on the status of Western Sahara. Algiers has backed the Polisario Front's fight for national independence and has been harbouring the Sahrawi leadership in the Algerian town of Tindouf since 1976.

Diplomatic ties between Rabat and Algiers broke off in 2021. The former has warm relations with Kenya and will also deploy a high-level delegation to Nairobi for the African Climate Summit.

It supported Nairobi's bid for the United Nations Security Council as well as offering public support for Kenya's former foreign minister Amina Mohamed during her African Union Commission chairmanship bid.

The former CS visited the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic leadership in Algeria, a matter that is said to have dug her heels as Morocco mounted vigorous lobbying against her.

Experts and onlookers have been left speculating on the intricacies of Ruto's diplomatic chess match.

The imminent convergence of these three leaders and the Algerian delegation under one roof will certainly bring both tension and curiosity to the forefront.

The African Climate Summit, originally designed as a platform to address pressing environmental issues in the continent, will indeed add an unexpected layer of diplomatic suspense to the agenda.