Kenya’s foreign policy is anchored on five pillars of diplomacy. These are economic diplomacy, peace diplomacy, environmental diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, and diaspora diplomacy.
The country’s bilateral and multilateral engagements are undertaken within the confines of these pillars. Ambassadors and high commissioners are Kenya’s highest representatives abroad. They are tasked with executing the country’s foreign policy.
Because envoys serve at the pleasure of the president, a change of administration is often synonymous with new placements in Kenya’s missions overseas. Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua has confirmed as much, saying, “diplomatic postings are done according to the prerogative of the president,” adding that, “there will be changes based on a clear and fair criteria”.
Ambassadors and high commissioners can be career diplomats or political appointees. Career diplomats are professionals in diplomacy. In Kenya, they are usually employees of the government working under the Foreign Affairs Ministry. They possess the requisite academic credentials for the job and have years of experience in the diplomatic corps. Political appointees are often less qualified. Most have little or no prior diplomatic experience.
However, they bring their experience to the fore where negotiations of a political nature are called for. Many are chosen for their personal relationship with the president. This is useful in cutting through bureaucratic red tape in instances where expedited results are required. In times past, Kenya tended to have a disproportionate number of political appointees as top envoys. Some were retired civil servants or military top brass rewarded for their loyalty to the president.
The bulk were politicians who failed to get elective seats but got soft landings in foreign missions for their party fealty. No doubt, many of these political appointees executed their briefs well. But there were instances where the nuanced conversations of diplomatic speak were beyond some envoys.
Take for instance a former military general appointed as ambassador to a certain European nation. Despite advice from embassy staff, he insisted on introducing himself to diplomats from other countries with full military designations. It was embarrassing for all whenever the general was confused for a military attaché. Yet another political appointee, unaware of his job description, thought a posting overseas was an opportunity for indolent living. He spent his entire tour of duty throwing one lavish party after another.
Diplomatic engagements are based on the principle of reciprocity. For every concession made to a foreign entity, there must be a corresponding benefit to Kenya. An example is seen in Kenya’s relationship with South Africa. Following high level diplomatic negotiations culminating in a presidential announcement, citizens can travel across both countries without visa restrictions. Another example is in the Bilateral Air Service Agreements that grant access to Kenya’s airspace on a reciprocal basis.
For far too long, Kenya has tended to enter into complex international arrangements as the underdog. Perhaps reflective of the calibre of representation in the missions, the country hasn’t always gotten the best deal. For instance, recent revelations from the Transport Ministry show that the Chinese financiers of the Standard Gauge Railway got the upper hand. The same ministry also cancelled a tender awarded to a French firm to build a mega highway from Rironi to Mau Summit.
A departure from the past, where public appointments were done on the basis of nepotism and cronyism, is needed. It is imperative that the Kenya Kwanza administration’s curation of top envoys be done meritoriously. The ideal situation would be to have a greater proportion of career diplomats to political appointees. And even with the latter, only those with a proven track record in the “art of the deal” should be selected.
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Kenya has vast resources. The country’s diplomatic efforts should be geared towards exporting these resources as finished products and not commodities. The country can no longer afford to sell its produce on the cheap. Nor can it allow inexperienced diplomats to make concessions to the detriment of citizens.
-Mr Khafafa is a Public policy Analyst