Kenya should be more aggressive in seeking positions in world bodies

Nancy Karigithu, Kenya's candidate for the position of Secretary-General at the International Maritime Organization – IMO. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Many countries compete to have their citizens in policy-making positions, either through top management or governing councils of world bodies. Kenya occasionally gives the impression that it is not as aggressive as it should be in going for those international positions.

It has had problems getting its candidates clinch top UN or AU positions partly because it appears confused with its jumbled domestic politics interfering with its clarity of geopolitical purpose. There were times, for instance, when top officials in Kenyan high commissions and embassies contradicted each other on particular issues and watched opportunities disappear.

When focused and unconfused, however, Kenya impresses. It successfully lobbied to become an alternate member of the UNSC for two years and persuaded the United Nations to set up the world environmental and habitat headquarters in Nairobi, the only one of its kind outside Western Europe and North America.

It is currently focused on securing the top position in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). IMO is one of the post-World War II United Nations-created organs to deal with safety in shipping although the shipping industry. Founded in Geneva in 1948, it went into effect in 1958 when 21 countries, seven of which commanded 1,000,000 shipping tonnage each, ratified it. Although it started operating in January 1959 in a limping way, there was an attitudinal shift after the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill disaster in the English Channel.

When members became serious about environmental disaster and sea safety, the number of countries joining IMO increased. Kenya and China joined in 1973 and while pushing their global presence, are competing for the position of IMO Secretary General. Since Asian countries have twice held the IMO position, it is Africa’s maritime time.

Maritime countries tend to have two orientations in advancing and protecting their perceived national interests but not all properly apply them. These are landward and maritime orientations which depend on the dominant political culture to determine security postures. The countries with seaward orientation such as Britain, tend to become wealthy and powerful by exploiting the waters. This enabled Britons, at the height of its imperial dominance, to sing ‘Britannia rules the waves: Britons never will be slaves.’

They ruled the seas, enslaved others, and became rich and powerful. Americans, extensions of Britons across the Atlantic, copied ‘mother’ England to become rich and powerful through big sea commerce protected by big navy. Those who neglect maritime interests concentrate on land thinking and do poorly. Kenya, guilty of sea neglect, is trying to wake up from maritime slumber and adopt balanced orientation between land and sea. Its navy could be bigger than it is and since its commercial fleet hardly exists, shipping relies on the goodwill of others.

With growing emphasis on the ‘blue economy’ slogan, a bit of Mahan thinking about power and wealth coming from big sea commerce protected by big navy might help raise Kenya’s security and commercial orientation towards the sea. Nancy Karigithu, having devoted her life to advancing sea related activities, is Kenya’s, and Africa’s maritime champion and candidate to become IMO secretary general.

Karigithu, one of the three women seeking that position, will most likely get it. The first African to lead the organisation, the challenge to her is that of expectation to rejuvenate and increase IMO visibility. Besides helping improve Kenya’s maritime orientation, Karigithu has the mission of empowering women and the Global South, through targeted capacity building, to take sea matters seriously. She exudes confidence and has can-do attitude derived from over three decades of shipping involvement. She knows the sea and the issues. She is ready.