Regional Anchor State: How Kenya Can Bolster its Role

For decades, Kenya has played a significant and increasing role as an ‘anchor’ state in the Eastern and Central Africa subregion, providing leadership and supporting stability among its neighbors. Although hard-pressed by its own domestic issues, especially concerning gross inequalities across its population and a host of other governance problems, Kenya has remained a dominant player – politically, economically and in terms of security – within its neighborhood. It is the region’s major financial, transportation and technology hub and has, over the years, played an instrumental role in promoting regional peace and security through active peace-making and mediation, and responding to regional security challenges such as terrorism.

However, with the region currently facing mounting challenges in the wake of increasing political, security and economic stressors including the overbearing impact of COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya should leverage its traditional dominance and strategic position to strengthen its role as an anchor state. Already, Kenya holds a non-permanent position at the United Nations Security Council for the 2021-2022 period, with the mandate of regional representation and strong voice on matters of regional peace and security, respect for democracy and human rights. Its active membership to regional institutions such as the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the East Africa Community (EAC), is critical to building and shoring up regional multilateralism by adopting rule-based foreign policy practice. As an anchor state, Kenya stands to gain from the burgeoning trust of international partners who continue to see it as a vibrant and influential actor, and a potential partner in a highly restive region.

Crucial Challenges facing the Region

The Greater Horn of Africa – a region encompassing the countries of the Horn of Africa, East Africa and parts of the Great Lakes region – is currently experiencing a multiplicity of challenges affecting security, stability and development. From troubled transitions and sporadic civil conflicts in Sudan and Ethiopia; unending political crisis and electoral stalemate in Somalia; to stagnating peace process and near state failure in South Sudan; and the threat of armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the region is encountering a plethora of political, socio-economic and security problems.

In Ethiopia, for instance, a complex mixture of challenges – political instability, insecurity, and sporadic but widespread ethnic violence as well as a rising humanitarian crisis – are taking a toll on the country’s stability. The ongoing crisis in the northern Tigray region, which has lasted for over 10 months since the breakout of military violence between the Tigray Defence Forces and Federal Forces in November 2020, continues to cause concern within the international community. With the crisis expanding and fighting far from over, as efforts by pivotal international actors like the United Nations the United States continues to falter, the conflict portends to become more catastrophic for the region. The instability in Ethiopia is even further complicated by the festering border dispute with neigboring Sudan over the control of al Fashaqa triangle, and the trilateral conflict surrounding the construction and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) with Egypt and Sudan.

Terrorism, insurgent group operations and transnational crimes including human and drug trafficking have also remained chronic despite considerable regional and international efforts to secure the region. Al Shabab, the Somalia based insurgency, continues to impact the region, controlling large territories across Somalia and making deadly forays across the Kenya-Somalia border. Other groups such as the Islamic State in Somalia and the Ansar Al Sunna Wa Jam’at (ASWJ) in Mozambique’s Cabo Delagado province, adds to the region’s emergent but equally threatening extremist groups. Yet, in the DRC, long-standing clashes between rebel groups and government-sponsored militias as well as increasing bouts of ethnic violence across the provinces of North and South Kivu, have heightened the levels of insecurity and instability in the country.

Kenya as a Regional Anchor State

The term “regional anchor state” has been used in foreign policy literature to refer to states that exhibit potential capabilities and political will to project power within their regional neighborhoods by employing strategies of soft power and supporting the development of liberal institutions. An anchor state as opposed to the traditional ascription of a regional hegemon (the possession of both economic and military power), appeals more to external (international) perceptions of power, capability, and commitment of a state for the maintenance and upkeep of the prevailing global order within a particular region. Due to their relatively influential status within their regions, anchor states are seen as regional emerging powers and often most preferred by dominant global powers or hegemons as agents or regional champions of the ideals and values of the liberal, institutional and rule-based global order.

Applying the status of a regional anchor state to Kenya, therefore, is out of the recognition of broader international expectation that it can effectively serve as the most committed and capable stakeholder and leader in the management of existing international order within the Greater Horn of Africa region. Kenya’s role as a regional anchor state is reflected both in its ability to remain the region’s economic and infrastructural hub and its commitment and capability to play a robust peace and security role. Not only has the country taken a frontline role in the struggle against the al Shabab terrorist group through the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), but Kenya has also supported regional peace efforts, primarily in Somalia and South Sudan. More recently, Kenya has deployed an additional 200 troops of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) to support ongoing UN peacekeeping operations in DRC.

Stepping Up its Role

While Kenya’s foreign policy can be said to have matured in the last decade especially in the dispensation of the new 2010 constitution, recent hurdles (bilateral tensions and economic competition), have pointed to policy missteps that have threatened to diminish the country’s soft-power profile and role as a regional leader. Thus, there is a definitive need for Kenya to step up its role and engagement in managing regional affairs. Kenyan leaders and policymakers will profit from refining the country’s foreign policy to develop a clear and concise regional foreign policy agenda that achieves a balance between the country’s interests vis-à-vis contemporary regional geopolitics and broader continental and global trends. As a strategic move, Kenya must utilize its current position at the UNSC and active membership within the Africa Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and the EAC – where a Kenyan, Dr. Peter Mutuki Mathuki, holds position as the Secretary-General for a five-year period until 2026 – to its bolster its regional and international influence. Most importantly, Kenya must put efforts to bolster its international reputation and the overall regional acceptance as a legitimate and most credible actor on matters of regional peace and security. This can be achieved by entering into strategic engagement with regional and global actors through bilateral and multilateral partnerships that ensure that Kenya continues to play a strong intervening role in addressing regional peace and security challenges.

Joel O. Otieno is a Researcher at the HORN Institute.

Photo: President Uhuru Kenyatta, President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Asmara, Eritrea  for a tripartite summit on regional developments in March 2019 (Photo Credit: Eritrea Madote)

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