Monica Juma Kenya’s new Foreign Minister (officially Cabinet Secretary in charge of Foreign Affairs) has had a long and distinguished career in the country’s diplomatic service, specialising in defence and security. She was Permanent Secretary in Kenya’s sensitive Defence and Interior Ministries before moving to the Foreign Ministry. In this interview with Wanjohi Kabukuru, she brings into perspective Kenya’s place in global politics and argues why the maintenance of peace and security are essential to growth and prosperity
In terms of security, what are the dynamics that define the Horn of Africa and the East African region?
A number of dynamics are at play. Globally, this is probably the third most fragile region in the world. After Afghanistan and the Middle East, you have the Horn of Africa.
Its historical significance goes right back to the time of the Roman empire. It is an area that is well desired because of its strategic location.
More recently, during the Cold War, the Horn of Africa was one of the most important geostrategic locations and chokepoints in global commerce, as it still is today. More than 60% of the world’s commerce takes place via the Red Sea today. So it is an area of great concern to the whole world.
That is why the piracy and hostage-taking in the Indian Ocean became a global and international peace and security issue. The Suez Canal connects Europe to the rest of the world, so in this region, we are sitting on virtually a main artery for world commerce. That by itself makes it a point of interest for everybody.
Today we have more than seven militaries stationed in this region because of its location. This is one of the things that defines the character of the Horn of Africa.
But the Horn of Africa also has some other interesting features. We are ecologically fragile. We face cyclic drought and this compounds environmental degradation, which in turn has also been linked to the movement of large numbers of people.
The number of internally displaced persons in this region is high because we haven’t been able to manage our ecology that well. That is another feature that defines our region. That is why you often hear international appeals for humanitarian assistance.
It is also a region that has had a lot of movement in and out of itself. The study of the history of the Horn of Africa is a study of migration. There has been a great deal here and it has been both within and also outside the region.
You have this huge coastal region, stretching from Mozambique all the way to Yemen and Oman. One of the elements we talk about at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the extent of Swahili culture, present from Mozambique to Oman. There are things that you can turn into positives. For example, we can actually scale up the annual Lamu festival, in the north of Kenya, into a regional Swahili festival.
What is the significance of the Indian Ocean Rim?
The Indian Ocean Rim is becoming an area of growing strategic importance.
The Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is coming through here but we cannot have a China Belt that comes only to Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. It must create a bridge from the Indian Ocean into the Atlantic Ocean. This region is the gateway, so to speak, to Central, West and Southern Africa. It is really the continental gateway.
Our proximity to India, China and Australia means we sit at the centre, between the East and the West. But this is also the only region with new countries, such as Eritrea and South Sudan. It is a region of resilience, a lot of optimism and one that is always trying to improve, even in difficult circumstances.
This country [Kenya] has the largest and only UN footprint in the global South. We are a global leader in environmental diplomacy. When you combine that with the subterranean wealth that we are only now beginning to understand, and how varied it is, we are a country of immense possibilities.
We have challenges but we also have possibilities. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we are looking at how to translate these possibilities into value for this region.
Can we expect to see some changes?
he President, Uhuru Kenyatta, has created a State Department of Maritime Authority and we have a national maritime policy. But it is also true that the IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) has not been very active. Increasingly,
however, all of us that are members have realised that it is important because the value of the blue economy is far larger than that of the land economy and it is fairly underexploited.
We realise that we will have to create frameworks to begin to deliberate and agree on the access, the management, the exploitation and on the value addition of such resources, in a way that is structured.
The whole area of taking the wealth from our seas, of value addition, is a primary focus of engagement in the Indian Ocean and so yes, you will see our engagement in the Indian Ocean Rim increasing.
Since you and your principal secretary were deeply involved in the crafting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how can you ensure that Kenya achieves them?
We are doing very well. It is true my principal secretary, Macharia Kamau, co-chaired the SDG negotiations and he will be remembered for a long time because he did a pretty good job – of which we are very proud. Again, we have provided leadership in the manner in which the world expected Kenya to do.
But we had earlier already mainstreamed all these in our development priorities. President Kenyatta’s ‘Big Four’ priority areas are a definition of SDGs, which are all about inclusion and making sure you don’t leave vulnerable people behind. Our prosperity must be a shared prosperity. We must all grow in prosperity together.
Does this apply to Agenda 2063?
Yes it does. I sat there in Addis Ababa as the permanent representative to the AU and chair of the programmes committee that conceptualised, initiated and drove through Agenda 2063. The idea is to aspire for an Africa that is peaceful, that is prosperous and that is growing.
How do you do that? First of all by creating a peaceful environment for growth. Therefore, peace and security becomes a primary precondition for growth. And this explains to a large extent why as a country, we have dedicated resources to the search for peace and security. We know that even if we grow, we cannot achieve the full returns unless our neighbourhood is peaceful and prosperous.
There has been a lot of criticism over our military presence in Somalia. But we are in Somalia because it is in our best interests to be in Somalia. We are negotiating peace in South Sudan because it is a guarantor of our own wealth. We cannot grow in a neighbourhood that is in flux. The idea is to make our neighbours effective and efficient because only then can they guarantee us our prosperity.
But Somalia has taken Kenya to the International Maritime Court. Where do you stand?
The most fights happen in a family scenario. Because you are close to each other, you are more likely to be in dispute with your brother than your cousin, who is more distant. But it is not the scenario we would prefer and we always send a message to Mogadishu to say that it is better to resolve any dispute between us ourselves, without involving a third party.
We have a mechanism within ourselves and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to resolve any dispute. We have an MOU with Somalia which commits both nations to resolving any disagreement by diplomatic, negotiated means.
Of course, every country has several options, including going to court, but because Somalia is inextricably linked to Kenya, we are still exploring all avenues. We have a conversation that is ongoing and we hope we reach an agreeable settlement.
How has Kenyan diplomacy evolved over the last 50 years?
Kenya’s diplomacy has evolved and been shaped in tandem with ever-changing global circumstances, including the Cold War, its eventual collapse and its aftermath. The once-active Non Aligned Movement, which we belong to, is finding new areas of engagement.
But more pragmatically, we have become more assertive as a country, as was demonstrated during the International Criminal Court (ICC) hearings. It is not just being assertive for its own sake, but because we feel that there are certain values that we ascribe to that we expect to be carried out.
We are assertive in terms of providing leadership. I think there is a general sense of leadership in going to areas where no one else has dared. Interestingly, this has come at a time when we are told we punch below our weight, that we are supposed to have hegemony.
Our diplomacy has been defined more from a position of conscience. We prefer to carry people along. We go with others because there is an understanding that there is more value if all of us agree. And so we have tended to go in that direction rather than going it alone.
Clearly Nairobi is turning into an international conferencing and negotiations centre. The UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA) for example, by itself, is thrusting us into the global diplomatic leadership position.
There is a growing perception that Kenya is becoming weaker in environmental diplomacy?
Not at all. In the last five years, we have hosted the UNEA three times. We are leading the world on the preservation of the environment including the plastic ban; countries are now saying, listen and look at Kenya, and are planning to follow our example.
This is probably the only country I know where if I visit you, the first thing I will do is to plant a tree, and it has become our culture. Wangari Maathai, our own Nobel laureate, made it a Kenyan approach and helped make us environmentally stronger abroad. So it is not correct that we are slackening in environmental diplomacy.
The perception came because Kenya is investing in coal and was leading in renewable energies but it appears as if progress has been slow on renewables?
No. I think we are still a lead nation as far as renewable energy is concerned. In fact I think the indications are that we are probably number one in the world in terms of the diversification of renewable energies. The debate on coal has two sides. There are people who have proven that coal can be cleaner and that is where we are going.
What is Kenya’s input on the Continental Free Trade Area?
We have been key drafters on the CFTA because we believe that the prosperity of this continent sits inside Africa and not outside it. And therefore, the first thing to do to drive this wealth creation is to allow the African citizen to move, explore opportunities and actually translate those opportunities into benefits that improve our lives, both individually and collectively.
A narrative has started to build on the Kenyan government’s crackdown on the media. Is this a true reflection of the Kenyan government?
The fact is that every major media house of the world has an office here. I was surprised to see stringers reporting on Tunisia from Nairobi. So when you think about Kenya, you are thinking about our country being the home of a media that is free and unhindered.
It is not about emasculation of the media. I think we have to separate facts from fiction and fake news. There is a lot of fake news going around. And this must be contextualised. Context matters a lot.
Giving Kenya a bad name was part of propaganda that was aimed at achieving certain narratives, to suit certain political ends. It was not based on any fact. You will know that this perception was built in reference to only three news channels that were shut down. Why were they shut? It is because they breached the law and an understanding held by the entire media fraternity.
The others who didn’t violate remained free and continued to broadcast. The shutdown was based on investigations that were ongoing. Currently they are all back on air. There are many mature democracies in the world where there isn’t the same media freedom as enjoyed in Kenya.
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