South Sudan is on fire and it has been for a while now. It is the nascent country’s first real crisis and it is bloodier than anyone is willing to confess. As the world watches its lastborn self-immolate, it has become increasingly clear that Kenya is no longer the proactive regional player it once was.
As the maternity ward where peace deals used to be born, Kenya should be at the forefront of bringing Riek Machar and Salva Kiir to a common table. Instead, both parties have visited Nairobi at different times, ostensibly to try and pull Kenya’s fourth president to their court. For some obscure reason, he is also hosting a group of former political prisoners at a five-star hotel in the metropolitan. One year into his term in office, the younger Kenyatta has instead chosen to give all his focus to internal issues, ignoring the potential of regional conflicts to make his Northern frontier more ungovernable than it has ever been.
Despite their failures, Kenya’s second and third presidents recognised the immense power and responsibilities granted to them by virtue of their regional position. They dabbled in almost every conflict in Somalia and Sudan, offering Nairobi as the neutral grounds where everyone could be safe and pacts could be signed. It was Kibaki who finished the peace deal between the Sudans that led to the secession of the South two years ago. The process had started under Moi and outlived his presidency by about three years. It is imperative to note that they had both been vice presidents for at least a decade before they took over power, although Kibaki had a ten-year gap between the two events, and thus had more experience in foreign affairs than the younger Kenyatta. Even worse, unlike his predecessors, Uhuru Kenyatta took the reins of a military that had for the first time since independence invaded a neighbouring country.
Kenya has traditionally been viewed as the neutral ground in Eastern Africa. Where Uganda’s Museveni has his hand inside the South Sudan and Somalia cookie jars, Tanzania often comes off as aloof and self-focused. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is never viewed as neutral especially in matters touching on Eritrea, Somalia and to some extent, Sudan. Rwanda’s situation is different as it does not muster the kind of respect that the Kenyan presidency has for bringing peace to the warring Horn of Africa. Kenya is quickly fading into regional oblivion as its presidency battles ICC indictment and multiple internal issues.
One can argue that it is the excursion into Somalia that decapitated Kenya’s regional standing as a neutral peace-loving peace-nurturing country. The process, however, most likely began during its 2007 elections when warring factions began a brutal ethnic cleansing that affected its neighbours and created a greater motivation for Tanzania to embark on its Dar port project. Once the port is complete, Tanzania may begin to dabble more into the affairs of its regional neighbours so as to build greater connections beyond simply sharing a border. The Somalia invasion erased Kenya’s neutrality and made it a direct player in its neighbours’ conflicts beyond its traditional approach to bringing warring parties to the table.