KENYA: A RELUCTANT REGIONAL POWER?

With the hegemonic power of the United States widely perceived to be in decline, political analysts have been debating whether or not a sole power like that of China will take up the mantle, or if regional powers such as Turkey will fill in the gaps left behind as the US potentially limits its military reach. The second scenario, one which sees smaller localised countries vying for control over their spheres of influence is perhaps most likely, and it is within this narrative that Kenya, an East African leader, can truly step up to the plate, both militarily and economically.

As evidence of Kenya’s move towards becoming a true regional power, Kenyan forces were the first to respond against the menacing al Shabaab militants after a media frenzy erupted following high-profile kidnaps along its border with Somalia. The Kenyan Government was forced to act, worried about its reputation, its own security, and the damage such abductions might do to country’s lucrative tourism industry. Beneath these reasons, however, lies perhaps the truth: Kenya is striving to be a regional powerhouse, and in order to elevate its political standing, it decided to exercise its military might. Since October 2011, Kenya began a full-scale military operation to root out al Shabaab, not only within its borders, but in neighbouring Somalia as well. Somalia’s own army proved insufficient and inherently weak, and as such Kenyan forces felt obligated to intervene. Although since this time, Ethiopian troops as well as African Union soldiers have also entered into the fight, Kenya is clearly leading the operation.

Such a decision, however, has been met with mixed responses, with some Kenyans worried about the daunting military undertaking, preferring a policy of non-intervention. Additionally, with some reports indicating that Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) in Somalia have not made significant progress since November 2011, many Kenyan citizens have become war weary and impatient. Meanwhile, government officials have started to rethink their strategy to counter al Shabaab. The lack of forward mobility on behalf of the Kenyan military is due to a number of political and logistical factors, including the lack of appropriate funds to finance the drawn out military campaign, internal political conflict over whether to divide Somalia into separate regions or maintain one united country; differences over whether to engage with al Shabaab, as well as the lack of assistance from Somalia’s President Sheikh Shariff Ahmed. KDF spokesperson, Emmanuel Chirchir, also recently admitted that Kenya is looking at a long-drawn out war in Somalia in 2012, despite earlier assertions that the operation would be over quickly. Such problems may indicate that Kenyan leaders have bitten off more than they can chew in their attempts to become a leader in the region.

Although many Kenyan citizens are war wary, others have seen such a military undertaking as proof that Kenya is becoming a force to be reckoned with. In fact, a quick Internet search of “Kenya” and “Superpower” reveals dozens of message boards and blogs boasting Kenya’s achievements, with some online Kenyan posters claiming that, “Kenya Is The Main Super Power Of East And Central Africa”. Such confidence, or perhaps overconfidence, is interesting because for a long time Kenya’s military was largely cast off as “weak and unwilling”.

Whilst Kenya has been testing out its military prowess, it has also enacted a campaign to become a global green energy power as well, especially within the geothermal sector. In 2011, the African country signed a series of deals that would see the opening of at least three geothermal plants which are expected to increase the country’s geothermal capacity to 514 megawatts by 2014. Currently, geothermal power remains a cost-effective energy alternative in the Rift area of Kenya, and the country was the first in the continent to capitalise on its geothermal energy sources. As part of its geothermal Vision 2030 strategic plan, by 2030, Kenya expects geothermal energy to make up 5000 megawatts of the total 15,000 megawatts of power the country will produce to meet growing demand. The investment is expected to run some US$16 billion, and is forecasted to provide around 25% of Kenya’s electricity needs, as well as provide thousands of jobs for Kenyan citizens. Such economic advancement is undoubtedly a cause for pride among Kenyans, who have spent the better part of the last half-century attempting to pull itself up following years of UK control.

From mediating conflicts in the region, including those between Somalia and Sudan, to combating the menacing al Shabaab, as well as helping promote green energy alternatives, Kenya has generally represented a beacon of stability, at least compared to the rest of conflict-ridden Africa, a notable exception being the 2007–2008 crisis which saw thousands killed after riots erupted in Kenya after incumbent Mwai Kibaki won a hotly contested presidential election. Nevertheless, going forward Kenya still faces many additional pressing challenges, including crime, high unemployment and extreme poverty. Thus it may prove wise for Kenya to seek solutions for these internal problems first before vying for further regional influence. Otherwise the Kenyan Government may risk taking on too heavy a load, possibly proving detrimental for incumbent Kibaki, who is expected to face strong opposition in the presidential elections set for either August or December 2012.

(Image: Getty)

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