Dr Sizo Nkala
No sooner had Kenya’s new President William Ruto’s administration assumed the reins of power than they had to engage in diplomatic firefighting following a Trump-esque social media post on an international issue.
At the centre of the diplomatic storm is a tweet posted by a verified Twitter account belonging to Ruto stating that “At State House in Nairobi, received congratulatory message from His Majesty King Mohammed VI.
Kenya rescinds its recognition of the SADR and initiates steps to wind down the entity’s presence in the country.” The tweet was posted on September 14, a day after Ruto’s inauguration and caused a diplomatic furore.
Before this announcement, Kenya had been one of the 41 UN members who recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which has been fighting for its independence from Morocco since 1976. The SADR was proclaimed over Western Saharan territory by the Polisario Front, a political-military outfit, which claimed to be the legitimate representative of the indigenous Sahrawi people in the territory.
However, Morocco annexed the territory in 1975 after the end of Spanish colonialism. In 1975, the International Court of Justice issued a ruling supporting the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, which was defied by Morocco.
This set off an insurgency campaign led by the Polisario Front against the Moroccan state. The SADR scored a diplomatic victory in 1982 when it was admitted as a member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the AU.
This led to Morocco’s withdrawal from the continental body in 1984 in protest against its decision to admit the SADR. The UN successfully negotiated a cease-fire between the two parties in 1991. Part of the ceasefire agreement was a commitment to hold a referendum to decide the fate of Western Sahara.
However, the referendum has not been held due to disagreements between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government over who is eligible to vote. The Polisario Front decided to break the ceasefire in 2020 and return to armed insurgency after becoming frustrated over Morocco’s continued delaying of the referendum and its exploitation and extraction of the territory’s natural resources such as phosphate.
The Polisario Front’s decision to take up arms was a strategic ploy to ratchet up international attention on the territorial dispute over Western Sahara and put pressure on Morocco. Ruto’s tweet announcing Kenya’s withdrawal of its support for the SADR and the Polisario Front sent shockwaves across the diplomatic community.
The announcement was even more baffling considering that SADR President Brahim Ghali had attended Ruto’s inauguration the day before. Perhaps recognising the gravity of the implications, the tweet was pulled down less than an hour after it was posted. In a subsequent statement on September 16, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Kenya still supports the 1982 decision to admit the SADR into the OAU and backs the UN efforts to conduct a referendum to decide the status of Western Sahara.
Implying that Kenya will maintain its relations with the SADR, the statement claimed that Nairobi maintains cordial relations with all members of the AU and UN.
As chairperson of the AU Peace and Security Council under former president Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya had expressed concern over the rising tensions and violence in Western Sahara, calling for policy reviews at the regional, continental, and international levels. Kenya’s decision to bring the Sahrawi issue to the AU led to a protest by the Moroccan government.
We can only speculate on the circumstances and the motivation behind the initial tweet from Ruto’s Twitter account rescinding Kenya’s relations with the SADR and its subsequent reversal. With a population of more than 36 million and a $112billion (about R1.9 trillion) economy, Ruto may have figured Morocco has more to offer Kenya than the SADR, and in the rhythm of his conversation with the Moroccan envoy may have promised a change in Kenya’s position on the Sahrawi issue.
Perhaps his aides posted the tweet based on what he said in his meeting with the Moroccan envoy. It is difficult to believe the composition and posting of more than a 50-word tweet was a mistake. It is rare for aides to make pronouncements on important policy changes without authorisation or a cue from their principal.
Whatever the case is, this rather embarrassing diplomatic gaffe will dent Kenya’s credibility in the international community. Ruto comes across as a man who will say anything to please his audience. One wonders what he said to SADR President Ghali when they met on the day of his inauguration.
The new administration has to switch from campaign mode and realise that its statements now carry significant weight and will be taken as government policy rather than a mere party pledge.
* Nkala is a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies