By Florence Gichoya
President Uhuru Kenyatta is scheduled to visit Israel on a State Visit at the end of this month. His visit will boost bilateral ties and strengthen security cooperation between the two countries. It will be the second state visit by a Kenyan Head of State, since Moi’s visit in 1994.
Kenya and Israel enjoy cordial relations spanning for over fifty years. Israel was the first country to establish a diplomatic mission in Nairobi. The embassy’s foundation stone was placed on December 10 1963 by the first president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta – just two days before Kenya’s independence. Jomo Kenyatta formalized partnership with Israel, in the role of offering specialized training to young Kenyans involved in nation building, after the British colonial government closed shop.
But the diplomatic ties were severed after the Yom Kippur war, between Israel and Egypt in October 1973. Kenya stood in solidarity with member states of the defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU) and downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel.
Despite the severing of ties, Israel is indebted to Kenya for the assistance rendered to its security forces, during the hostage rescue mission in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976. President Jomo Kenyatta allowed Israeli jets to land and refuel in Kenya in the rescue mission dubbed ‘Operation Thunderbolt’. Palestinian militants had hijacked an Air France flight with 248 passengers on board. They rerouted the plane to Entebbe Airport, Uganda with cooperation from former dictator Idi Amin.
The diplomatic ties officially resumed in December 23 1988. And Kenya’s diplomatic mission in Israel was established in 1994, shortly after President Moi’s visit.
Israel’s contribution to Kenya’s development
Over the years, both countries have cooperated in the area of agriculture, security, education, health, technology transfer, irrigation development and water management. The famed National Youth Service (NYS) was modeled after Israeli’s Gadna program. Gadna recruits thousands of youth annually, they go through a military training and are encouraged to embrace patriotism and volunteerism.
Despite having a pre-dominant semi-arid topography, Israel is a leading producer of agricultural products. Kenya has partnered with Israel in efforts to improve food security in the country. The Galana Kulalu irrigation project located in Kilifi and Tana River counties is a model setup that shows how an arid area can be transformed to be a productive arable land. Green Arava, an Israeli company was awarded the contract to implement the ground-breaking initiative. According to National Irrigation Board (NIB), Galana Kulalu which occupies 1.75million acreage was acquired by Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) in 1989 to act as a buffer zone between local communities and Tsavo East National Park.
The six year project will cost over 260 billion shillings, and is funded by Kenya government and Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV). During the launch of the project, on January 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta stated that the program would address food security in the country. “We aim to produce enough food crops, livestock and fish to feed our people while generating revenue and employment. We are here to address challenges of food security associated with high cost of living, rising food driven inflation, poverty and growing social and political instability.” Uhuru said.
The government has embarked on farming maize, sugarcanes, horticulture, variety fruits and cattle for beef and dairy products. NIB has set ambitious plans of building a dam to hold water that will irrigate 500,000 acres.
Kenya and Israel have suffered numerous terror attacks in the past. After a series of kidnappings on tourists and western nationals, Kenya Defence Forces moved to Somalia to confront Al shabab terrorist group on October 16th 2011. A month later, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited Israel to request assistance on the war on terror. Israeli’s Prime Minister Netanyahu offered support and declared that, “Kenya’s enemies are Israel’s enemies.”
Deputy President William Ruto visited Israel on October 13th 2015 and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Premier who is nicknamed ‘Bibi’ reiterated his support on Kenya’s war on terror. Israel committed to cooperate in sharing intelligence, supplying police equipment and training of Kenya’s security forces. “The ongoing terror attacks are a disease. We are fighting fundamentalists and we must not allow them to succeed. Kenya is our ally in this war.” Netanyahu said.
Kenya’s strong tie with Israel has made the country a soft target of terrorists over the years. Major terror attacks in the country have been leveled at Israeli owned premises. The first terrorist attack was launched on Israeli owned Norfolk Hotel. It was bombed on New Year’s Eve in 1980, 20 people died and over 80 were injured.
The Israeli owned Westgate Shopping Mall was attacked on September 21 2013, by four Al shabab gunmen. 67 people died and 175 were injured.
On November 28 2002, Israeli interests in Mombasa were the target of terror attacks. Israeli owned Paradise Beach Hotel in Kikambala, Mombasa, was bombed by three suicide bombers, 13 civilians were killed and 80 wounded.
A simultaneous attack planned to take down an Israeli chartered flight, Arkia Airline, aborted. The Israeli carrier with 261 passengers on board had taken off from Mombasa International Airport. Minutes later, terrorists launched two surface-to air missiles that narrowly missed the plane, which was en-route to Tel-Aviv. This led to the indefinite cancellation of Israel – Kenya direct flights.
But last year, Kenya Airways launched direct flights to Israel, after bilateral talks were held by both countries. Former Israeli minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Liberman, termed the resumption of direct flights as a “victory of life over terror.”
Kenya was almost the Promised Land for Jews
Kenya – Israel relations were cemented way before the establishment of the state of Israel in April 14 1948 and Kenya’s independence in December 12 1963.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Kenya was a British colony going by the name, British East Africa Protectorate. The colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, proposed to the Jewish Zionists, a Jewish settlement in East Africa dubbed ‘Uganda Scheme.’
The autonomous 3.2 million acre territory, currently located in Uasin Gishu County, was to be a safe haven for Jewish émigrés fleeing persecution and anti-Semitism from across the globe.
The founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, presented the idea during the sixth session of the World Zionist Congress, held in 1903 in Basel, Switzerland. The offer was initially supported by majority of the delegates. However, two years later, they politely turned down the British offer, and opted to pursue the creation of an independent Jewish State in their ancestral homeland.
Nevertheless, some Jewish immigrants chose to settle in Kenya and ventured in agriculture and business. In 1904 the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was established.
Kenya’s diplomatic prowess soared in 2015, making it a diplomatic hub in the region and the globe. The country hosted the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) from June 23 to 27, 2015. It was the first UN high level meeting to be held in a developing country. UNEA is the highest-level platform for decision making on environment. Its goal is to plan how the international community addresses environmental sustainability challenges.
The summit brought together UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, President of the UN General Assembly, ministers of environment and foreign affairs from UN member states. Over 1,200 high level participants from government, business and civil society organizations also attended.
Nairobi hosts two UN headquarters, UN-Habitat and United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), making it the only UN head quarter located in the global South. Other UN Agencies global headquarters are based in developed countries; in Geneva (Switzerland), New York (USA), Paris (France), Rome (Italy), and Vienna (Austria).
In July 2015, Nairobi hosted the USA President Barack Obama during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES). The high-level meeting was held for the first time in Sub-Sahara Africa and Obama was the first sitting USA president to visit Kenya.
During Obama’s visit, trade agreements worth 1.2 trillion were signed by USA and Kenya. Short term visas required by Kenyans intending to visit America were extended from two years to five years. The move was to promote bilateral trade, tourism and enhance cooperation between the two countries.
The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), was renewed for another ten year term by President Obama in June 2015. The pact allows African countries to export over 8,000 products without paying taxes to the vast American market. Kenya is a beneficiary of the agreement with thousands employed in the textile and agricultural sectors. In 2015 Kenya emerged as Africa’s largest apparel exporter to USA.
In November, the head of Catholic Church and Vatican City State, Pope Francis visited Kenya. It was his first African tour since he was elected on March 2013. During his three day visit he met leaders from government, opposition, youth and leaders from diverse faiths. The Pope also addressed weighty issues like corruption, tribalism, social injustice and climate change.
At the end of the year, Kenya successfully hosted the 10th World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in December 2015. The ministerial conference is the highest decision making organ in WTO and it brought more than 7,000 delegates in Nairobi.
In addition, Kenya has exerted peace diplomacy in resolving conflicts in East Africa and the Great Lakes region. President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn played a significant role in the South Sudan’s peace process. The protagonists in the conflict, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Dr Riek Machar signed the peace agreement on August 26 2015 after a 20 month civil war.
However, President Kenyatta has been criticized for making 43 foreign trips in three years of his presidency, as compared to his predecessor Mwai Kibaki, who undertook 33 foreign trips during his ten year reign. Government insiders have defended Uhuru’s trips arguing that they are necessary in attracting foreign direct investment and promoting friendly relations between Kenya and other states. Deputy president William Ruto has supported his boss saying that the trips have contributed to Kenya getting a positive profile internationally. “The President goes for the meetings because it is necessary, because of the visits; Kenya is getting a new profile,” Ruto said. Overall, Uhuru’s foreign trips have contributed to Kenya’s global ranking as a major destination for investors.
Kenya’s role in formulating Sustainable Development Goals
Kenya was feted for its role in the formulation of Post-2015 development agenda process. Amb Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s permanent representative to UN in New York, facilitated the inter-governmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and co-chaired the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.
The Post 2015 development agenda was adopted by 193 UN member states in September during United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It took two years to negotiate and come up with the 17 goals that aim to tackle climate change, inequality, poverty and hunger by 2030.
Consequently, Amb Macharia Kamau was awarded with the prestigious Elizabeth Haub Award for his extraordinary leadership and personal commitment to the negotiations and adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Tactful negotiations safeguard Kenya’s interests
Kenya’s diplomatic circles have been lauded for impeccable negotiation skills that have ensured the country’s national interests are realized. After years of protracted negotiations, Kenya and the United Kingdom signed a deal to allow British troops to continue training in Kenya for the next five years. The stalemate was unlocked after Kenya’s demands for prosecution of errant British soldiers who commit crime in the country, were incorporated.
The new Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed by Defence Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo and UK High Commissioner to Kenya, Nic Hailey on December 9 2015. The deal stipulates that Kenyan law will apply on British soldiers that commit crimes whilst off duty. Conversely, if the crime is committed by a soldier while on duty then the UK military law will apply, and the proceedings will be held in Kenya.
The British Army Training Unit in Kenya (BATUK) is a permanent training base that trains over 10,000 British troops annually. It is based in Nanyuki and has existed since pre-independence era.
Diplomatic prospects in 2016
Japan announced that Kenya will host the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 2016. It will be the first time the conference will be held outside Japan. Mr Mikio Mori, Japan’s Deputy Ambassador to Kenya, took pride with Kenya’s capability as a host, “There are not many countries which can host a conference of such magnitude and it is an honor that Kenya was picked out of all the countries in Africa.”
TICAD was established by the Government of Japan in 1993, as a forum to discuss the future development of Africa. The conference is co-organized by the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and African Union Commission.
In July 2016, Kenya is also expected to host the 14th session of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Certainly, 2015 was a year of grand diplomatic success for Kenya. The government should now ensure that all the bilateral agreements that were signed, are fully implemented in order to achieve maximum results. Similarly, Kenya’s top diplomats should continue to push for approval of direct flights between Nairobi and USA. The realization of direct flights will bring many business opportunities and intensify growth in the tourism sector. Currently South Africa Airways is the only African airline that is certified to have direct flights to USA.