Kenya says it wants to promote peace in East Africa and has no problems with neighboring countries. At the same time, there are undeniable signs of diplomatic strains with at least four neighbors, including two that recently recalled their ambassadors from Nairobi.
Kenya's effort to assert itself as a regional political force and economic hub in eastern Africa is not going over well with some of its neighbors.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan recalled their ambassadors after their governments accused Kenya of hosting and dealing with their countries’ opposition groups in Nairobi.
Uganda, meanwhile, recently took Kenya to an East African court in Tanzania over an oil distribution dispute. The case is about Kenya not allowing Ugandan government oil marketers to operate within its borders. This comes after Uganda discontinued the previous open tender system for purchasing petroleum products from Kenya.
Also, Tanzania banned Kenya Airways flights from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam last week because Kenya allegedly denied permission for Tanzania’s national carrier to operate cargo flights to Nairobi. The ban was lifted after discussions between the foreign affairs ministers of the two countries.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Musalia Mudavadi said Sunday that his country is “not at war” with its neighbors and wants to bring peace to the region.
“Some states are vulnerable, others are in conflict, and our president, William Samoei Ruto, is on the front line, making sure peace returns in these countries,” said Mudavadi. “He says the wars in those countries will affect our country too."
Kenya has come under criticism from some Africans and its own citizens on how the government is handling engagement with other states.
International relations expert Kizito Sabala says the diplomatic spats are growing out of countries trying to counter Kenya's influence.
"There is always going to be a tug-of-war with what Kenya tries to do from the neighbors,” Sabala said. “But from my point of view, I don't think there is really something very serious to worry about. These are things that will continue to come as Kenya tries to assert itself as a regional power. And the other countries will try to find any leverage to use it in order to bring that down."
Kenyan President Ruto, who came to power more than a year ago, has met several heads of state in Africa, including his neighbors, promising to help solve Africa's chronic problems of conflict and hunger, and to bring economic development.
Sabala says such assertiveness from a new leader will get pushback.
"They are reacting the way they are reacting because I think in Nairobi we have a new president who is very assertive and who seems to be projecting this to the region and therefore I think that in itself seems to be telling them, ‘no, no, no, no, let's stop here,’” Sabala said. “But I think with the time they'll just get used to the way our president is doing things and that's fine. I don't think it's a big, big issue to worry about."
Experts urge Kenya to handle the conflict in the Congo cautiously, especially regarding rebel groups that have contributed to the country's instability. They also want Kenya to refrain from taking sides in the Sudan conflict, which has pitted the country's armed forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces against each other.