Djibouti is vying with Kenya to win an elected seat in the United Nations Security Council for the 2021-22 term among the African bloc. The candidacy contest for the current open seat has revealed a rare open disagreement between African nations that is linked to China’s control in parts of the continent.
The African Union decides which of the two candidates it will endorse during an executive session on Feb. 9-10, held at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African Union would then make a deal with the “loser,” a diplomat from a third African country told PassBlue, giving the country another position in a UN body, perhaps.
Both Djibouti and Kenya, both East African countries, have at different times announced through their official channels China’s support for their bids to win the open Security Council seat for the African region, only to backtrack later. As of today, China has not acknowledged directly that it has endorsed Djibouti, where it operates a military base and has financed the expansion one of the most strategic ports in the world, Doraleh.
Beijing has also avoided endorsing Kenya officially. China is Kenya’s largest financial creditor; according to Ernst & Young, Chinese companies invested $72.2 billion from 2014 to 2018 in Africa, twice as much as the United States has invested. According to Kenya’s annual budget, the country owes $5.3 billion to China for infrastructure projects.
The eagerness of both Djibouti and Kenya to publicize an endorsement by China, however unofficial, shows not only the clout of Beijing in Africa, but also challenges the African Union’s own process on endorsing countries for Security Council elections. The typical method is for the African Union to negotiate an endorsement behind closed doors, then announce the decision publicly, striving to present a unified front for the continent.
A committee in the African Union voted to endorse Kenya’s bid last August, but Djibouti has been questioning the process ever since.
“The voting, the process represents a violation of the AU rules, and this is why we rejected the outcome as flawed and illegitimate and as a break from precedent that never happened before,” said Djibouti’s ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Siad Doualeh, in an interview in New York.
The African Union norms, Doualeh told PassBlue, work as follows: it selects the national candidate based on the frequency and recency of its participation in the Security Council to ensure equitable representation among Africa’s 54 countries. Kenya, an Anglophone country, has been a Council member twice, the last time in 1997-1998; Djibouti, a Francophone country, was a member of the Council in 1993-1994. Thus, Djibouti has precedence, Doualeh said.
“Under the rules of the African Union, it is indisputable that Djibouti should be the sole African group’s candidate for a seat at the UNSC [UN Security Council] for the period 2021-2022 at the elections to be held in June 2020,” Doualeh said at a Council meeting on international peace and security this month.
The African candidate is usually chosen by consensus. The vote in August, therefore, is not valid, Doualeh said. He also rejected as “ludicrous” the notion that three Francophone nations should not be in the Security Council at once, as argued by some other African nations. Three Francophone nations were on the Council last in 2001: Mali, Mauritius and Tunisia.
If Djibouti lands on the Council for 2021-22, it will join Niger and Tunisia, who sit in the two other African seats, the first year. They joined the Council in 2020, so their terms finish at the end of 2021. South Africa vacates its seat on Dec. 31 — the opening for Kenya or Djibouti.
Despite Djibouti’s remarks in the Security Council, Tom Amolo, Kenya’s political and diplomatic secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presented his country as “Africa’s candidate” in the same meeting. On its Twitter page, Kenya’s mission to the UN says, “AU endorsed candidate for UN Security Council 2021-2022.” Both Djibouti and Kenya have put up campaign banners in the lobbies of the UN headquarters, promoting their candidacies.
The AU permanent representative in New York, a Nigerian diplomat named Fatima Kyari Mohammed, declined through a representative to “discuss the topic for now.” Representatives at the Kenya mission to the UN did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.
Is China flip-flopping?
Whoever the African Union endorses in February, the candidate still needs to secure two-thirds of UN General Assembly votes in the final countdown in June. Last August, the fight between Kenya and Djibouti appeared to be solved, when Kenya beat Djibouti 37 votes to 13 in a secret ballot at the African Union.
Djibouti’s ambassador to the African Union, Mohammed Idris Farah, apparently conceded defeat, although a few days later, Doualeh announced from New York that the country remained in the race.
Djibouti faced a more serious setback when Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, suggested in December that the Chinese State Councilor, Wang Yong, had endorsed the country’s bid to the Security Council, but it is rare for a permanent-five member of the Council to publicly back a candidate. (The other permanent members are Britain, France, Russia and the United States.)
“We firmly support the reforms of the UN Security Council and believe that Kenya will help to increase the voice of African countries at the UN Security Council,” Yong was quoted as saying in several African media outlets.
A few weeks later, China had an apparent change of heart after its foreign minister, Wang Yi, met Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh. A Djibouti civil society communication channel (balbala tranche 9) tweeted, “China, through its Head of Diplomacy, confirms its support for the Republic of Djibouti for its candidacy for the seat of the United Nations Security Council.” Ambassador Doualeh said that he could neither confirm nor deny Chinese support.
The confusion over which country was the real China candidate prompted Beijing to declare neutrality over a dispute that it says must be resolved in Africa. Recently, Wang made an unscheduled visit to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, after Beijing’s alleged endorsement to Djibouti “caused disquiet in Nairobi,” according to the South China Morning Post. The site is owned by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and is considered a reliable source of information about the Chinese government.
Wang told Kenya’s minister of foreign affairs, Monica Juma, that China “supports Africans to solve African problems in an African way,” according a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press release.
China has compelling reasons to stay more visibly out of the fray. According to the South China Morning Post, Djibouti and Kenya are “home to large-scale Chinese-funded Belt and Road projects — putting Beijing in an awkward position as to which it should support for the UN seat. Sources said Wang had flown to Kenya to clarify the issue and avoid siding with one ally against another.”
The growing Chinese interests in Djibouti have been well documented. China built its first overseas military base in Djibouti, whose coastline hugs the southern entrance to the Red Sea, a direct route to the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden, connecting the Horn of Africa to the Middle East. The US has its largest base in the continent in Djibouti as well. France, Italy and Japan also have military bases there, while Germany, Spain and Britain have troops stationed in Djibouti too.
Djibouti is considered a stable country in the region, so it is continuously eyed by many other nations as a site to set up military bases large and small. Its location is ideal for launching antipiracy and counterterrorism operations in the area.
China’s influence in East Africa has included financing what is billed as Africa’s biggest free trade zone, located in the port of Djibouti City. China also operates a new railway from Ethiopia to Djibouti, and is building a cable to transfer data across the African-Mideast region, from Kenya to Yemen.
Chinese interests in Kenya are also essential for its Belt and Road Initiative — linking China with the rest of Asia as well as Europe and Africa through infrastructure. Exim Bank of China has funded the Standard Gauge Railway, connecting the city of Mombasa with Nairobi, which so far has cost $4.7 billion.
The African candidates to the Security Council could reach a negotiated solution soon, conceded Doualeh of Djibouti. For now, he said: “I can tell you that Djibouti is determined to keep on running. We are the ones that should be getting the seat. We hope reason will prevail.”
This article was updated to reflect that balbala tranche 9 is not an official government organization but a civil society group.
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Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).