Kenya’sPresident Uhuru Kenyatta made his maiden trip to North Africa last week, meeting with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in what turned out to be a search for another partner for the country’s nascent oil and gas sector and for an ally in the war on terror.
PresidentKenyatta officiated at the opening of Kenya’s first embassy in Algiers and announced plans for both countries to lift visa restrictions for holders of diplomatic passports.
The two countries also signed co-operation agreements in oil, gas and energy, including onshore and offshore exploration and production of hydrocarbons.They also agreed to work closely on security challenges even appealing to the international community to help mitigate the unfolding humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, where abouttwo million people are now internally displaced.
Kenya has been actively seeking investors for its emerging oil and gas sector. Since taking office nearly two years ago, President Kenyatta has concentrated on cultivating strong ties with the Gulf states.
The president has already made official visits to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar, where he signed multibillion -dollar deals in oil and gas, infrastructure and energy projects.
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In Algeria, Kenyasees a country flush with petro-dollars and experience in managing oil windfalls. The country’s oil industry is one of the biggest in the world.
According to the Middle East Economic Survey Algeria’s oil and natural gas export revenues amounted to almost $63.8 billion in 2013. Its foreign exchange reserves reached $194 billion by the end of December 2013.The sector accounts for 60 per cent of the budget, 30 per cent of GDP and over 95 per cent of export earnings.
Algeria has the 10th largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is the sixth largest gas exporter. It ranks 16th in oil reserves. Algeria’s oil production stands at 1.875 million barrels a day.
“As Kenya looks forward to commercial exploitation of its oil resources, we look forward to learning from Algeria’s expertise,” said Kenya’s Foreign Secretary, Amina Mohamed.
While President Kenyatta’s trip focused less on big policy announcements, his choice of Algeria as his first official trip to North Africa did not escape the notice of foreign policy analysts.
“It makes sense thatKenya and Algeria would want to strengthen ties. The country is now emerging as the pivotal state in North Africa,” saidMacharia Munene, a professor of international relations at Nairobi’s United States International University.
Algeria has long been perceived as a significant regional powerhouse. But its perceived importance has risen in the past few years after the geopolitical shift in the Middle East prompted by the Arab Spring.
“With Egypt and Libya in crisis, Algeria, which has long held regional ambitions, emerged to fill the vacuum left by the two hegemons,” Prof Munene said.
Kenya’s political and economic links with North Africa were also disrupted when the wave of revolutions in the Arab world swept through its key ally Libya. As a result, Kenya is trying to firm up its links in the region by expanding ties with other key players. But relations with Libya were not always rosy.
Former president Daniel arap Moi severed ties with Tripoli in 1987 over allegations that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was training dissidents to overthrow his administration.
Diplomatic relations only resumed in 1998, and they gradually improved under former president Mwai Kibaki’s administration to the point where Libya became one of the largest FDI partners for Kenya.
Last year, Kenya announced that it wouldclose its embassy in Libya because of continuing political instability. While the country still has an embassy in Egypt, the political situation there remains unstable. Much of the country’s diplomatic engagements in North Africa are likely to be channelled through the Algiers embassy.
Also, the similarities between Kenya and Algeria would naturally see them gravitate towards each other, Prof Munene said.
Both countries were symbols of the resistance to British and French colonialism in Africa in the 1950s. They are also aspiring regional powers faced with the threats of violent religious extremists.
President Kenyatta said his visit will help his country “benefit from Algerian experience in combating terrorism.”
“Algeria is facing security challenges emanating from Libya and Mali while Kenya is experiencing a similar situation from unstable Somalia and South Sudan,” the president said.
Within Algeria, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) remains the most active security threat. AQIM has attacked Algerian security forces, government targets and westerners in the Sahel, operating primarily in the mountainous areas east of Algiers and in the vast desert regions near Algeria’s southern border.
With weak security institutions, jihadist fighters have ready access to weapons and the long porous borders provide violent extremists with opportunities to destabilise North Africa.
These security concerns have forced Algeria to push its defence budget to over $10 billion to patrol the border it shares with Libya, Mali and Tunisia.
The fear that terrorist groups in Africa could be collaborating and borrowing tactics from each other has seen frontline states commit to sharing intelligence on the activities of Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and Boko Haram.