The place of sports in Kenya’s national interests

The place of sports in Kenya’s national interests

By Kenyatta Otieno

Contemporary wisdom defines a country as a group of people who share two major brands – beer and an airline. Kenya as a country is blessed with Tusker as a beer brand and Kenya Airways not only as a national carrier but Africa’s pride. However, Kenya is known in the whole world as a sporting nation and a nation endowed with a beautiful environment full of wildlife.

That aside, as the ICC cases for the four Kenyans began in The Hague, the word “sovereignty” was frequently peddled around, both as defence and endorsement of their immunity against prosecution, just like many other words frequently misused in foreign policy, such as “international community”, “the right side of history” and “vital interests. But the truth is sovereignty ends the moment a nation cannot uphold or defend it. The fact that the cases had ended up in The Hague meant that we had abdicated part of our sovereignty in the first place. 

In layman’s language, sovereignty is the container that holds national interests. As an analytic tool, “national interest” is employed to describe the sources or the adequacy of a nation’s foreign policy. As an instrument of political action, it serves as a means of justifying, denouncing, or proposing policies. In both usages, it refers to what is best for a nation.

“Supreme national interests” are those interests that a state’s existence depends on, and in whose defence a state will go to war – such as territorial integrity and independence – while “vital interests” are those interests that do not threaten the existence of a state and may be defended by war if war will not threaten supreme interests. Kenya decided to invade Somalia when Al Shabaab became a threat to our tourism industry which is crucial to our economy. This is a vital interest.

Our tourism industry is a vital interests (economically speaking) while sports is a strategic interest. Strategic interests cannot be defended by war but a state can adjust its policies to address the needs of its strategic interests. Though our athletes bring in a good amount of money from winning international events, we have not gained much from team sports. 

Foreign Policy thinker Hans Morgenthau states that “national interest” is the perennial standard by which political action must be judged and directed”. He goes further to state that the kind of interest determining political action in a particular period of history depends upon the political and cultural context for formulating foreign policy, whose objectives must be defined in terms of national interest.

It is these gems by Morgenthau that have led me to write this, in the hope of urging the relevant arms of the government to push sports into the zone of national interest. It is part of our current culture but, who knows, with the ever-changing social trends, we may not be the kings of medium and long distance races as well as scintillating rugby champions in future. It is thus prudent and pragmatic to reap from them now while good fortune lasts.

Every state sends attachés to work in their embassies abroad. These attaches represent various fields deemed crucial to state interests – military, intelligence, media and trade. It is time Kenya had a sports attaché in every embassy abroad. Those assigned these role will seek to secure good rates for Kenyan athletes (all sports) and promote Kenya as a sports tourism destination. Already many international athletes throng Iten town in Elgeyo Marakwet County to train in the high altitudes zones. That is as good a place as any to start.

Sports diplomacy

Table tennis, also known as ping-pong, was used to restore relations between China and United States of America in the early seventies. The two teams met at a tournament in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971 and became friends. The Chinese team invited their USA counterparts to Beijing, and Henry Kissinger exploited that opportunity to initiate talks that led to President Richard Nixon visiting China in 1972. 

A few years after the “ping pong diplomacy”, USA Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn proposed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to consider “baseball diplomacy” in restoring ties with Cuba. The rationale was that USA was more likely to beat Cuba in baseball which is a good way to break the ice for the US. Kuhn noted that baseball has “the magic value in projecting a positive image for the US”. 

Henry Kissinger rejected the proposal.

When the ministry of Foreign Affairs makes sports part of our foreign policy, it would have started developing our sports to international standards. Our sovereignty is as good as the extent to which we leverage on our strengths to increase our international standing. Ethiopia is hot on our heels in athletics as our Sevens Rugby team blows hot and cold on the IRB Circuit. Football is in doldrums, and cricket and hockey, in which we were once world powers, are crawling. When we invest in developing talent and infrastructure, we can use sports to open doors for other interests in other countries.

The last time we hosted a major sports event is thirty eight years ago when we hosted the All African Games. Hosting such events takes a lot of economic stamina, but we can slowly build our capacity as we look for creative ways to utilise the infrastructure for other social functions. We should be thinking of making Safari Sevens an IRB circuit, and developing a marathon course at zero altitude in any of our coastal towns.

Looking at Vision 2030 and the recently launched Kenyan Foreign Policy, sports is mentioned in passing in the former and does not appear in the latter… perhaps it is part of culture. The five pillars of Kenya’s foreign policy are Economic, Peace Building, Environment, Cultural and Diaspora. We have ignored the low lying fruit that sports is in for national development and as a diplomatic tool. If we utilise our sports well, it can used to push all the pillars mentioned above.

The Sports Act 2013 was passed after almost a decade in the legislative bureaucracy. One would be forgiven to assume that the time it took for the Act to be promulgated gave us a near perfect piece of legislation. The end result was a law with several typographical errors that had to be sorted out by a legal notice before it came into law. What this means is that sports in Kenya is treated as a mater unworthy of legal finesse. 

The details of the Act have not been executed and federations and clubs are yet to register with the Registrar of Sports. The failure of sports to take its rightful place can be attributed to the government on one side and the federations and clubs on the other. There seems to be no line of convergence of interests, and might not be until, perhaps, we make it part of our national interest.


Track Two

The formal diplomatic avenues are called “track one” in diplomatic lingo; the informal diplomatic circles are called “track two”. We can employ sports in a simple way to initiate and unlock complex interactions that will benefit our nations other interests.

In “track two” diplomacy, Ludovic Origi, Paul Tergat, Victor Wanyama and Humphrey Khayange are just as influential as our diplomats and foreign ministry staff albeit in a different way and setting. Where a diplomat needs accreditation clearance, “track two” diplomats can influence the perception about Kenya of people in other countries in a subtle but powerful way. When they speak, their words touch the hearts of their fans without the sieving of the host country’s foreign office.

Our ambivalent perception of our athletes who have opted to represent other states is a true representation of how we look at sports. The pride of a large pool of talent and more money for the athletes’ families is a thin layer over a feeling of betrayal and unpatriotism. Like the Brazilian football team, it is not easy to get into our athletics national team, so defections are eminent, especially given our large pool of athletic talent. 

The fact that sports icons spare time to visit Kenya is a sign of our important place in the global sporting arena. Cameroonian football legend Samuel Eto’o is supporting football projects in Nanyuki while USA basketball legend Michael Jordan has roped in the likes of Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo into a children hospital project in Eldoret. Sprint sensation Usain Bolt was here to adopt a cheetah as well. These are just a few, but I am sure many sneak in and out for their silent pilgrimages.

With such a powerful tool in our hands, is the government a facilitator, regulator or umpire in the sports arena? Until the government clearly sees the benefits that it can derive from sports apart from the known social benefits, we will lag behind in an area where nature has endowed us with enormous talent and resources.

The wrangles in football, rugby and athletics persist, inhibiting the growth of sports because sports administrators know that sports is not even in “track two” of government agenda. Things will only change if sports is made a pillar of our national interests, and then moved into the first track of our foreign policy.


The writer is a postgraduate student of International Relations at the University of Nairobi, and a freelance sports writer

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