Studying Kenya’s Foreign Policy: Pre and Post Independence Overview

Over the past few weeks I have embarked on an ambitious project to map out the internal and external influences on Kenya’s foreign policy. It has been inspired by the idea that one could map out a country’s foreign policy using the SWOT analysis business rubric. This is an assessment done so far.

I started out by looking the her policy from the time she got independence on 12 December 1963. However I have often questioned myself ‘what of the period before the said date?’For those familiar with the history of Kenya, she became a protectorate in 1895 (British East Africa Protectorate). Before then, she was a business concern that was run by the Imperial British East African Company (IBEACo) from 1888 under Sir William Mackinnon. The British government took her over after the IBEACo ceased to be profitable. She then became a colony in 1920 and was then renamed Kenya.

So of what relevance is this to the study Kenya’s foreign policy? It wouldn’t surprise one to know that ‘Kenya’s foreign policy’ was British foreign policy then. This hinges on the legal definition of a colony as being part of the empire though administratively autonomous. By 1907 (year which the Legislative Council was formed) it could make its own laws and implement them. But as far as foreign policy was concern, I have not found evidence to suggest that it was any different from that of the United Kingdom (being the seat of foreign policy governance of the British Empire). However, the pre-independence history does not add much value other than for knowledge sake.

More to the point though, Kenya’s colonial legacy is pivotal in understanding the path she took immediately after independence. The need for political and economic development as well as national security drove her foreign policy especially in the early years. Kenya was not ethnically homogeneous, having been – in or around 1918 – divided into three major ethnic groupings (Bantu, Nilotes and Cushites) which were separated in a divide and rule strategy. Thus the country was united by the common goal of throwing off the chains of colonialism which manifested as nationalism.

Owing to the control of capital in foreign hands, as Samuel Makinda points out and John Howel corroborates, Kenya could not pursue a radical foreign policy say as that of Tanzania, during the period. This was because in the assessment of the Kenyatta government, assuming one was done, Kenya could not sustain such an ‘irresponsible’ foreign policy if she was to maintain and attract foreign capital. It is said that this made Kenya to hold relatively moderate views on international events.

This assertion is used to portray Kenya’s foreign policy at the time as cautious: that it eschewed extreme rhetoric that was the mainstay of many an African foreign policy. But deeper still was the reality of indigenous economic powerlessness owing to dependence on foreign capital. For a country that sought economic development as a national agenda, antagonizing foreign capital seemed to be suicidal.

Thus in government there emerged a rift that became apparent on or about 1966 when the radicals in government were routed out of the ruling party and all together kicked out of government. These included inter alia Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia and Achieng Oneko. It would be foolhardy, nevertheless, to assume that this event was primarily based on realistic foreign policy calculations rather than borderline megalomaniac consolidation of power.

National security is grouped among major considerations in foreign policy formulation then. Somali irredentism was rife and the then Somali government wanted hive off the North Eastern Province (formerly known as the Northern Frontier District) and incorporate it as Somali territory. It sparked off a war (the Shifta war that ended in 1967) that was majorly funded by the Somali government. Kenya ‘won’ that contest never you mind that a referendum was conducted by the British government about a year before Kenya’s independence and that 80 percent of the inhabitants voted to be part of Somalia.

There was also a claim that was put by Idi Amin that Uganda’s eastern border went well beyond Kisumu and incorporated the Rift Valley province. This is said to have shaped Kenya’s policy toward the Horn of Africa and the larger East Africa. It was one of the many reasons that contributed to the collapse of the East African Cooperation Treaty.

As one looks at all these events, it is impossible to ignore sub-regional, regional and international political concerns. As pointed out by Professor Howel, Kenya’s foreign policy was ambivalent once examined in these three planes. His analysis, done in 1969, came to the conclusion that the pursuit of the above discussed objectives which were domestic concerns, heavily influenced the way Kenya behaved in the internationally.

In coming up with a way to comprehensively examine Kenya’s foreign policy, I think a thorough understanding of the country’s history is relevant. One should examine the political economy, political and economic stability as well as security concerns to begin to grasp the bigger picture that is Kenya’s foreign policy. I think this will be a very interesting ride for me.

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