Kenya Foreign Policy: Normative or Pragmatic?

Of the words I would choose to describe Kenya’s foreign policy, norm-driven is not among them. Despite the reiteration in many a Government’s documents on its foreign policy on the primacy of norms, Kenya appears – at least from history – to be carrying on a pragmatic approach in its international relations. Therefore such norms as non-alignment, as commonly understood and as quoted in a draft Government foreign policy paper, may be of little value in understanding how Kenya behaves in the international arena. I suggest here that its approach to international relations reveals a cunning and ruthless pursuit of her national goals irrespective of ideals; the places where her actions seems ideal, I argue is a confluence with strategic pragmatic concerns thinly veiled as an adherence to norms. Some few examples would suffice.

Non-alignment was one of the norms that Kenya adopted to guide her foreign policy. At the height of the Cold War, Kenya saw it prudent not to side with any super power (United States or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) at least in theory. As early as 1966 (merely three years after independence) the country’s economic planning minister and two other cabinet colleagues were sent to USSR to terminate trade and aid agreements. In fact the only Soviet project then (out of the nine negotiated by Odinga and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Murumbi) that kicked off and was completed was the general hospital in Nyanza. On the other hand, British and American – who were on the capitalist side – bases were being constructed in Kenya. This was in addition to the technical assistance that Kenya received from these two countries in, as far as I know, military affairs. For the US in particular, their was a keen interest not to let communism spread into the third world – a policy that was called containment.

This contradiction has generated a lot of interest for scholars specializing in East African affairs. It was this latent ambivalence in Kenya’s foreign policy that led Samuel Makinda to conclude that an explanation was to be found within the state. At independence, which was December 12th 1963 by the way, Kenya was left with an economy concentrated in foreign hands (foreign capital). Options at the time were either to entertain them or adopt a radical policy of ‘africanization’ wherein the capital would be driven into the hands of indigenous Kenyans, noting that there were Asian and European Kenyans. This foreign capital, as argued by the proponents of the so called dependency theory, directed Kenya’s foreign relations.

It is on this issue that the ruling party was bitterly divided. The notion of independence must have meant different things to different KANU leaders. To the radicals, Odinga and company, it was the immediate transfer of economic power (through capital ownership) to the hands of indigenous Kenyans. In the other camp (called the conservatives), usually associated with Mboya but was really Kenyatta (senior), such a move spelt doom for the Kenyan economy at least in their eyes. It is little wonder that Kenyatta would say on a number of occasion (e.g. a speech delivered at a Kenya African Union meeting in 1948) that those who expect free land or walk into shops heretofore run by Asians or Europeans and say that they owned them were deluded. How Odinga and his associates missed such hints is beyond me. The radicals in Government were routed and the status quo maintained.

The supposed fear, of which no cogent evidence has been provided, was that this foreign capital would dissipate if Kenya was perceived to shift to the left as did Tanzania (Arusha Declaration, 1964) and Uganda (Common Man’s Charter, 1967) through the adoption of the policies Odinga and friends espoused. Owing to this fear, Nairobi was particularly keen not to vex its imperial development ‘partners’. Therefore, while Kenya paid lip service to non-alignment, it continued doing business with the capitalist west much to the chagrin of her erstwhile friendly neighbours.

Another foreign policy beacon was the right to self determination. For those of you who were alive in 1967 and were old enough to understand political issues especially those in Kenya, there was a war. This war was precipitated by a group of separatist called the Shifta. In fact what many people know about the conflict is that few errand fellows got excited and demanded for their right to be part of Somali with Somali Government moral and material support. What many do not know is that a referendum was held by the British in 1962 and that the inhabitants of the Northern Frontier District (as it then was) voted overwhelmingly (80%) to be part of Somalia. However, fearing negative repercussions from the incoming Kenyatta administration, the British colonial administration decided not to act on it.

Again I see national interests taking center stage as the expense of ideals. Coming from a colonial setting, the Kenyan Government knew only too well that an injustice had been done. A democratic process of correcting the errors was brushed aside at the alter of expedient political manoeuvring by the British only too eager to placate the new African administration. This Government never did anything about it, in fact it went as far as impressing upon Mogadishu that the principle of uti possidenti iuris was very much alive in East Africa.

Finally, there was the policy statement towards the East African Common Services Organization (EACSO) – the harbinger to the East African Community (EAC), perhaps one of the biggest failures of Kenya’s foreign policy since independence. Kenya needed the EACSO especially as a route to South African states’ markets. It was also a provided a market through which Kenya finished products could find a market within the East African region. However its devotion to the community on paper was not commensurate with how it developed and executed its policy in East Africa. One need only study how the EACSO collapsed to see another ambivalence; there is a wide discrepancy between what was said and what was done.

These examples, and others not mentioned, lead me to the conclusion that Kenya’s foreign policy was not a slave to any ideals. It sought out opportunities where they lay even if they were not congruent to its proclaimed norms. In this regard, I think, Kenya’s foreign policy ought to be studied through the prism of the neo-realist school as its manifest pursuit of national interests warrants such a move. I therefore think that Kenya’s foreign policy was, and to a great extent still is, pragmatic in nature.

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What’s in a Presidential Visit?

A proposed visit by President Barrack Obama to some African countries has gotten a lot of people talking. The fact that he is coming so close to Kenya but not to Kenya has not escaped the keen eyes of Kenyans. Speculation is rife as to the reason why the so called ‘Kenyan son’ is not coming ‘home’.

It is on record that Obama visited the country some time in 2006. This was two years before his historic election to one of the most powerful offices in the world. He came in search of his roots as he had a Kenyan father.

Since his election, the ‘Kenyan son’ has never set foot in the country. Once when Michael Ranneberger was the US envoy to Kenya, there was talk of him coming. The reason given for his snubbing his ‘home’ was the slow pace of reform in the country. This was a period after the promulgation of the new constitution.

Now Obama is coming, or should I say is bringing the US presidency very close to home. He is scheduled to visit Tanzania. This has got some Kenyans wondering why the snub while others making a jest of it all wondering whether he became China’s president for us to care much. All this raises the question of the purpose of this visit.

In my humble opinion, it is a form through which US foreign policy is implemented. These visits are usually ‘granted’ to states that have policies that are congruent with the idealist pedestal that US foreign policy is predicated upon. Thus as one can reasonably conclude, if a state lacks these ideals, then no visit.

So why snub Kenya? To some the answer is only too obvious. On May 4th 2013 Kenyans elected ICC indictees to the office of the President and his deputy amid warning from western diplomats of ‘essential contact’ and ‘choices have consequences’. But one can ask why the US deals with other governments that continue to oppress their people while preaching the very ideals that are broken by these governments.

I think the answer can be found in two extremes. The first is US public opinion. This is a very strong component in American foreign policy with each leader striving not to cross the American public.It is however linked strongly to the historical capital of the nation since independence.

Since the country was founded by declaring independence from Britain in 1776, it has always considered its policies through moral imperatives. In fact one of the reasons that it employed the isolationist policy was the tendency to see their distance from Europe and being surrounded by two vast oceans through the divine lens rather than a geo-political fact. Thus through out its history, the people and consequently their opinion have been wired to think in terms of ideals as opposed to hard political realities.

The second extreme is the reality of the international political landscape. After the world war, the US started seeing things in a more realistic way. Implementing policies that consider men as good and that their goodness could be drawn from public conscience quickly met a world where calculations of power ran supreme. In a short time their were spheres of influence and thus a pseudo-balance of power mechanism between the capitalist and communist blocs.

To maintain such a balance they needed a policy that would stop-gap communist growth and influence. This was when George F. Kennan proposed the containment policy. For it to work, states that were hitherto capitalist or neutral could never have been allowed to end up in Soviet hands. This led the US administration to deal with people like Mobutu and even plan the assassination of Patrice Lumumba who was widely perceived to be a communist sympathizer in Washington.

All this was being done at a covert level. Any leaks in intelligence would mean a bad rating in the polls owing to public opinion.  If it happened it would be followed by measures set to placate the indignant response of the American public. Thus many of the operations were done secretly and outside their knowledge.

So what is the relevance of this all? I mean the Cold War has ended? What does this have to do with the US President visiting Tanzania? Bear with me, I am getting to that.

Indeed, the Cold War has ended but replaced with War on Terror. Like in the Cold War, the War on Terror requires allies indispensable for its success. The war is accentuated by the so called Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and focus on state sponsors of terrorism and failed state. East Africa has such a state in the name of Somalia.

So I see Obama as being in a dilemma.  He cannot come to Kenya owing to fear of unfavourable pressure, and I should add that he is not as brave as the British who invited President Kenyatta to the London Conference on Somali. But at the same time he cannot afford to ignore Nairobi in the ongoing fight against terror.

The solution to this would be to snub Nairobi publicly but deal with it privately. He has recognised the Government of Mr. Kenyatta, hasn’t he? In my view the fact that Obama is not coming to Kenya is irrelevant since it does not translate to any substantial benefit to Kenya’s interest.  I mean even Bashir enjoys the private relations with Washington doesn’t he?

Political Realism

And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good.

Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527