Kenya Foreign Policy: Three Presidents and Fifty Years Later

In my view 2013 elections marked the end of the first republic. Since independence all the men who have had the privilege/pain of ruling over Kenyans were alive when the first government was formed. In fact they contributed greatly to the position the country is in at the moment both in domestic and foreign policy. The later is what I am most interested in.

It is a well documented fact that the first Kenyatta Government was west leaning. But that did not hinder some elements in Government, often called radicals, to engage the East nonetheless. That the Government of Kenya entered into trade and military agreements with USSR is an example. Daniel Branch – a professor of history with a deep interest in Kenyan history – chronicles in his book “Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011” that Kenya was to receive an arms catchment from USSR before the British and American Governments impressed upon the Kenyan Government of the ramifications of doing so. The arms were ordered to go back to their country of origin.

In my view Kenyatta’s disenchantment with USSR came about from the events in the region. I draw inspiration from Hilary Ngweno’s “The Making of a Nation.” First there were the revolutions and counter revolutions in DRC which Kenya actively participated in the search for peace – Joseph Murumbi was the Minister for Foreign Affairs then. Secondly their was the mutiny on the Island of Zanzibar led by the army officer John Okello. Thirdly their was the uneasy relationship between Kenyatta and Obote where the former always thought that the latter wanted to supplant his Government in favour of a socialist leaning one led by Odinga; you may recall that there were arms that were found at the border near Odinga’s home area.

All these factors may have weighed heavily on the old man. His task was the establishment of a Government that followed the thesis of hard work for development. But here was another ideology calling for redistribution of resources which sounded – at least to him and his inner circle – like a scheme to benefit the indolent. Moreover this ideology threatened to take power by whatever means necessary. I assume that Kenyatta concluded that fraternizing with USSR would be detrimental to his rule; I do not preclude the hand of the British or American in forming this perception. Therefore it was politically expedient for him to align Kenya’s fortunes with the west while giving lip service to non-alignment to save face within the OAU an in the Non Alignment Movement (NAM).

Exit Kenyatta, in comes Moi. In the first few months he makes populist decisions. He releases political prisoners from detention, the famous Ngugi wa Thiong’o among them. Then comes the 1982 coup which should be read from the fact that Kenya was made a de jure one party state through the machinations of one Mwai Kibaki the VP (as he then was). The Government became repressive and thus Moi kept his promise of “fuata nyayo” (following the footsteps of his predecessor). Detentions without trials, arbitrary arrests, brutal crackdown of political dissidents among other tactics were employed to silence critics. Corruption became an issue as well, though it was also an issue even before Moi’s administration.

The cold war international system collapsed and the sole super power re-oriented its foreign policy. Whereas it believed that the biggest evil in the world was communism and made a point of containing it, with the ‘monster’ vanquished the order of priority changed. Moi’s excesses became to obvious to ignore. Erstwhile the Moi Government hid under the cloud of containment, now the space for maneuver had vanished.

There are some scholars – and to some extent I agree with them – who think that Moi went on a cleansing spree. Kenya’s foreign policy was pushed full throttle in defense of the morally bankrupt regime. This was done directly and indirectly. It was directly done through an aggressive diplomatic tactic of sending ministers, especially those in charge of foreign affairs, to sing the praises of the regime. The other, indirectly, was through the diplomatic engagement in Sudan and Somalia as peace makers in an attempt to deflect attention from the state of the nation.

History instructs that this effort failed. Moi was put under pressure to restore reforms and end his ‘dictatorial’ rule. With the constitution amended and the restriction of political parties lifted, there was an explosion of political activity on the scene. For two terms the opposition could not oust Moi but managed to block his protege Uhuru Kenyatta, now president, from getting into office.

I think this is where Kenya’s foreign policy got proper direction; rather than be used to protect the regime and curry favour with the west for aid, it was applied to a specific goal: national development through trade. The so-called economic diplomacy was hatched in Mwai Kibaki’s Administration. His was a plan to use foreign policy to meet Kenya’s industrialization needs. All the goals in Kenya’s foreign policy boiled/still boil down to how much money Kenya would make and how much growth it would register.

Could Kibaki’s background as an economist have something to do with it? I think this would be an interesting M.A. thesis; to what extent does the idiosyncrasies of Kenyan leaders account to the formulation and implementation of Kenya’s foreign policy? I would make an intelligent guess and say to a large extent. Kibaki saw things through the cost-benefit rubric and saw in China a perfect break from the past in terms of west (over)reliance.

Curiously, he seemed to have made a complete round-about. In 1965 he and Tom Mboya authored a document called “African Socialism and its Application to Kenya” which was Sessional Paper no.10. This document has been a linchpin in Kenya’s foreign relations. It was perceived as the total rejection of the concept of socialism and worse still communism in Kenya. But Kibaki, almost 40 years later, engages the communist Chinese; I find this fascinating to say/write the least.

Now there is the Kenyatta II Government. I cannot speak to the future as a social scientist can only investigate what has already happen as engaging in speculation is fraught with its own intricacies. However I do note the fact that the not so new Government is keeping in step with the Kibaki’s Administration’s view on foreign relations: that trade is the main tool through which Kenya will deal with the world. Interesting times ahead I should think.

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