Studying Kenya’s Foreign Policy: Seminal Events that shaped Kenya’s Foreign Policy, 1963-66 (Part I)

Kenya’s foreign policy has not changed much in content from independence. For example it still lists non interference and non alignment as some of its principles that were forged between 1963 and 1966 owing to some events that prevailed at the time. The following two posts are dedicated to examining each of these events and how they affected the foreign policy of Kenya.

Shifta War

Before independence, the British attempted to resolve the Northern Frontier conundrum. It involved the fate of the Somali people in Kenya who – after the partitioning of East Africa – fell into British sphere of influence and were eager to join their kin to form one united Somalia. This meant that the land on which they settled also was to become part of Somalia.

The nationalist (especially those in KANU) were averse to such a proposition. According to John Howel it would have meant a big blow to their nationalist credentials. It would have also encouraged other secessionist groups in the country – as was thought at the time – and encouraged the KADU wave of sectionalism as they were keen on regional power as opposed to a centralist form of Government.

Moreover the international dimension of the issue became a national security threat to Kenya. Somali, having achieved independence three years before, fomented discord in countries that had substantial populations of Somali people. This were Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.

When the independence came and the KANU Government refused to relent, armed conflict broke out. The so called shifta war broke out in the Northern Frontier District with the objective of breaking away and forming one united Somalia.

Kenya’s military at the time was weak (see Katete Orwa’s article on Continuity and Change: KFP from Kenyatta to Moi & Charles Hornsby’s Kenya: A History since Independence). Numbers of military men were pegged at 2,700 facing an insurrection force of alomot equal number. Thus there were few service men at the disposal of the Government to conduct the war. Therefore, the Government had to rely on British troops to train more men and conduct the war considering that some 5,00 of them were still in the country at independence. Still this was not enough.

The Kenyan Government turned to Ethiopia for assistance. In 1964 defense pact was signed between the two Governments since they faced a common foe. This pact remains intact to this day. Although there are scholars that opine that this is proof of dependency (particularly Samuel Makinda), it reveals a very realistic scenario for Kenya and may give credence to a realist analysis of Kenya’s foreign policy rather than one that is predicated on a pseudo-Marxist conceptual framework.

Territorial integrity became a rallying cry in Kenya’s foreign policy. With an insurrection on their hands, the rational thing to do would be to denounce secession and increasingly support the principle of uti possidenti juris enshrined in the 1964 OAU Declaration on Border Disputes Among African States.

A corollary of the same was military alliances as tools of foreign policy. Ethiopia, UK and much later US provided some of the military assistance under agreements signed between Kenya and these states. Since Kenya did not have the capacity, at that time, to protect her borders, it deemed it fit to engage other states facing either similar challenges or had interests in the region and were powerful enough.

Furthermore, the fact that USSR was supporting Somalia militarily reinforced the idea of pacts with western powers.There was a confluence of interests if you like, between Kenya and the western powers. The former seeking territorial security while the later eager to contain the spread of communism.

From this event to date, Kenya has always maintained that territorial integrity is part and parcel of its foreign policy. It is no wonder that the Migingo (an island on Lake Victoria that is disputed between Kenyan and Uganda) issue is very vital. Never you mind that the actual value of the land itself – in terms of productivity etc – may not be worth the struggle. It also maintains the defense pact with Ethiopia despite the dissipation of the threat they both once faced.

Colonial & Post Colonial Economy

After independence, many countries inherited the former colonial systems. Kenya is no different. The economic system that it inherited was transplanted from the British. The problem here – as Kenyatta and his colleagues came to discover – was the heavy dependence on foreign capital and labour especially the British type.

Prof. Colin Leys explains the specifics in his book Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism. The Kenyan economy was so dependent on British capital that had Kenya taken a path that was uncomfortable with the foreign elites, they would be staring at economic ruin – at least viewed from the eyes of the leaders then. Kenya decided, or at least the elites in power with notable exceptions, that it was best for Kenya not to conduct policies that were likely to raffle the feathers of benefactors.Many scholars opine that this was the reason why Kenya took a ‘wait and see’ ( a term made famous by Njoroge Mungai the then Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation when describing Kenya’s foreign policy) stance on most crucial international issues. The era of ‘quiet diplomacy’ had began with Kenya shunning from confrontational – read radical – foreign policy objective.

John Howel examines this issue in depth in his article An Analysis of Kenya’s Foreign Policy. In the article he states that Kenya’s cautious approach was directly related to its desire to attract foreign investment. Although he does state that in most cases Kenya’s foreign policy was radical in nature such as its stance on the Congo Crisis in 1964, the rhetoric therein was framed in a way not to harm any substantial foreign policy interests. A quote is also provided where Mwai Kibaki, the then Minister for Commerce, stated that Kenya would not follow irresponsible policies. By this he was referring to the radicalism which was espoused by certain notable members of the Government then.

Into the bargain, many public offices were manned by British nationals. The military was led by British nationals who helped set up other arms of the military such as the Kenya Air Force and the Kenya Navy. The civil service was also manned by Britons who could be replaced at the time due to shortage of skilled replacement.

The net effect of this state of affairs was to tie Kenya’s fortunes to Britain. The effects of colonial investment in Kenya was too great for Kenya to discard the services of the British crown. It later led Kenya to have strong ties with Britain which have only in the recent past been shaken.

Domestic Rifts

Internally, there was some tension that had a bearing on what foreign policy approach Kenya took. It is the source of confusion as to whether Kenya adopted a truly non alignment policy. This was the ideological battle between the radicals and the conservatives/moderates in Government.

The radicals had envisioned a quick Africanization of the economy. That huge tracts of land that were left behind by the white settlers would be given to the landless Africans. That shops hitherto owned by Asians and Europeans would somehow be given to Africans to run. That Kenya’s foreign policy would be lead by ideals and not by political expediency. These were but a few expectations of the radical bunch.

In reality, there were other considerations that had to be taken into account. For instance, did the ‘indigenous’ African have the skills to operate a shop or a large farm? What effect would it have on the economy if land was given out to Africans rather than sold to them? Would the British colonialist ever agree to such an arrangement. However most the most important question was whether Kenya was independent enough (economically) to take such actions. The answer appeared to be to in the negative.

Another issue that arose was Kenyatta’s suspicion of Odinga’s motives. He thought that Odinga had calculations on the presidency and was using his communist ties to fund his operations. It is little wonder that Kenyatta saw in Odinga a potent threat after the discovery of a cache of ammunition near the Kenya-Uganda border (Odinga’s turf) in 1964.

It was therefore inevitable that the two factions would compete for legitimacy among the Kenyan electorate with Kenyatta keen on removing Odinga from power. The battle saw Odinga, the de facto leader of the radical group, ousted from power leaving Kenyatta his arch-rival at the helm. This incident pushed Kenyan foreign policy further towards the west than the east. Consider the cancellation of Russian projects and military assistance by the Kenyan Government and the stronger ties with British and other western states sought by the Kenyan Government as evidence of the same.

This point has raised doubts as to whether Kenya’s foreign policy was truly non aligned. Considering that the non alignment movement was against any form of favouritism/fraternization/alliance between any block, Kenya’s actions appear to be inconsistent in this regard. Perhaps Kenya’s understanding of non alignment was not coterminous with the one adopted by the world.

End of part I


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