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.

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.

Of Human Nature and State Behaviour (Part IV)

This is the final post on the series on Machiavelli’s The Prince. In the discipline of International Relations, human nature is often conflated with that of the state. Thus if human nature has a certain quality, that quality is also attributed to the state. It may be that the reasoning behind this is the abstract nature of state which would require humans through government to direct its affairs.

Before going any further I must note debates surrounding the notion of human nature. Many of us assume that there is indeed a common verifiable trait in human beings that transcends any distinction  Most of us believe human beings will behave in the same/similar manner in same/similar circumstances regardless of class or race or any other distinction we impose on ourselves.

However, we do not agree on how these attributes come about. There are those who believe that they are inert; we were born with them. Others vehemently oppose this to adopt the thought that we learn these characteristics from our environment. Machiavelli appears to be of the former’s persuasion as he argues that these traits are present and inert in human beings. Below are some of the traits he discusses in his book.

Appearance Oriented

Machiavelli believes that human beings rarely look beyond appearances. They often conflate the outward look of fellow human beings  with their character. Thus he advises a Prince to always be on the guard with respect to what traits he would like to project. This introduces the theme of perception in politics and how much political capital one can gain from prudent exploitation of thereof.

As far as behaviour of states goes, I see some relevance of this deduction. Perception in international politics is crucial when power is involved. Since there appears to be no scientific method of accurately measuring state power yet, states often project an element of the same which others in the international system perceive as that state’s aggregate power. For instance military might has been perceived to be an accretion of state power and thus infantry and artillery combined is deemed proof of this power. Then again the reality might be quite different.

Bad/Selfish (Good versus Evil)

Man is generally bad. This is according to Machiavelli as he gives a scathing assessment of what can be deemed as an idealist stance. Therein Machiavelli comments that how men ought to live and how they actually live is so different that he who studies the former labours in futility. He adds that those that are good often fall prey to the machinations of the many that are not. Finally he states that goodness should be used for political capital thus need to be used out of necessity.

I think in regards to the way a majority of states perceive the international system and relations in that system, Machiavelli may be on to something. Through the modern history of the state system, states have always viewed the acts of others with much trepidation. With every state concerned about its security, the underlying factor in arms races is the belief that states cannot be trusted since they are at the core bad and will only seek to aggrandize their interests. Therefore the only way to protect ourselves would be to get more arms which are better than the next state.

Comfort Lovers/Indolent

Rarely do human beings want to experience hardships. They will try to avoid hardships and all types of hard work but still expect to enjoy maximum benefits. Machiavelli reckons that if a prince makes it difficult for another to attack his princedom then he is secure because of man’s inherent indolence. He will also be secure because, according to Machiavelli, humans are, by disposition, risk averse beings.

At the inter-state level, I see the concept of balance of power and deterrence as fitting into this assessment of human nature. These two can be viewed to be predicated on the assumption of man’s nature (and perhaps state’s nature) of indolence and predisposition to avert risks. If it is too difficult or too risky to attack another state, no state would consider doing so. Case in point: use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear weapon wielding state, its interests or its allies. Of course we assume that this state is rational.


One can never really satisfy human beings. Give a man a loaf today; chances are that they will be back for more tomorrow. Machiavelli uses this trait to encourage a prince to be frugal with his resources. He warns against copious expression of liberality, as this would likely bankrupt the state and only endear a few. Thus magnanimity is used as a tool for maintaining political power and nothing more.

Though prone to be taken for granted, Machiavelli’s thought is relevant while examining  aid programs by more endowed states. For instance, the United States has been able to take advantage of the insatiability of economically developing states to push through its democratization agenda. With the rise of the unipolar system with the US at the helm in the late 20th century, many states have had to dance to the tunes of the sole super power for economic development.


When human beings look at life, they more often than not do not look beyond their noses. At least this is the case according to Machiavelli. Man wants benefits now rather than later which may lead to impatience. He thrives at looking at the present needs forgetting that he will have needs in tomorrow.

I see a correlation between this notion and international environmental relations. Little else has been more acrimonious and divisive than the protection of mother earth at the international level. Many states, especially those still developing (e.g. China) and developed, somehow see it as a threat to their development and continued dominance in world affairs if the world agrees on ways to save the planet. Much focus is on the economic viability of these agreements (here and now) rather than the debilitating effects this continued arrogance yields for our future.


Finally, ever wonder whether law is enforceable without a degree of force? If you have, you are among the few who are socially conscious. A question frequently asked by jurists is whether law requires force for compliance. Machiavelli has no qualms in asserting that it does. In his opinion, one cannot have good laws without good arms. He adds that human beings are not predisposed to obedience and use of force/coercion pushes then towards compliance. Into the bargain, he opines that man is motivated more by fear of punishment than by expressions of love by a prince.

Internationally this principle can be deduced when it comes to international law. For years there has been debate as to whether international law is law properly so called (borrowing John Austin’s lingo). This is because it has weak enforcement mechanism and from many a realist perspective it amounts to nothing more than international comity. However one should note that international law is applied especially in cases where there’s  real threat to international security (first Gulf War) or where it is in the interest of a dominant actor in the international system (second Gulf War). The understanding here is that states may not be inclined (thus obstinate) to obey international law if it directly conflicts its interests.