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.

Domestic Politics in Kenya’s Foreign Relations II: Uhuru Talked to Aljazeera


It never received as much attention both in the so called mainstream and social media. Maybe it is I who needs to find new friends who follow such events of national importance, or follow the news a bit closer. I am talking about Uhuru Kenyatta’s interview with Aljazeera’s Folly Bah Thibault on the programme Talk to Aljazeera. If you missed it, here’s a link you can watch it and form your own opinion about your future leaders:

The main issue, which may be obvious to fervent followers of Kenyan politics, was the ICC. A while back, on the 4th of November 2012, I published a post on a similar issue. It revolved around the consequences to our foreign policy of having the Hague pair at the helm of Kenya’s political leadership. For 25 good minutes Uhuru Kenyatta was grilled about the direction he would take the country if elected.

Notwithstanding the perpetual interruptions by the interviewer almost frantic for direct answers, there were pertinent questions that needed answers by the interviewee. A lot of commentators focused on the journalistic ethics of the former and did not objectively scrutinize the answers of the latter. What issues did this interview bring to the fore?

First, there is the issue of trial dates. The ICC trial chamber has set the dates in April. These dates will be smack in the middle of elections if the current opinion polls are above reproach. Under the current constitution of Kenya, if there is no clear majority winner (i.e. 50% + 1) then the county goes to a runoff. It must be done within 30 days of the general elections, between the first and second placed candidates. It means that UhuRuto ticket may be engaged in serious campaigns while at the Hague facing egregious charges.

Secondly, suppose they win what then? Folly posed this question to Uhuru who started off by reiterating their support for the process. Despite the barrage of questions on he could be genuine about this support whereas the current ICC prosecutor has accused the government which he serves of non compliance, Uhuru stood his ground. However therein lays a bigger issue.

If come April, we have Uhuru and Ruto as the president who will handle the affairs of the state while the pair fends off international criminal charges? In my view, Uhuru was elusive as he just said ‘the government will continue to run’ without any specifics as how that would happen. In case you have not noticed, it is unprecedented that the president and his deputy of any country would be out of that country at the same time. Considering the close proximity in dates and the preparations involved, there’s a strong likelihood that both the president and his deputy will be out.

Thirdly, there is the looming question on sanctions. The presidential candidate can shout sovereignty at the top of their lungs but must understand that the concept is not practiced in isolation. There is always the international community that we must deal with and I think it is not enough for him to say that he will work with those who are willing and ideally leave out the rest. He questioned the interests of those states in Kenya perhaps in an attempt to impute imperialistic motives.

The ambassador of the United Kingdom to Kenya has been categorical on the issue. It is not the policy of the United Kingdom to deal with persons subject to the ICC process. In other words, we will not deal with Kenya should they choose the ICC pair. This is a perfect example of freedom and necessity as there is what you want to do and what you can do.

Finally there is the issue of state failure. There is no universally accepted definition of the term. However whenever one speaks of the term the first example would be Somali. So can Kenya end up like Somali of the pair will be elected? I do not see any evidence of this owing to the strong institutions that have been placed by the constitution. If we had strong and armed resistance to the government like in Mali of DRC, then perhaps a situation like that could ensue.

All in all, it is up to the Kenyan voter to choose his/her leader wisely. Keep the peace!

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.