Dependency Approach to Kenya’s Foreign Policy and the Concept of Independence

Some Kenya foreign policy scholars opine that Kenya’s foreign policy has been devoid of any semblance of independence. It is their main thesis that Kenya’s foreign policy objectives are run by foreign capital; the need to have it and the need to have more. This argument has been used to explain Kenya’s behaviour in international affairs: lip service to the concepts of non-alignment and pan-africanism. This approach places primacy on Kenya’s independence without interrogating the concept in the reality of the international system.

In the period immediately preceding WWII clamour for independence reached fever pitch around the world. In Kenya, the history is no different. Oginga Odinga (Not yet Uhuru, 1967) records events from 1947 up to independence as the most decisive period in the struggle for independence. Even in this clamour, few understood what independence really meant. To many, it meant that the white man (mzungu) would leave Kenya and that the system would revert to status quo ante. On this they were gravely mistaken.

Before colonization, little of Africa was connected to the international economic system. Many peoples of Africa went about their business unperturbed by the outside world many knew little, if anything, about. Their experience was restricted to mundane routine and inter-communal interaction. However, when the colonialist came calling, the situation radically changed. Africa was literally mapped out and suddenly was thrust into world affairs more so international political economy.

It is through this lens that Kenyan – and by extension African – independence should be examined. Independence in the 1960s meant complete freedom from any and all western influence. But a reading of the international system could not allow such a bold shift. Many African states, Kenya included, were beholden to capital investments from their erstwhile colonial masters. Therefore, many African states may have been granted political autonomy but never had economic independence. This gave rise to the term neo-colonialism.

Pundits blamed those in power for making policies that further entrenched foreign capital interests in African states. Kenya was among those countries to be considered to have given little resistance to the pressures of foreign capital interests. Leaders, especially Jomo Kenyatta, have been castigated for abandoning the pan-african cause. However no attempt was made to contextualize these policies in light of the international structure that was based more on competition than cooperation and riddled with inequality.

Therefore it is inconceivable to expect Kenya to take a completely independent foreign policy (which was labeled as radical and irresponsible by some Kenyan leaders) in light of the conditions pertaining in the international system. Kenya’s economy was agrarian based, with the nascent Government relying mainly on exports for foreign currency. Through an aggressive Africanization policy, Kenya would have put the factors of production in the hands of the Kenyan African only to have products on its hands that it could not find a market owing to policies that would have been deemed too radical to former colonial masters which were main destinations for these products.

The international economic system is just as exploitative now as it was then. It emphasizes economic gain on the patterns of national interests at the expense of common good. Such a system is based on bargaining power only now it is based more on economics than military force. Now, as it was then, the system is based on how much power one has to push through their agenda in the international system. Therefore, Kenya – a new comer with little influence – could not take an independent approach if it meant loss of markets and foreign capital. This was where ideals met reality.

Be that as it may, I do not consider the dependency approach inaccurate. It is only the way it assumes that Kenya was independent to make decisions about her foreign policy objectives whereas in reality, it had very little space to maneuver while remaining economically viable. Also, most of the leaders of independent Africa associated with foreign capital more for personal gain than any overarching national interest. Nonetheless the hand of the international system should not be ignored by dependency theorists in assessing Kenya’s nascent foreign policy.