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.

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

The following post continues from where the last one stopped. It traces some of the roots of Kenya’s foreign policy in major events that occurred between 1963 and 1964. It is hoped that these events do illuminate the decision that leader at the time thought they had to make to protect the interest of the nation. However on question to cogitate on is whether there was a general understanding of national interest or was its true meaning political expediency and survival.

Domestic and Regional Ideological Rifts

As Kenya became an independent state, ideological cohesion appeared to be fleeting. Erstwhile comrades against the tyrannical colonial system turned bitter foes in the struggle for ideological direction of the fledgling state. On the one hand there were moderates/conservatives who may have seen things through a cost benefit analysis and on the other were radicals that saw things through the prism of liberation and idealism.

The ideological struggle brought out an imperative issue. Which way would Kenya go in the bi-polar international system? Those in the moderate camp, notably Kenyatta and Mboya were of the view that Kenya should lean westward while those in the radical camp – Odinga, Aneko among others – saw fortunes in both the east and west. However the latter group was more inclined to the east than west owing to the anti-imperialist stance that USSR was using in gather support within and outside the United Nations framework. That battle lines had been drawn was clear from certain political events that took place from 1963 to 1967.

A battle soon ensued to force Odinga and radicals out of the Government. Odinga had his interior ministerial powers stripped and given the vice-presidency without portfolio. Historical chronologists opine that this was the beginning of the end for Odinga’s rise to power. This was done in 1964 when Kenya became a republic.

In 1965 Parliament passed a document that guides Kenya’s foreign policy to this day. Sessional Paper No.10 titles African Socialism and its Application to Kenya was passed by the Kenyan legislature. The aim of this document was to firmly put Kenya on the capitalist path and thereby aligning Kenya to the west. This, as one could imagine, may not have gone down well with those from the radical camp.

Then there was the Limuru Conference in 1966. The main aim of the conference was to thoroughly humiliate Oginga Odinga. His post of vice-chairman of the KANU party was watered down to create 7 other vice-chairmen posts with similar responsibilities. In effect Oginga was being told indirectly that his presence in the party (as in Government) was no longer welcomed. So incensed was he that he never contested for any one of the seats preferring to quit and form his own party.

Such an act makes one wonder what if. What if Oginga became president and ousted Kenyatta democratically? Would Kenya have gone the Ujamaa way that Tanzania went or embraced socialism as Obote did? We may never know but one thing is for sure that Kenya may have taken a different path from what Kenyatta took. That the ideological struggle was won by the moderates, those inclined to the west and capitalist, may have pushed Kenya further towards the west than the east.

Regional Coups and Upheavals

Independence in Kenya was greeted with turmoil and trepidation regionally. For instance the Democratic Republic of Congo had imploded. Congo service men had mutinied against their mainly Belgian officers. This was to bring with it years of turmoil and strife.

Kenya became engaged in the process when Kenyatta was asked to chair the OAU panel that was to find peace in the country. These efforts failed owing to the wider issues at stake. Involvement of bigger powers such as Belgium and the United States dwarfed any attempts at peace and Kenya, through the OAU, fell on angry rhetoric on imperialist and neo-colonialism.

Shortly after independence, in 1964, there were events that shook Kenyatta’s confidence in the state of security of the nation. There was a army mutiny in Tanzania led by one John Okello. The mutiny led to Tanganyika and Zanzibar uniting to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

To the west things appeared bad as well. The Ugandan interior minister, Felix Onama, had been taken prisoner by a section of the military that his docket oversaw. There was no much drama as there was in Tanzania as the minister was eventually released. However this exposed vulnerabilities in the Kenyatta government that needed to be tamed.

Before an adequate response to the situation, there was the Gilgil insurrection. Some army officers mutinied in Kenyatta’s Kenya which brought the point home for Kenyatta. For him to survive in power he must take security, that of the country and most importantly his own, seriously.

This coupled with the secessionist war up North (Shifta War) gave Kenyatta the impression that outside military aid was necessary. At the time the only powerful friend that Kenya had was Britain. Relations with the US were tepid at best as the US did not see any real value of Kenya at the time. Therefore, Kenyatta relied heavily on British support to buoy his Government and hedge it against insurrections.

The British were as enthusiastic as Kenyatta was. Keen on protecting their east African investment, most of which was in Kenya, there existed a congruence of interests. Kenyatta’s Government would be protected as long as the British interest in the country was protected as well; a quid pro quo if you like.

These are the events that pushed Kenya into the waiting arms of the west. There were other events that occurred during this period that might have had an impact on Kenya’s foreign policy. However the above presented events appear to have had a bigger impact on the same than others did.

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