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.

Political Realism

And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good.

Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527