Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta is, on paper, the type of leader one would expect to be a natural ally of the West.
He is the son of the country’s founding leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who was one of Britain’s staunchest partners in the Horn of Africa. The younger Kenyatta was educated in the US, is partial to Swiss watches and played rugby at a high school associated with the country’s landed elite. Moreover, his family has maintained a business empire with deep ties in Europe and many of its managers have been sourced from that continent. Like many members of the Kenyan elite, he sends his children to universities in Europe.
His chief rival, Raila Odinga, on the other hand, seems cut out to be a staunch ally of China and, more generally, the major powers ranged against the West on the global stage.
Odinga was born into a family steeped in left-wing politics. His father, Kenya’s first vice-president, Jaramogi Odinga, was a socialist whose strongest international partners were drawn from China, Russia and East Germany. He used his connections to send his son to college in East Germany.
The younger Odinga, with his bearded countenance and strong anti-regime stance, was demonised by Kenya’s repressive second president, Daniel Moi, as a dangerous dissident at a time when the label “Marxist” connoted an outlaw. His first son is named Fidel, after the veteran Cuban leader, and he has long championed the politics of redistribution.
The political careers of Kenyatta and Odinga have panned out quite differently. President Kenyatta today heads an administration that has been characterised by a marked (rhetorical) hostility to European powers and their allies, while Odinga is seen as a staunch ally of America and the major European powers.
How did this come to be? The answer to that question will also help to decipher the puzzling relations between Nairobi and key administrations in the West that especially marked the early months of the Kenyatta administration. Do these differences signal a fundamental shift, or is it a transient phenomenon driven by the prevailing political climate and the international judicial process facing him?
The answer, from all available evidence and despite the harsh rhetoric, is that there will be no fundamental breach with the West similar to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Mengistu’s Ethiopia, except in certain extreme conditions.
Instead, the freeze witnessed in the first few months of the Kenyatta administration is more likely a calculated gambit by the ruling elite to navigate the indictments for crimes against humanity laid against President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which represent the greatest challenge the pair have faced in their careers. It is significant that Kenyatta’s main defence counsel at the ICC is British.
Kenyan politicians are a famously opportunistic lot. Unlike other African countries, such as Uganda, South Africa and Ghana, where consecutive presidential elections are contested by the same two major political parties, in Kenya, the parties and symbols on the ballot paper change every five years.
There are no programmatic political parties in the country. Politics revolve strictly around individual politicians who are seen to represent ethnic groups and regional blocs.
Uhuru Kenyatta’s ascension to the presidency is a classic illustration of this phenomenon.
There was almost no chance that Kenyatta would have been elected president in 2013 if he had not been indicted by the ICC – a perverse irony that must be understood when analysing Kenya’s foreign policy stance.
Kenyatta, like his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu. In a country where ethnicity is a primary dynamic in politics, the received wisdom held that Kibaki’s successor would have to come from outside the Kikuyu community.
Yet Kenyatta was vaulted into the presidential race when he successfully cast his indictment not as a challenge to him personally but as an assault on his Kikuyu community. This won him solid support within the country’s largest ethnic community which, together with its Embu and Meru cousins from the Mount Kenya region, contains about a third of the electorate.
The fact that he ended up in an alliance with William Ruto illustrates how opportunism – or what kinder souls may label “pragmatism” – is the thread that runs through Kenyan politics, rather than any ideological or programmatic ideas that would limit the fluidity of alliances between parties.
Ruto is a member of the Kalenjin community. The Kalenjin and Kikuyu were in opposite camps during the 2007 elections and the biggest protagonists in the fighting that followed the election. Yet only a few years after the violence, as if to demonstrate how fluid alliances, friendships and enmities are in Kenya, the leaders of the two communities were gravitating into an alliance.
Faced with a common challenge in the ICC indictments, Ruto and Kenyatta formed a joint ticket and successfully framed their candidature as a referendum on Kenya’s sovereignty against an “imperialist plot” by the Western powers that fund the ICC to “impose” a president on Kenyans (read Odinga). Their savvy publicity machine helped them to clinch State House in the March 4, 2013 elections.
Why was it so easy for the pair to rally their supporters into believing that there was a conspiracy driven from key European capitals and Washington to keep them from the presidency and promote the opposition?
Part of the answer draws on the fact that, in the absence of serious political parties, Kenyan politics is heavily personalised and communities often conflate their group’s fortunes with those of the acknowledged leader of their ethnic community.
Kenyatta and Ruto painted the plot to stop them as an effort to keep their ethnic groups from benefiting from the largesse that is perceived to accompany state power. It is an unspoken fact that the identity of the president has a big role in determining how national resources are distributed.
A second factor, particularly in the case of Kenyatta, is that memories of colonialism are still raw in the Mount Kenya region, where the displacement by British settlers in the first half of the 20th century was greatest. It is exceedingly easy to convince people of the existence of nefarious mzungu (white man) plots. Memories of British brutality and of the concentration camps into which hundreds of thousands were herded have endured through generations.
A third factor is that, since Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga engaged in a bitter struggle after independence, a Kenyatta – Odinga tussle for power is quite emotive.
Finally, the fact the Mount Kenya region had produced two presidents – Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki – made it easy to spin the yarn that the presidency can protect “community interests.” Similarly, the Kalenjin remember the Moi presidency and were enthusiastic about the prospect of Ruto securing a place as deputy president.
It was expected that, once Kenyatta took office, he would cool the sharp language he had used against Washington and major European powers during the campaigns.
In stead, he escalated it. In a fiery speech to an extraordinary summit of African leaders convened in Addis Ababa in October 2013 to discuss the cases in The Hague, Kenyatta described the ICC as a “toy of declining imperial powers” and spoke of the “spectacles of western decline” and crashing “the imperial exploiter … into the pits of penury.”
The harshness of this address startled many observers. Daniel Bekele, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, described the resolution that African heads of state should not be tried in international courts as “appallingly self-serving.”
But Kenyatta supporters gave him their enthusiastic backing.
“Despite the imminent threat posed to him and Kenya by the ICC, Kenyatta was not a cry-baby in the speech to his African peers,” wrote Prof Peter Kagwanja of the Africa Policy Institute. “Rather, in its distinct tone of a fiery African nationalist, the speech is reminiscent of those of his own father, Jomo Kenyatta, at Hyde Park London in the 1930s and 1940s against colonialism. The speech was a unique masterwork in the revolutionary oratory last heard on the floor of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré. It had the recognisable fieriness of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.”
In a further sign of the fraying ties between Nairobi and its traditional allies in Europe, Kenyatta conspicuously chose Beijing for his first official visit outside the continent. His PR team made it quite clear that Kenyatta, like his predecessor, would pursue a “Look East” economic policy.
Not As It Seems
While all this may suggest a major breach in relations and that the gap of mistrust may prove too large for ties to be repaired, in truth there is little to suggest that a fundamental shift has occurred.
One only has to observe that the company that helped to craft Kenyatta’s nationalist anti-West campaign during the 2013 elections was a British firm, BTP advisers, which is linked to the Liberal Democrats, a junior coalition partner in the British government.
That’s a neat illustration of the way that Kenyan politicians in the ruling coalition see their shifting foreign policy tone. There is little evidence, for example, that investors from the West are being turned away. In fact, the Kenyatta administration has made big play of coordinating economic policy with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In June, Kenya issued Africa’s biggest debut Eurobond – a US$2 billion offering that was oversubscribed three times over at lower interest rates than continental rivals such as Zambia and Ghana – showing that investors in Europe and America don’t necessarily fear a total breach of relations.
Their view is informed by the historical record in Africa (as in much of the world), where foreign policy questions are often settled not on principle, but simply due to strategic and opportunistic prerogatives.
Cold War episodes from neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia come to mind. The two countries effortlessly swapped their patrons, the Soviet Union and the US respectively, as soon as the politics of the day made this a convenient choice.
Kenyan leaders are no different. The political careers of Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, which have seen the pair move to different orbits, are illustrative.
What, though, does the public make of all this? Are they heavily invested in the question of Kenya’s foreign policy? Have they grown more or less hostile to the West as a result of recent developments?
The answer to this is slightly complicated. Foreign policy is not a major issue of concern to most Kenyans, just as it does not head the list of pressing issues in many parts of the world. In surveys, Kenyans regularly cite the cost of living, insecurity, education, healthcare and other more prosaic needs as top priorities.
Yet it would not be accurate to say that the political posturing on the ICC question has not had an effect on regular citizens.
As part of a recent project at the London School of Economics, I worked with the polling firm Ipsos Synovate to try to determine whether there is regional variation in Kenya in views on foreign policy among people of voting age and whether the foreign policy preferences of leaders are embraced by their supporters.
The results painted a mixed picture. It was quite clear that foreign policy issues are polarising among people from the ethnic communities of the two main candidates in the last election, Uhuru Kenyatta (Kikuyu, with a “Look East” policy) and Raila Odinga (Luo, ally of the West).
In the survey of 2,059 adults, respondents who identified themselves as Kikuyu or Luo offered clearly divergent views that aligned with those of their communities’ leaders, in response to the question: “Which of these countries do you have a more favourable opinion of – China or America?”
Kikuyu respondents expressed a preference for China over the US by a margin of 69 percent to 25 percent. Among the Luo, 89 percent viewed the US positively, while 10 percent preferred China. Notably, however, only the Luo and Kikuyu demonstrated such a huge gap, with the rest of the ethnic groups showing a much more even split.
This could be seen as a sign that most Kenyans (the Kikuyu and Luo make up 34 percent of the population) are not as animated by the question of foreign policy as supporters of the two main leaders on the political scene are.
But there is also a sense in which jubilant anti-West rhetoric resonates with the discourse of “liberation” and the deteriorating stature of Britain as a political and economic power. Being able to speak strongly to Europe is viewed as affirmation of the potential power of Africa. Recent natural resource discoveries and the entry of China as an alternative lender have also contributed to the growing lionisation of anyone seen to be able to “stand up to Europe”.
While it is true that there is a slight hint of hostility to “foreign influence” and their alleged Trojan Horses, ordinary Kenyans are also able to sense that much of the fight with the West is political posturing.
It is understandable that recent developments on the Kenyan political scene have raised the question of a possibly major fracture between Kenya and its traditional partners in Europe and the West.
History suggests, however, that foreign policy choices of leaders in the Horn of Africa are driven by pragmatic, situational considerations rather than deep ideological ones, and there is little evidence to suggest Kenyatta’s approach will be different.
Despite Kenyatta’s bellicose tone and aggressive stance, it is difficult to foresee a major break in relations with the West, absent dramatic “shocks” such as a decision to openly defy the ICC (quite unlikely, considering the consequences) or another major development.
More likely, as witnessed in the softening of Kenyatta’s tone after he visited Washington for the US–Africa Leaders Summit and received a number of European leaders at State House in Nairobi in the second half of 2014, is that calculations of self-interest will remain the dominant driver of policy, with little long-term implications on the shape of relations between the West and Kenya.