Some four years ago, Dr Poppy Cullen, now a lecturer in international history at Loughborough University, published a remarkable book about the post-colonial relationships between Kenya and the UK.
The book, Kenya and Britain after Independence: Beyond Neo-Colonialism, looks at the archives of former British High Commissioners in Nairobi, the policy makers in London and how they navigated their relationship with Kenya.
For those who are still wondering why the UK decided to put Kenya on the Covid-19 “Red List”, even though our numbers are not anywhere near some rich nations, there is a growing literature and archives that can now help us understand the British “official mind” when dealing with Kenyan matters. Kenya has called the recent move by the UK as “punitive…discriminatory, divisive and exclusive in their character.”
What happened, and why is the once solid relationship now complicated?
A few years ago, I sat down with Dr Chris Murungaru, the former powerful minister for Internal Security and he explained how the British were incensed by Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet decision to legalise the Mau Mau movement and, to cap it all, build a monument in honour of Dedan Kimathi, the man they had hanged as a “terrorist”.
More so, and hardly 10 days after Kibaki was sworn in, he ordered his Finance minister Daudi Mwiraria and then Central Bank governor Andrew Mullei to cancel a ten-year multibillion-shilling printing tender award that had been given exclusively to British company, De La Rue, to print the Kenyan currency. In a follow-up letter, dated March 13, Mr Mullei confirmed the decision in his letter to Mr Mwiraria: “That De La Rue be informed that a decision has been made to go for open tender for the supply of our notes for the period after December 2004, it being understood that De la Rue will be free to participate in the bidding.”
That is how the previous stock that bore the portrait of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was released since there were fears of a shortage of notes. Actually, the initial meetings had agreed that new orders bearing Kibaki’s portraits be printed but that appears to have been shelved.
The British company’s contract had been signed on December 5, 2002 and had been single-sourced. While previous contract periods were five years, the Moi mandarins had given De la Rue a ten-year contract. “There was no reason for the former government to award the contract as early as they did unless there was something fishy,” Mr Mwiraria told the CBK governor.
That caused bad blood between Harambee House and State House – and while these years are not covered in Dr Cullen’s book, one should look at the current bad blood between Uhuru Kenyatta’s government and the UK as a continuation of this cold-shoulder politics.
It is now known that the State House entry of Kibaki in 2002 was unanticipated by British top echelons – and they had pegged their hopes on Moi’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. With Moi in power for 24 years, the British had cultivated links with various Kanu insiders and heavily relied on them to maintain the status quo.
They, and Kanu too, were confident that there would be no change of policy that would affect their geopolitical and economic interests. But then, and to their surprise, Kibaki won. After that, the British funding dispersed under the Department for International Development (DfID) programme fell from 1.8 per cent in 2001 to 0.7 in 2003 as they paid in kind Kibaki’s coldness towards them.
The British, despite his ruthless record, had supported Moi and never failed to recognise his controversial wins after the introduction of multiparty elections.
The only person Moi had problems with was High Commissioner Jeffrey James, who he dismissed as a “meddler” in one of the most undiplomatic farewell in State House. But his replacement, Edward Clay, did not fare any better with the Kibaki government. With no insiders in the new Kibaki government, the British watched as their place was taken by the Chinese and as business tenders that previously went to UK companies were opened to competitors. That was what led, generally, to Clay’s “they are vomiting on our shoes” remark.
Actually, Kibaki left the State House without making a State visit to the UK; a sign that despite the diplomatic-speak of cordial relationship with the UK, London’s influence on Kenya had reached rock bottom – or there was no link between Kibaki’s State House and the High Commission. Britain had to struggle to have the military training memorandum renewed.
Has the UK lost touch with the Kenyan ground? We can only answer this question by looking at history.
At independence, and this is on record, the British relied on Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and their spy Bruce Mckenzie as their interlocutors.
“These two dominant figures… were invaluable channels to the President and meant that I need rarely press to see him personally,” High Commissioner Peck would later say. As Cullen writes, McKenzie – thought to be the head of M16 in East Africa – “was simply an intermediary, who saw this as an excellent way of pursuing his own interests.” That was the same with Mr Njonjo and both invested in the same companies with links to the UK.
In British circles, or as High Commissioner Sir Anthony Duff later wrote, Njonjo was a “black Englishman, outwardly an intelligent man of urbane charm.” So connected were these two in London that in 1966 when they were to travel to UK to deliver Kenyatta’s letter, the head of the East Africa Division, a Mr Scott, said, “If the ministers turn up with a mission to deliver a personal letter from President Kenyatta to the Prime Minister we should find it difficult to side-track them to either the Commonwealth Secretary or the Minister for Defence.”
It seems that there is a tacit message that the UK wants to pass to Kenya by banning entry of its citizens using the Covid-19 excuse. Perhaps our place in Westminister is not as important as we purport in Nairobi and again, I have to look at the records that are available.
We need to, once again, read the 1969 Duncan Report which made distinctions in the way the UK organises its business around the World. The British interests, whatever you hear at the diplomatic podium, are still organised into two spheres as expressed in the much criticised Duncan Report. There is what they call the “Area of Concentration”, which then included North America and Western European countries, and what they called the “outer area.” Within the Outer Area were identified high priority countries such as New Zealand, Japan, Australia, (apartheid) South Africa, and Japan. Has this changed? Certainly, not.
In the Duncan Report, most of the poor and developing countries were put in the remote side of the Outer Area and were dealt with depending on particular British interests. British development economist, Sir Richard Jolly, actually dismissed the attempt to disengage from ‘third world’ as “inconsistent and illogical – supposedly based on hard-headed cost-effectiveness calculations but in fact using a confused logic.”
It appears that former colonies, such as Kenya, were only important to the British foreign policy shapers as long as they fitted within its global ambitions with the British officials hoping to “maintain the benefits of the empire after independence while avoiding its costs” as Dr Cullen puts it.
For many years, the drivers of British interests in Kenya – for instance Njonjo and McKenzie in the Kenyatta days – benefited from the arrangement and as Cullen argues, “they had substantial power to shape and direct their relations with Britain to their benefit”.
It seems that Britain, in recent years, has been unable to cultivate friends and allies at the heart of the Uhuru Kenyatta government – the way it had done during the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi years – “men who would be prepared to work with the British and to British timetables.”
Historians say this was, apparently, done by some elites around Kenyatta “who decided it was in their interest to foster this”.
The British had all along supported a Moi take over from Kenyatta and he was in the inner circle that was briefed on Kenyatta’s funeral – which was secretly organised by McKenzie many years before Kenyatta died.
When Moi came to power, Prime Minister James Callaghan sent a personal message to him, which was handed in Cardiff. It said: “Your many friends here have admired the way in which you have led Kenya since the death of Jomo Kenyatta. Your assumption of the highest office is an encouragement to all of us.” They meant it.
With Njonjo as Moi’s main man, the British felt comfortable, until Moi thought that the British were grooming him for the presidency. So central was Njonjo that when the British wanted to raise the matter of novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s continued harassment, the High Commissioner Stanley Fingland recommended that the Lord Chancellor speaks informally to Njonjo rather than Moi. With the death of McKenzie, Mr Njonjo had remained the most significant British ally.
To understand how Kenya has been viewed over time in the UK, there is what is called “habits of thought” and these are the ones which determine how particular decisions are made in Westminster. “Policies were made through a series of decisions based on precedent, ideas of national interest, circumstances and pragmatism,” says Dr Cullen. Actually, she argues that policy towards Kenya has always been “pragmatic and reactive” though there was no single dominant interest.
Historians say that Britain keeps Kenya as an ally mainly because of military relationships and its stake in Kenyan security. More so, Kenya is strategically located and was useful during the Cold War. With the Cold War over, even the calibre of officials sent to Nairobi has gone down, according to historians. Previously, and Dr Cullen notes, those who were sent to Kenya as High Commissioners received the KCMG, the Knight Commander (of the Order) of St Michael and St George.
Kenya at independence was strategic and had retained the former Governor as High Commissioner to help reshape perceptions in London. Those days, Jomo could order a replacement of a High Commissioner. For instance, when Geoffrey de Freitas was accused, in a July 1964 letter from MacDonald to Duncan Sandys, as “doing great harm to relations between British government and the Kenya government”.
He was said to be “an unfortunate liability” for failing to endear himself to Kenyans. It is now believed that he was removed at Kenyatta’s request.
The war of words between Nairobi and London can only be seen through these lenses. It is not about Covid-19, or failure by Britain to help Kenya access the vaccines. It is a complicated relationship.