What you need to know:
- There is little direct competition between British firms operating in Kenya and their Chinese counterparts. British firms do not have the expertise or interest to bid for the tenders for port construction, railway construction or road expansion.
- Counter-terrorism and business interests will always trump concerns about human rights, the International Criminal Court or corruption when the priorities for British foreign policy are being determined.
- If the government wants to counter discontent it should remove mediocre public servants from office, confront corruption and deal effectively with the security threat posed by Al- Shabaab.
Suggestions of a foreign plot to topple the government or of deliberate economic sabotage by Western governments are absurd. Kenya faces many real challenges and can ill-afford to be distracted by imaginary enemies and rumours of subversion.
The basis of such a rumour is fundamentally flawed. Those claiming a plot to unseat President Kenyatta argue that Western governments, particularly the British, are alarmed by the influence of China in Kenya today.
There are many reasons to be extremely critical of Britain’s role in Kenya during the colonial and post-colonial period. But organising a plot against the current government is not one of them.
The truth is very different from the rumours currently circulating. First, Britain is actively seeking to be China’s major partner in western Europe. The British hope London will become a yuan exchange hub. Moreover, the British government are actively seeking Chinese investment in Britain.
Engaging in competition with China over influence in Kenya is hardly compatible with these much bigger goals of British foreign policy.
Second, there is little direct competition between British firms operating in Kenya and their Chinese counterparts. British firms do not have the expertise or interest to bid for the tenders for port construction, railway construction or road expansion.
Third, British interests in Kenya are boosted by Chinese investment. Among the major beneficiaries of economic growth in Kenya will be British-owned or -listed companies and their local subsidiaries.
Firms like Barclays, Standard Chartered, Tullow and, through Safaricom, Vodafone all stand to gain from any growth in the Kenyan economy fuelled by Chinese investment. And it is these firms and their shareholders that exert the greatest influence over British foreign policy.
Now I will turn to the claim that Western governments are hostile to the Kenyatta government. There is no doubt that relations between certain foreign diplomats and the Jubilee Government are frosty. However, that does not mean that plots are being hatched to topple Kenyatta.
On the contrary, the Jubilee Government is viewed favourably from overseas for many reasons.
Rightly or wrongly, the British government sees Kenya’s continued commitment to the war in Somalia as an invaluable part of Britain’s own battle against terrorism. Moreover, the Kenyan Government’s pro-business agenda is in line with British investment strategies.
Counter-terrorism and business interests will always trump concerns about human rights, the International Criminal Court or corruption when the priorities for British foreign policy are being determined.
The question that confronts Kenyans is not whether or not foreign plots are being planned, but why intelligent people are making such incendiary claims.
There is a long history of governments using rumours of foreign plots as a way of distracting Kenyans and of discrediting opponents.
Such ridiculous claims of foreign subversion were a standard part of Moi’s desperate attempts to stay in power despite widespread opposition from 1982 to his retirement.
One need only think of the way in which the threat posed by Mwakenya was greatly exaggerated by the Moi government in the 1980s as a way of silencing dissent.
One can speculate about the reasons why supporters of the current government may wish to follow Moi’s footsteps, but all are so obvious as not to need reiteration here. But the Jubilee Government should be confident, not paranoid.
For all its shortcomings, the government’s position is strong. It is difficult to identify a credible alternative to Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017 if we assume William Ruto remains as his deputy.
The government is not confronted by a powerful opposition. Although unified, Cord is in disarray. There is little sign of any coherent opposition outside of formal politics either; civil society has been silenced.
While there may be discontent with the implementation or details of particular policies and the performance of certain individuals, there is not any great disagreement over the substance of policies.
All the main political leaders subscribe to the current economic strategy, support regional integration, back devolution of one sort or another, and broadly agree on the basic tenets of security policy.
The Jubilee’s powerful campaign message from 2013, its resources, election strategy and the support of key institutions, such as the courts and the police, mean the alliance will almost certainly win the next election if it can remain intact.
The experience of Moi tells us that tainting opponents as potential traitors, attempting to ban political rallies and other such measures will be counterproductive.
Such actions will eventually galvanise and unify a chaotic opposition. If the government wants to counter discontent it should remove mediocre public servants from office, confront corruption and deal effectively with the security threat posed by Al- Shabaab.
Spreading rumours of foreign plots won’t help the economy grow, stop terrorist attacks or create jobs. The government should get on with the business of governing.
Prof Branch teaches history and politics at Warwick University, UK [email protected]