Military aid may yet be the route for the United Kingdom to strengthen its business interests in Kenya and, hopefully, recapture its lost influence.
Visiting UK Prime Minister Theresa May might have been aware of the scale of the battle when she spoke with President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi, 30 years since British Premier Margaret Thatcher toured the country.
In those three decades, Kenya has transited from one-party rule under Kanu to a multiparty democracy and changed presidents twice.
The Chinese have also come in during this time, become Kenya’s biggest trading partners, took up most of the infrastructure projects and rose to be the Kenya’s biggest lender.
On Thursday, both leaders acknowledged the rich history, with President Kenyatta admitting that the UK has influenced the government system in Nairobi.
“We have a long history of friendship. In speech, in government, in finance and outlook,” he told journalists at a joint press conference at State House. But he ducked when asked if the three decades indicated cooling of relations.
“Yes it has been 30 years, I don’t want to dwell on the past, I am looking to the future and we welcome the prime minister today.”
Ms May, who became Premier after David Cameron resigned on losing the Brexit referendum vote, noted that Queen Elizabeth assumed the throne while on a tour in Kenya.
“But the relationship we hold is much deeper than the historical ties and today we have looked to the future to renewed partnership that will unlock the potential for the next generation for the benefit of both our peoples,” she said.
The colonial period was fraught with human rights violations, including the hanging of thousands of Kenyan men and the incarceration of thousands more. In fact under Cameron’s government, a London Court ordered the British government to compensate £19.9m (Sh2.6 billion under current rates) to a group of 5,000 Kenyan freedom fighters maimed during the war of independence. Then UK Foreign Secretary William Hague would precede that with a ‘regret.’
Yet, for years, the Kenya police used the Land Rover as the official car and some elite squads received training from the UK. The British were also present in infrastructure projects and often had their finger on the pulse of Nairobi’s economy and politics. For years, the British also enjoyed a generous bilateral agreement for their soldiers to train in Samburu, in exchange for things like building schools there and providing scholarships.
In time, British influence has waned. Harsh visa rules, including an unpopular transit visa, travel advisories which have battered Coast tourism and insensitive trade policies such as the khat ban, have worn down the sentimental attachments to the UK.
When President Kenyatta came on in 2013, MPs demanded a review of this arrangement following complaints that some British soldiers were committing crimes and shielding themselves behind immunity. Kenyan legislators also complained of unused bombs left behind after training that were maiming locals and demanded more responsibility. In 2016, Kenya and the UK signed the new Defence Cooperation Agreement worth Sh7.5 billion a year.
But it is also during this time that the Chinese intensified infrastructure deals, eclipsing all the western countries. They are currently building a railway line, to replace the “Lunatic Express” erected by the British.
So what is the fightback plan? Ms May spoke of trade, through security co-operation, vowing in speeches across Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria that business relations will be based on mutual respect of rules, and signed a deal on corruption.
“British investors respect ethical practices, comply with local laws, contribute to local economies and build long-term local capability,” she said in Cape Town.
In Nairobi, she vowed financial support for the Africa Union Mission in Somalia, a continental military deployment in Somalia to which the Kenya Defence Forces are a part.
Created in 2007 to fight al-Shabaab, the now 22,000 troops from various countries are currently facing financial troubles after the European Union cut spending on the mission.
An analysis by the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute indicated that the cost of running Amisom rose three times to $900 million (Sh90 billion) a year in 2016. The EU used to provide about €20 million (Sh2.3 billion) per month. The amount of money the UK would give was not indicated but, in filling this gap, London may create its own sphere of influence.