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Kenya: A Regional Power In Africa And The Indo-Pacific – Analysis


The Republic of Kenya is one of the most important African countries. It is located in the east of Africa (in a broader sense it is part of the Horn of Africa) on the very western edge of the Indo-Pacific region. It borders South Sudan to the northwest, Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the east, Uganda to the west, Tanzania to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the southeast. Its geographical position, especially its access to the Indian Ocean, gives Kenya great geopolitical importance.

However, geopolitical importance does not derive only from the country’s geographical position. Kenya is among the demographic and economic flagships of Africa. With a population of just over 55 million, it is the 7th most populous country in Africa with a very young population. From an economic point of view, the Kenyan economy is the 3rd economy in Sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa and Nigeria, and the largest in East and Central Africa. The capital Nairobi is an important traffic and trade hub.

Contemporary Kenya is a democratic multi-party state with a presidential system of government. It is a member of all relevant international institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, the International Criminal Court (ICC), but also the British Commonwealth and African regional organizations such as the African Union, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Due to its development in recent decades, Kenya is more and more rightly cited as a middle power in international relations. It is a country that has only started to use its talents in recent decades.

Historical development

The earliest inhabitants of Kenya were hunter-gatherers, like the modern Hadza people. Speakers of the Cushitic language first settled in the Kenyan lowlands between 3200 and 1300 B.C. Nilotic-speaking herders began to migrate from present-day South Sudan to Kenya around 500 B.C.  The Bantu people settled on the coast and inland between 250 B.C. and 500 A.D. From the 2nd century, trading cities like Mombasa existed along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts in East Africa, known as Zandž land (“Land of the Blacks”). The coastal cities of East Africa traded with the outside world, including China, India, the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia. Around the 9th century, a mixture of Africans, Arabs and Persians who lived and traded in the Kenyan area became known as Swahili (“people of the coast”) with a special language (ki)Swahili and a special culture.

The Portuguese arrived in the 1490s. Using Mombasa as a base, they wanted to monopolize trade in the Indian Ocean. At the end of the 17th century, the Portuguese were pushed back by the combined forces of Oman and Pate, a nearby island. In 1890, Germany and Great Britain divided the East African region, with the British taking the north and the Germans the south, including present-day Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. The British established the East African Protectorate in 1895, which was turned into a colony in 1920 and named Kenya after its highest mountain. Numerous political disputes between the colony and London later led to the violent Mau Mau uprising, which began in 1952, and the eventual declaration of Kenyan independence in 1963. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the liberation struggle, led Kenya from independence in 1963 until his death in 1978, when Vice President Daniel Arap Moi took power legally.

Contemporary political instability

The country was a de facto one-party state from 1969 to 1982, after which the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) changed the constitution to become the country’s only legal political party. Moi gave in to demands for political liberalization in late 1991. The ethnically divided opposition failed to oust KANU from power in 1992 and 1997 elections, which were marred by violence and malfeasance. President Moi resigned in December 2002 after regular elections. Mwai Kibaki, who ran as the candidate of the united opposition, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), defeated the KANU candidate Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Kenya’s founder Joma Kenyatta) and assumed the presidency.

Kibaki was re-elected in 2007. The election was followed by two months of post-election ethnic violence that left more than 1,100 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. The opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, accused the government of massive vote rigging. African Union-sponsored mediation led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan resulted in a power-sharing agreement that put Odinga as prime minister. The power-sharing agreement included a broad program of reforms, including constitutional reform.

In 2010, Kenyans overwhelmingly adopted a new constitution in a national referendum. The new constitution introduced the principle of executive balance and transferred part of the powers to 47 newly created districts. The position of prime minister was abolished and a presidential system was introduced. Uhuru Kenyatta (from 2012 to 2016, a member of the National Alliance – TNA party, and from 2016 of the Jubilee Party) won the first presidential election under the new constitution in March 2013. Kenyatta won a second term in November 2017 after disputed, repeated elections. In August 2022, William Rutto (United Democratic Alliance) won a narrow presidential election and took office the following month after Kenya’s Supreme Court declared the victory valid.

General features of the country

The official languages of Kenya are Swahili and English. English was chosen because of the great diversity – numerous ethnic and religious groups. The wealth of the country is indicated by the official state motto: “Harambee” or “Let us all gather together”. According to the 2019 census, the peoples inhabiting Kenya are: Kikuyu 17.1%, Luhya 14.3%, Kalenjini 13.4%, Luo 10.7%, Kamba 9.8%, Somali 5.8%, Kisii 5 ,7%, Mijikenda 5.2%, Meru 4.2%, Maasai 2.5%, Turkana 2.1%, etc. The official anthem “Ee Mungu Nguvu Yetu” or “O God of all creatures” emphasizes the religiosity and wealth of various religious groups. 85.5% are Christians (60.8% Protestants, 20.6% Catholics, 4.1% other Christian communities), 10.9% Muslims, etc. Kenya has an area of 580,367 square km, making it the 47th largest country in the world. The length of the coast thanks to which it opens onto the Indian Ocean is 536 km. The climate varies from tropical along the coast to arid inland. From the ocean coast, plains rise to a central highland bisected by the Great Fault Valley, and fertile highlands lie on either side of the fault, around Lake Victoria and to the east. The Kenyan highlands are one of the most successful agricultural production areas in Africa.

Demographic explosion

Kenya has experienced dramatic population growth since the mid-20th century as a result of high birth rates and declining mortality rates. Almost 40% of Kenyans are under the age of 15 due to the continued high birth rate, early marriage and lack of family planning. Kenya’s rapid population growth is straining the labor market, public services, arable land and natural resources. Although Kenya was the first sub-Saharan country to launch a national family planning program in 1967, progress in reducing the birth rate has largely been absent since the late 1990s, when the government focused on combating HIV. Government work and support from the international community encouraged the use of contraception, reducing the fertility rate (children per woman) from about 8 in the late 1970s to less than 5 in the late 1990s. The fertility rate remained at around 3 children per woman in 2022.

Land of migrants

Kenya is a country of emigrants and immigrants. During the 1960s and 1970s, Kenyans went to universities in the UK due to Kenya being a member of the British Commonwealth, but as British immigration rules tightened, the US, the Soviet Union and Canada became attractive destinations for Kenyan students. Kenya’s stagnant economy and political problems during the 1980s and 1990s led to an outflow of young Kenyan professionals seeking work in West and Southern Africa. Despite this, Kenya’s relative stability since its independence in 1963 compared to other African countries has attracted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflicts and wars in neighboring countries. Last year, the country sheltered nearly 280,000 Somali refugees.

A growing economy

The Kenyan economy is a fast-growing, market-oriented emerging economy, the 3rd largest and most dominant in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya is average industrialized but better than its East African rivals. It is a lower-middle-income country, but the government plans to industrialize the country by 2030. The currency is the Kenyan shilling.

The economy relies mostly on agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, factory production, energy, tourism and financial services. The dominant natural resources of the country are: coffee, tea, flowers, limestone, salt, precious stones, fluorite, zinc, diatomite, gypsum, wildlife, hydropower. Nominal GDP in 2022 was USD 118 billion (65th place in the world), and nominal GDP per capita was USD 2,290 (140th place in the world). GDP is composed of agriculture (29%), industry (18%) and services (53%). Inflation last year was 7.9% and the unemployment rate was 5.5%. Public debt amounts to 67% of national GDP.

Kenyans mostly export tea, flowers, coffee, refined oil, titanium, fish, cement, clothes. They mainly import machinery and transport equipment, oil, iron, steel, resin and plastic. The most important export partners are Uganda, Pakistan, the Netherlands, USA, Great Britain, while the most important import partners are China, India, UAE, Japan, Saudi Arabia.

The great geopolitical significance of Kenya

Kenya is the most important country in East Africa in geopolitical terms for several reasons. The first reason is that the country stands out for its strategic position. Located on the east coast of Africa. The East African region is characterized by the complexity and dynamism of socio-political and security factors, including poverty, terrorism and piracy at sea. East Africa is an area of various countries and peoples, it is rich in natural resources such as oil and gas, important railway lines pass through it, and it has several ports that are important for the economic and political stability of the region.

Kenya is included in the East African Community (EAC), which also includes Tanzania. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo and South Sudan. Kenya’s main port, Mombasa, is the gateway through which East and Central Africa communicates with the rest of the world. This is why Kenya is the main transport hub of East Africa. Another reason is economic. The Kenyan economy is the largest economy in East and Central Africa. Due to its relatively stable political and investment environment, Kenya has become an attractive destination for foreign direct investment. In addition, the country is rich in natural resources, including oil and minerals.

The third reason is the country’s political importance. Kenya has a long history of cooperation with the USA and Great Britain, which began during the Cold War and continued in modern times, primarily in the fight against Islamist terrorism. In 2011, Kenya deployed its military, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF), to Somalia where Kenyan troops played an important role in the fight against the militant terrorist group Al-Shabaab. A fourth reason for Kenya’s geopolitical importance stems from its regional influence in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. As the leader of the EAC, Kenya literally managed regional integration. Official Nairobi is involved as a mediator in resolving neighborhood conflicts in countries such as Ethiopia, South Sudan and DR Congo. In the Horn of Africa, a combination of geographic proximity, economic ties, a military presence in Somalia and membership in regional organizations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD – a trading bloc of eight African states) have given Kenya the ability to project significant regional influence. Kenya is a shining example of a middle power in international relations.

Huge Chinese investment

Due to its geopolitical importance, Kenya is a desirable country that everyone wants to have as a partner. A good example is the Asian powers China and Japan. Both Beijing and Tokyo want to participate in development infrastructure projects in Kenya and seek to secure access to natural resources. For example infrastructure development projects offer foreign countries the opportunity to increase their influence in the region while reducing the influence of rivals. In the last two decades, China’s huge investments in lending and building infrastructure have made Beijing the largest financier of Kenya and East Africa as a whole.

In 2017, the Chinese built the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, 578 km long and worth 3.6 billion dollars. It is the largest infrastructure project since Kenya’s independence. The railway will connect Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia to the port of Mombasa so that the Indian Ocean port can serve as a gateway to East Africa for China and other interested countries. During the construction of the railway, 25 thousand Kenyan workers worked on it.

The Chinese company CCCC is building the new Kenyan port of Lamu. The Chinese also built the 27 km Nairobi Expressway at a cost of $764 million and various other projects in line with the “Kenya Vision 2030” – a development plan presented in 2008 that aims to transform Kenya into a middle-income country and increase the overall quality of life by 2030. Beijing’s funding and construction of major projects such as roads and railways in Kenya is part of China’s efforts under the New Silk Road initiative, the largest infrastructure project ever aimed at ensuring China’s global dominance. Quite predictably, this led to concerns among the QUAD states (especially Japan) about a loss of influence in Kenya and across East Africa. The Japanese want to project their influence through their own projects.

Japanese investments

Kenyans have decided not to play one card, so other countries, especially Japan, have such large investments. According to Japanese research, Kenya is the most attractive destination for Japanese companies that want to make new investments in Africa, ahead of South Africa and Nigeria. To the Japanese, Kenya is attractive because it is the transport hub of East Africa, but also a country that is in dire need of infrastructure, has a strong geothermal energy potential, and has a growing automobile industry. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other partners have been engaged by the Kenyans to design and build operational procedures at border crossings to facilitate trade and travel by reducing the number of stops at border crossings. Japan is also playing a key role in the expansion of the port of Mombasa and the construction and financing of the nearby Dongo Kundu Special Economic Zone. The project is part of the industrialization plan.

Kenya is not a Chinese vassal state

There is a perception that China’s political influence in East Africa and Kenya is unassailable mainly because of the impressive New Silk Road initiative. However, in reality, China’s power and influence in the region depends on various factors such as investment power, media presence, technology and soft power. Beijing’s political power is often far weaker than its economic power. In the western Indo-Pacific region, China’s influence is below expectations.

East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have good relations with China but want to evenly distribute partnerships with all major powers. Sometimes Chinese projects were canceled or changed because they were declared exploitative towards the host countries. In order to move away from China, in recent times President Rutto’s administration has turned more towards the US, Great Britain and other Western countries. Rutto’s visit to Washington to attend the US-Africa summit in December 2022 is an indication of the strengthening of relations that have been strained under the Trump administration.

Kenya – the middle power of Africa and the Indo-Pacific

Due to Chinese, Japanese, American and other interests, East Africa is becoming a region where great powers are competing for dominance, such as the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Kenyan state leadership is aware of the geopolitical importance of their country as demonstrated by former President Uhuru Kenyatta and current President William Ruto. Kenyan political elites are concerned about three main issues: the militarization of the Horn of Africa, the challenges of piracy and transnational crime, and the negative impact of marine pollution. Kenyan politicians emphasize that their country seeks to profit from its geostrategic position – the gateway to East Africa. As an important member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Kenya uses the platform to address challenges such as illegal fishing and piracy on the ocean. In 2013, President Kenyatta asserted that Kenya’s prosperity is linked to the Indian Ocean basin: “Being able to use it economically (Indian Ocean) while working to make it stable and optimally suitable for trade is a fundamental priority of our national interests for this and the next generations.”

Kenya’s moves show that Nairobi is pursuing its own independent policy that is not subservient to major powers. Kenyans wisely refuse to be classified in the camp of either the West (USA and the EU) or the East (Russia and China) and advocate an independent foreign policy oriented towards the Indo-Pacific region. Kenya levitates between different geopolitical poles while sending a message to foreigners: “we are open for business but only if it is good for our interests”. Such a policy is the only one possible because being a satellite state of China or America would not be a smart decision in the age of multipolarity. Recently, Kenya has been hit by violent protests over high taxes and the cost of living, but this should not derail national development.

Source: eurasia review

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