President Uhuru Kenyatta and Kenya’s Ideological Twists

James N. Kariuki*

KenyaDuring the Cold War, Third World states aspired for ‘neutralism’ in their international relations. The world was then bipolar, divided ideologically between the West and the East. Neutralism was a Third World assertion that it wanted no part in the quarrel between the two global blocs. That thinking crystallized into the Non-Aligned Movement.

Post-colonial Kenya was reluctant to observe non-alignment provisions precisely because its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was an Anglophile. There is a puzzling contradiction in that assertion. For decades, the same Kenyatta had spearheaded anti-British activities in colonial Kenya. Branding him a leader “unto darkness and death,” the British imprisoned Kenyatta allegedly for master-minding the Mau Mau rebellion.

Kenya became independent in 1963 and contradictions continued to emerge. Firstly, power was handed over to the same Kenyatta whom the British had dismissed as a devilish pervert. Secondly, Kenyatta surprisingly tilted the country to the West.

Outraged, Oginga Odinga objected bitterly to the pro-Western stance and proceeded to write a book, Not Yet Uhuru (1968.)Odinga was no ordinary citizen; he was a major anti-colonial nationalist and Kenya’s first Vice-President. While he was pro-socialism, Kenyatta coddled British capitalism. Conflicting ideologies were asserting themselves in new Kenya.

In the same year that Odinga’s book was published, Kenyatta released his own, Suffering without Bitterness. The book confirmed that Kenyatta was not anti-British; he was merely opposed to their racial discrimination. Indeed, he was even prepared to work with them. Accordingly, he turned Kenya into a towering ‘darling of the West’ in Eastern Africa and, for good measure, built himself into a capitalist tycoon of staggering proportions.

President Uhuru KenyattaKenyatta’s book reeked of forgive-and-forget sentiments towards former colonial detractors. The baton has now been passed to his son, Uhuru. That fact may push Kenya through yet another ideological twist.

Unlike his father, Uhuru’s worldview seems to be: we-may-suffer-but-we-will-not-necessarily-forget. In particular, he appears to have ‘reservations’ about the British for treating his father abusively. Additionally, Uhuru himself has already had an unhappy personal encounter with the West.

 Uhuru is an ICC-inductee allegedly for orchestrating Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence. Coincidentally, the charges erupted simultaneously as the credibility of the ICC itself was declining. Critics lamented that engaged in ‘selective justice’ by targeting African leaders unduly. Yet, the greatest human rights violators are Western leaders and they, invariably, walk free.

In the agitated anti-ICC atmosphere, it appeared disingenuous that the West continued posturing as the guardians of human rights in Kenya. In the 2012-13 campaign it smacked of deviousness that Westerners masqueraded as the moral force to constantly remind Kenyans that the Uhuru ticket was comprised of ICC-inductees, unworthy of the presidency.

Clearly, the West believed that their Kenyan interest were safer if left under the care of Raila Odinga, Uhuru’s principal opponent. Once again ideological anomalies were rearing their heads in Kenya’s brief history. At independence Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was pro-capitalist West. Raila’s father, Oginga Odinga, was distinctly socialism-inclined and pro-East. Half a century later, the sons’ ideological persuasions were reversed.

Discrediting Uhuru’s candidacy by the West has revived a public sentiment that, for Kenyans to align themselves too closely to external powers, is ill-advised. In this instance, the West misread Kenya, persisting to view it as a prime candidate for foreign aid. Accordingly, Kenyans should behave as ‘deserving poor.’ Voting for ICC-inductees into power is alien to the notion of deserving poor.

Yet, Kenyans have abandoned the ‘deserving poor’ status. To them, Kenya is not a ‘failing state’ with a begging bowl looking for aid. Theirs is a country pregnant with economic potential and they are resolved to disembark from aid and engage in trade. After all, Kenya possesses bargaining power; it is East Africa’s business hub, one of Africa’s most connected nations. That self-confidence has been buttressed by discovery of oil and gas reserves.

images (1)Thus Kenya finds itself in a world where it is as equally sought after as it is a suitor. Calling shots is no longer an exclusive prerogative of the West. This realization has prompted a Western journalist to warn that the West “might find it is not missed as it once might have been.”

Indeed, Kenyan strategic thinkers have noted with interest that a mutually beneficial Sino-Kenya interaction has quietly evolved in the past decade with positive impact on the Kenyan economy. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta is probably turning over in his grave that the Uhuru’s administration is urged to double its efforts in building on that relationship. China is eagerly poised to undertake the challenge.

It would be the ultimate ideological anomaly if Uhuru consolidates the current surge of nationalism and tilts the country East. That would mean going a whole cycle to negate daddy Kenyatta’s legacy of turning Kenya West half a century ago. Do Kenyans trust the Chinese more or do they now trust the West less?

*James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer.  He is based in South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.

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