02:56 pm
30 May 2017

Its complicated: Kenya and Britain’s hot and cold relationship, and how Obama comes into it

THAT Kenya was one of the prize jewels in the British empire is not it doubt. You can see it in the eyes of the dewy-eyed tourists trooping into the country, in the modern day re-enactment of the “Happy Valley” days of tragedy and debauchery among high society and among the landowners with thousands of hectares of ranch trying to rather unsuccessfully keep a low profile.

Theirs however remains one of the more complicated relationship; despite the gripe about human rights and the regular travel advisory, London, with major economic interests in the East African country ranging from transnationals to military barracks, tries not to rock the boat too much.

Nairobi is on the other hand content to mutter about neo-colonialism and imperialism when it suits its agenda of the day, as off-camera it takes millions of pounds in aid money, some of which goes back as spend on bespoke Savile Row suits by crooked officials.

Kenyan war veterans recently extracted billions of shillings as compensation for Britain’s colonial era sins in a landmark case. Now heartily encouraged, they are back in court with new claims, suggesting the umbilical cord between the two, though in public they dissimulate it, still has life in it yet.


David Cameron visiting

This June, David Cameron is expected in Nairobi—the first sitting British prime minister to visit since Margaret Thatcher’s action-packed visit in 1988, in what both British and Kenyan officials have been eager to cast as a “resetting” of relations following their hot-and-cold relations of recent years.

Former PM Tony Blair has been sighted in the Kenyan capital, in recent years having reinvented himself as a dealmaker with African nations, many of which during his time at No. 10 Downing Street he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

When president Uhuru Kenyatta was under the cosh from the International Criminal Court, Cameron went to great, sometimes comical, lengths to avoid being seen in public with his now new friend, London having declared it would have only “essential contact” with him were he voted into power.

As it turned out, Kenyatta won the March 2013 election. His first visit to a western nation was to the UK, under the welcome cover of a conference on Somalia’s conflict. Meanwhile British officials tried to glibly row back, helpfully noting that the president was co-operating with the ICC, unlike his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir.

But interests win any day, and Kenya remains a key ally in the fight against terror, and a lucrative hunting ground for British multinationals. With the ICC outmanoeuvred by Kenyatta, London has since been opportunistic, looking to make up for lost diplomatic time.

 But not all have gotten the recent “be-nice” memo, making for some very interesting—even misplaced— episodes. When not drinking tea, Britons pride themselves on their observance of basic freedoms.

Spooked by militants

But like many of its friends in the European Union—a bloc it maintains similarly ambivalent relations with—it has been spooked by militants, and has been rolling out plans to counter the threat.

One of them is known as the “Prevent”  scheme meant to reduce radicalisation but which has come in for criticism including from civil society and the Muslim community, for restricting their space.

The United Nation’s human rights arm has scope to probe such complaints, and often sends independent investigators who among other titles are known as Special Rapporteurs. In 2011, Kenyan Maina Kiai was appointed the first holder of the UN’s office to investigate the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Last week he completed a second visit to the UK, where he essentially termed Britain’s actions as having the opposite effect to protecting rights—including providing a copy book for dictators to borrow from.

Outraged British media hit back, labelling the Kenyan an unelected “meddler” of “lofty pronouncements”. Politicians joined in. “Sometimes when you say something stupid while visiting another country it’s better to stay quiet,” former Cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles was quoted as fulminating.

Influential Tory ruling party member Philip Davies had this to say: “This lecture on human rights by somebody from Africa is staggering. He should clear off back to his own continent to look at some of the grotesque abuses of human rights that take place on a daily basis led by people like Robert Mugabe.”

Never mind that Kiai was in Britain at the invite of the government.

The Queen’s subjects are currently divided over whether to leave the EU, in what is referred to as a “Brexit”. A vote on the matter is set for June. London mayor Boris Johnson is one of those leading the charge to leave, many say he is inspired by dreams of being the next prime minister.

Obama puts foot in

Recently, US president Barack Obama weighed in on the debate, arguing that Britain’s interests were best served by remaining in the bloc. Seen as a maverick when he was overwhelmingly elected in 2008, Johnson however lost his marbles at the intervention by Obama, who remains immensely popular in the UK.

Obama held this view because he was “part-Kenyan”, the mayor said in a scathing response. In fact he claimed that Obama had moved a bust of wartime British leader Winston Churchill because of his “ancestral dislike of the British Empire”— a claim that has long been debunked as pants on fire.

It is probably one of the few times when the phrase “part-Kenyan” has been bandied about as an insult.

Nairobi has a few unofficial things to say about a Brexit. It will be “a disaster”, central bank governor Patrick Njoroge, himself an African maverick of sorts, said on Thursday, citing the potential to stoke global market volatility.

But he was much more accommodating. “Why would the UK voters vote for a Brexit? Well, it’s their right.”

Meanwhile, as British politicians were frothing at the mouth, ironically over the perceived interference in sovereign matters, the London marathon was happening under their nose.

Both the men and women’s events were, as usual, won by Kenyans.