Kenya’s status as a cornerstone of UK engagement in Africa will be further cemented by King Charles’s state visit this week – his first outside of Europe as monarch and first to a Commonwealth country as its head. One of just four African countries named in the British government’s Integrated Review, Kenya is a financial hub and anchor state in an unsettled region.
But the visit may also underline challenges to UK policy. Shared history has bound the UK and Kenya together, but Nairobi now has a wide choice of partners and a leader in President Ruto who is keen to demonstrate African agency on an international stage.
The wounds of the colonial era continue to surface. And though the Commonwealth may prove to be a framework for a mutually beneficial partnership, it too brings significant baggage. For all its opportunities, the global spotlight of a royal visit may serve to highlight these fault lines.
A long-term relationship
Ties have remained close since independence, despite significant turbulence over the past decade. In 2013, the UK announced it would limit engagement in Kenya over International Criminal Court cases against current president William Ruto and his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta. Though pragmatism prevailed following Kenyatta’s victory in the 2013 elections, the partnership has subsequently been threatened by the UK’s sudden imposition of COVID-19 travel restrictions on Kenya and scandals at tea farms owned by British companies; while alleged crimes by soldiers of the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) delayed Kenya’s renewal of the bilateral framework on defence cooperation.
Alongside significant cuts in UK development funding, that such incidents have not triggered a broader deterioration in relations is tribute to effective diplomacy and increased investment in high-level relationships in the post-Brexit context. In 2018 Theresa May became the first UK prime minister to visit Kenya for 30 years, and personal rapport between Uhuru Kenyatta and Boris Johnson helped to ease lingering tensions over COVID-19 red-listing in 2021.
King Charles’s arrival provides an opportunity to reinforce these ties, but it will not come without risk. The extent to which he acknowledges the violence of the UK’s colonial past will set the tone for much of the visit. Statements will be carefully curated not to overstep the UK government’s 2013 settlement for the atrocities of the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s, stopping short of a full public apology that could add momentum to unresolved legal claims over colonial-era evictions from agricultural land in the Rift Valley. A 2022 Chatham House Africa Programme podcast explored these claims further.
In a context of lasting mistrust of the former colonial power and the daily urgencies of a worsening cost-of-living crisis, there is a danger that any such statements are judged by Kenyans more for what they choose to omit than what they include.
Kenya’s competing global partners
Beyond a limited reset in tone on colonial history, however, hopes for a more substantive boost to Kenya–UK relations should be tempered by geopolitical context. Almost 60 years on from independence, Kenya now has significant agency and a choice of competing international partners. Nor will the King be greeted by Uhuru Kenyatta, a seasoned diplomatic operator and son of Kenya’s first president, but his successor William Ruto, who continues to seek a foothold on the global stage and built his election victory by rallying against powerful ruling ‘dynasties’.
Environmental issues are a clear example. Kenya is one of the continent’s leading adopters of renewable energy and hosted the inaugural African Climate Summit in Nairobi in August, which critiqued prevailing climate finance commitments. Though highlighting recently agreed joint climate projects with the UK, the King’s visit is unlikely to offer much to counter President Ruto’s wider narrative that ‘those who produce the garbage refuse to pay their bills’.
And despite early suggestions of a pivot towards the West when Ruto took office in 2022, Kenya remains keen to avoid being pigeonholed into any geopolitical grouping. Ruto is fresh from a visit to China two weeks ago, which included a meeting with Xi Jinping aimed at extending terms on existing loans and securing new financing for Kenya’s railway project. Nairobi’s existing overexposure to Chinese lending is a factor – though not the sole cause – of its economic struggles. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov visited Nairobi in May 2023, though Kenya subsequently chose not to send a senior representative to the second Russia–Africa summit in July.
Kenya is also not short of options in the West. It signed an Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU in June 2023 that almost exactly replicates the UK’s own 2020 agreement and is continuing talks with the US over a new trade deal. Ruto’s push for Kenyan police to lead a multinational intervention in Haiti is also aimed at shoring up US ties.