Kenya – a pivotal player in East Africa – has, from independence in 1963 to the present day, enjoyed political stability, shift from one-party rule to multi-party democracy and gradual economic development. But critics point out that its progress has not been optimal because of a combination of tribalism, disputed elections and corruption. Uhuru Kenyatta, the fourth president who is now in his second and final term, is committed to the renewed politics of unity and sustainable progress.
The home scenario
Kenyan politics is shaped by complex calculations and bargains struck among leaders of the major tribes, namely, the Kikuyu (from whom three of four Kenyan presidents have come so far), Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba and others. Luo leader Raila Odinga, who lost three presidential elections to Kenyatta, has finally opted to reconcile with him out of expediency. The Kenyatta-Odinga understanding seems to have cast doubts on the earlier informal pact between the President and Deputy President William Ruto, (a Kalenjin), which would have entailed Ruto’s elevation to the presidency in 2022. Political developments in the short term will be moulded by this triangular contestation.
Kenyatta’s sensible way of dealing with the perennial political-tribal conundrum has been to motivate the people to concentrate on faster and more inclusive economic development. In a land famous for its Big Five of wild life, he has devised a comprehensive four-point national agenda: 1) enhance the manufacturing sector’s share in GDP from 9.2% to 20%; 2) food security and nutrition; 3) universal health coverage; and 4) affordable housing.
The country has shown a good record of growth so far. “The state of our Economy is Strong!!!”, asserted an excited president in his recent address. Broad-based growth in the past five years was 5.6%. It is estimated to touch 6.3% in 2019 and 6.6% during 2018-2021. As the host nation for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kenya is advancing steadily on the path of sustainable development. Successfully hosting a global conference on the ‘Sustainable Blue Economy’ in November 2018, it further strengthened its credentials as a government genuinely committed to growth, but growth which is in harmony with the environment.
This is relevant also because Kenya finds itself in the middle of an infrastructure boom today. New highways, roads, flyovers and housing complexes dot the landscape. The new railway, connecting Mombasa with Nairobi, built with China’s assistance, has been projected as “a story of remarkable success and national pride.” Named as the Madaraka Express, it has already carried 2.5 million passengers and 3.5 million tonnes of cargo since its inception in May 2018. Its extension from Nairobi to Naivasha, and then on to Kisumu and the African hinterland, is on course. Although criticised for its high costs, huge debts owed to China and environmental damage, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is a vital transport component of Vision 2030, which aims to make Kenya a middle-income country by that year.
China is the top player among foreign partners, enjoying extensive trade, investment and technology cooperation with Kenya. An enthusiastic supporter of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Kenyatta attended the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in April 2019. President Xi Jinping conveyed appreciation for his “refutation of groundless accusations on China-Kenya and China-Africa cooperation on many occasions.” Following participation in the BRF, Kenyatta returned with new projects to be backed by the Chinese government’s concessional financing.
At the same time, he has not ignored relations with Kenya’s neighbours and traditional partners in the West and Asia. Foreign Minister Monica Juma, who is managing diplomatic strategy under President Kenyatta’s supervision, stated that Kenya aimed to be “a competitive nation” as well as “a reliable, credible and consistent partner”.
What, then, is Kenya’s ‘African destiny’, the subject of discussion by scholars and government officials? As a key member of the East African Community (EAC) and the African Union (AU), Kenya has been deepening the foundations of regional and continental unity. It figures on the list of African countries that signed and quickly ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area. At present, Kenya is a member of the AU’s Peace and Security Council. It is also a candidate for the non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2021-22. Its leadership strongly believes that the country’s prosperity and security depend on ever closer unity with its partners in Africa.
The western partners
Among western partners, the UK occupies a prominent spot for historical reasons. Colonial-era connections survive; it was in Kenya, in February 1952, that the visiting princess, Elizabeth II, heard she had become queen, a fact that is part of collective memory. Kenyan experts are hopeful that after the UK overcomes its Brexit woes, it may double its endeavours to strengthen the Commonwealth.
Next, the U.S. is a partner of consequence, mixing security and economic interests. U.S. security assistance has increasingly professionalised the Kenyan military forces, upgrading counter-terrorism and border security capabilities and enhancing maritime security awareness. The U.S. views Kenya as the region’s business, financial and transportation hub. An inaugural session of the bilateral strategic dialogue took place in Washington in May 2019, which covered not only economic and defence cooperation, but also democracy and governance, regional and multilateral issues. The U.S. also continues to express serious concern over China’s growing footprint in Kenya.
Besides China and the West, Japan is treated as a leading partner. Nairobi had the rare distinction of hosting the only Japan-Africa Summit held outside Japan since its inception in 1993: the sixth Tokyo International Cooperation on African Development (TICAD-VI) took place in the Kenyan capital in August 2016. Kenya has been a major recipient of Japanese development assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa, with bilateral cooperation covering five areas: infrastructure, agriculture, health, education and environment.
Finally, there is India, probably Kenya’s oldest partner – since exchanges predate the arrival of colonialism – with whom it shares a strong political, cultural, diasporic and economic relationship. Political cooperation received a fillip through successful visits by PM Modi in July 2016 and President Kenyatta’s visit in January 2017. India extended new lines of credit and grant assistance. The inflow of Indian tourists touched a peak of 100,000 in 2018. India’s business community is worried because bilateral trade declined from $4.2 billion in 2014-2015 to about $2 billion in 2017-2018. Kenya seeks Indian investment in specific sectors, such as pharma and healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture, irrigation and affordable housing – and India ought to respond.
Kenyatta’s leadership has succeeded in channeling the nation’s energy in a positive direction. Kenya is now ranked 61 on the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ index, a jump of 19 places; it is fired by the ambition to enter the hallowed top 50 category by 2020. Foreign investment is flowing in as the international community watches with heightened interest. Kenya’s leaders need to practice the politics of harmony and integrity. Should they succeed in according a higher priority to the people’s interests rather than their own, there may be no holding Kenya back.
Jomo Kenyatta is remembered for leading the nation to freedom. The son, Uhuru Kenyatta, could go down in history for accelerating Kenya’s journey to prosperity.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former High Commissioner to Kenya, South Africa, and Lesotho.
This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.
For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact email@example.com.
© Copyright 2019 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.
 This article is based on a visit to Nairobi in May 2018 and in-depth interactions with knowledgeable people.
 The Big Five animals are: lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard.
 His Excellency Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta, C.G.H., President of The Republic of Kenya and Commander In Chief of the Defence Forces, “The 2019 State of the Nation Address at Parliament Buildings, Nairobi,” Speech, 04 April 2019, http://www.president.go.ke/2019/04/04/speech-by-his-excellency-hon-uhuru-kenyatta-c-g-h-president-of-the-republic-of-kenya-and-commander-in-chief-of-the-defence-forces-during-the-2019-state-of-the-nation-address-at-parliament-building/ (Accessed on 27 June 2019).
 Professor Yash Pal Ghai, “Is Kenya in the danger of dependence on China?,” Katiba Institute, 13 July 2018, <https://www.katibainstitute.org/is-kenya-in-the-danger-of-dependence-on-china/>
 XinhuaNet, “Xi meets Kenyan president.” XINHUANET.com, 25 April 2019, <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/africa/2019-04/25/c_138008647.htm>
 Bhatia, Rajiv, “Reaching out to Africa,” The Hindu, 11 January 2017, <https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Reaching-out-to-Africa/article17019001.ece>