King Charles’ visit to Kenya this week is the British monarch’s first to a Commonwealth nation since his coronation in September 2022. The visit comes during the country’s 60th anniversary of independence from Britain.
By choosing Kenya, the British government and monarchy seek to highlight the importance they attribute to the east African nation. It also shows other Commonwealth members that it’s possible for a republic to have a positive relationship with Britain. Some Commonwealth states like Jamaica are contemplating removing the king as head of state.
The relationship with Kenya remains one of Britain’s more positive post-colonial relationships. However, there have been calls for Britain to apologise and make reparations for its brutal suppression of freedom fighters. People in Kenya, Britain and other former colonies will be watching closely to see what the king has to say.
I’m a historian who has studied and written about the political relationship between Britain and Kenya in the decades after independence. In my view, the relationship has taken a positive tilt since independence for three reasons. These are: the choices of Kenya’s first independent president; diplomatic, economic and ideological alignments; and military ties.
Kenya and Britain’s history
Kenya became a British colony in the late 19th century. A small minority of white British settlers held almost all of the political and economic power. The British government planned to make Kenya a “multi-racial” state. The small white European and Asian populations of 55,700 and 176,600 people, respectively, would have equal or more power than the black majority of 8.3 million. Only in 1960 did the British government accept that Kenya should have majority rule and independence.
Independence celebrations in 1963 were preceded by a difficult period of negotiation and violence. A state of emergency was declared in 1952 in response to the Mau Mau uprising. This was an armed rebellion among one of Kenya’s major tribes, the Kikuyu, fighting for land and freedom.
The emergency lasted until 1960. Over this period, thousands of Kenyans were killed, and tens of thousands were detained in camps without trial. The camps became sites of violence and abuse.
With this past, a close post-colonial relationship between Kenya and Britain can appear surprising. It was expected that Kenya would turn away from Britain and towards other international partners, such as the US or the Soviet Union.
Instead, the relationship has largely been close and friendly, with trade benefits, alignment on significant issues and strong military ties.
Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, had been imprisoned by Britain as a leader of the Mau Mau. But once he took leadership, he opted to work primarily with Britain.
Kenyatta saw the benefits he could get from this relationship. These included financial and military backing during the Cold War, and personal backing. In 1965, Britain made plans to protect Kenyatta if a coup was attempted.
British officials were surprised but pleased by Kenyatta’s position. They had many interests in Kenya, ranging from trade to diplomacy. One key interest was Kenya’s white European and Asian populations who held British passports. To help achieve their security, the British government financed the purchase of their land, which could then be sold to Kenyans. Before independence, many in Kenya had hoped for land redistribution. Instead, European settlers got financial benefits.
For decades after independence, Britain was Kenya’s primary economic partner. Currently, Britain is the largest European investor in Kenya and Kenya’s second-largest export destination. There are more than 200 British businesses operating in Kenya.
The British and Kenyan governments have broadly aligned on international diplomatic issues like the Cold War, and later the “war on terror”. There were some exceptions, and the Kenyan government did criticise British policies towards white rule in Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa. But in private the relationship remained cordial.
Military ties have been especially close. Britain remains a training partner. The royal visit includes meeting Kenyan marines trained by British marines.
Britain has also sold arms to Kenya and provided support to set up a navy and air force after independence.
After independence, many African countries expelled their British military commanders to replace them with Africans. Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta chose to keep British commanders. The Kenyan army was led by a British officer until 1966, the navy until 1972 and the air force until 1973.
Most important for Britain is that its military is allowed to train in Kenya. This allows them to practise in different and difficult terrains.
Closeness despite challenges
The relationship between the two nations since independence has not always been smooth, however.
In 1967-68, Kenya increased policies that discriminated against Kenyan Asians. The 1967 Immigration Act and 1968 Trade Licensing Act, for instance, meant non-citizens (including many Asians) needed work permits. This led to the immigration to Britain of 13,600 east African Asians in 1967.
The British government then passed legislation to limit their right to enter the UK despite their holding British passports.
After Ugandan president Idi Amin expelled the Asian population in 1972 – about 40,000 Asian Ugandans moved to the UK – Britain offered aid to Kenya to ensure it didn’t follow a similar policy.
In 1982, after the Kenya Air Force attempted a coup, many in Kenya’s elite became suspicious of Britain’s aims in the country.
Since independence, some in Kenya have questioned why British troops still train in the country. The killing in 2012 of a Kenyan woman, Agnes Wanjiru, seemingly by British soldiers, exacerbated these grumblings.
The issue of the Mau Mau has also been a source of recent tension.
Kenya has repeatedly asked for archive files related to the Mau Mau, which the British government denied having. These files were only acknowledged and released after 2011.
In 2013, the British government finally acknowledged that the government had known about and been complicit in torture and violence during the emergency, and victims would be paid compensation of £19.9 million. The then foreign secretary William Hague stated:
The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.
Despite moments of tension, the two governments have always sought to dispel difficulties. The king’s visit, for instance, is on the invitation of Kenya’s president William Ruto. Ruto made his first overseas visit as president to the UK for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in September 2022.
Over six decades, the challenges that have arisen have not been enough to derail the relationship.