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How Kenya’s illiberal president wooed the West

Uhuru Kenyatta has used his country’s relative stability to win favour overseas.

By Antoaneta Roussi

NAIROBI – When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched his tour of Africa last month, he started in Nairobi. What was planned to be a ten-minute talk with the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, reportedly ran to an hour and a half. Topics ranged from climate to Covid-19, with a strong focus on regional stability. Afterwards, Blinken commended Kenyatta as “widely respected” and “a partner on virtually every critical issue we face”. The countries’ friendship would not only be good for the region, he said, but for the entire world. 

But in Kenya, Kenyatta’s reputation is far from sparkling. Human Rights Watch, the international NGO, has said serious human rights violations continue to be perpetrated by Kenyan security forces, including extrajudicial killings, which are rarely investigated by government. Since Kenyatta became the president in 2013, Kenya’s debt has more than tripled due, in part, to suspected corruption. A petition signed by more than 230,000 Kenyans asked the International Monetary Fund not to grant the country a $2.34bn Covid-19 recovery loan, which they claimed would be lost to graft.  

Still, Kenya, the largest economy in the region, has remained relatively stable, and its president has quietly emerged as the leading statesman in East Africa – directly correlated to the decline in neighbouring countries.

Over the past year, East Africa has witnessed tremendous upheaval. In Ethiopia, Tigrayan forces have staged an extraordinary reversal on the battlefield and now threaten to enter the capital, Addis Ababa. February began with violent protests in Somalia’s capital after a delayed election. In March, Tanzania’s president John Pombe Magufuli died from what many suspect were Covid-19 complications. And in October, Sudan’s military carried out a coup that launched a series of bloody protests before it was effectively reversed.

[See also: Ethiopia’s capital under threat as Tigrayan rebels advance]

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“The rise of Kenyatta as a regional statesman is related to the deepening crisis in the Horn [of Africa],” said Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst and fellow at the Rift Valley Institute. “There is a tendency for Kenyans to rest on their laurels and say they are the only ones left standing. That is fine if you are happy that the occasion has arisen because the whole region is up in flames.” 

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Ethiopia, a strategic ally of the West for the past three decades, has been embroiled in civil conflict since November 2020. Under the leadership of the former prime minister Meles Zenawi, the country built a sophisticated army and played a peacekeeping role in the region. The current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, even won the Nobel Peace Prize. But as the nation of 110 million descends deeper into civil war, Kenya’s profile as seen from the West appears strong, and Kenyatta, dependable.

[See also: Ethiopia’s troubled election won’t restore Abiy Ahmed’s reputation]

“Kenya was traditionally inward-looking. It didn’t have a sophisticated foreign policy, such as Ethiopia, and focused on regional trade rather than diplomacy,” said Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group. “But Kenyatta has always viewed himself as a politician [with influence] beyond Kenya, and he is relishing this opportunity to prove it.” Kenyatta is also uniquely positioned in the Horn as the only leader whose government has a defence and security pact with Ethiopia. According to Mutiga, this means Kenyatta has the advantage of having both the ear of the Tigrayans and of Prime Minister Abiy’s government. “If Kenyatta can achieve a ceasefire that potentially stops a catastrophic confrontation among warring actors in Ethiopia,” said Mutiga, “that would give him quite an extraordinary win.” Indeed, if Kenyatta managed to help negotiate peace, it would be a figurative coup – one that could define his legacy. 

As the son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and one of the key figures in the African liberation movement, Uhuru Kenyatta was groomed for a political post from a young age. Born in 1961, Uhuru – meaning “freedom” in Swahili – studied political science at Amherst College in the US and, according to Abdi, always viewed the West as a role model. 

Kenyatta’s term is due to end next year. He wanted to make far-reaching changes to the executive structure of government, potentially allowing him to remain in power but the Kenyan high court ruled multiple times that the plan was unconstitutional. At the same time, he is struggling to get his preferred successor, Raila Odinga, elected, as many believe the man would protect Kenyatta family’s vast business empire. However, William Ruto, the current deputy president, leads in opinion polls. “It has been a parade of negative stories for Kenyatta on the domestic front,” said Mutiga. “There is a stark contrast with his regional reputation.”

Yet it is his international standing that could matter more when it comes to his future. Ahead of the election in August next year, Kenyatta will surely be looking to leverage his international clout to secure a high-profile position once he steps down as president – for example, at the helm of an African climate initiative. “This is a man who is looking at a post-government, post-presidency, prominent international role,” said Abdi.

In July, Kenyatta co-hosted a Global Education Summit with the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while in October he was the first African head of state to visit the US president Joe Biden in the Oval Office. Biden later invited Kenya to take part in his Summit for Democracy, though the NGO Freedom House has classified the country as being only “partly free”. The message from the West is clear: this is our man in Africa. But Kenyatta’s appeal says more about the state of the region than of his statesmanship. When he leaves office, it might prove to be the beginning of the end of his charm.

[See also: “A crisis of feeling”: Kenya’s Elizabeth Wathuti on keeping faith on climate’s front line]