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What’s the history of foreign troops on Kenyan soil? Here’s a brief rundown

Chinese soldiers at a training exercise
A new US report claims that China plans to open new military bases across Africa. Getty Images

The presence of foreign military personnel is rarely a hot topic in Kenya, except in rare cases of transgressions such as recent reports linking a British soldier to the murder of a woman 10 years ago. And now, a recent US defence report suggested that China could be wooing Kenya (amongst other countries in the region) to host a military base. China dismissed the claim, accusing the US of stoking old Cold War fears. The Conversation Africa’s George Omondi asked Macharia Munene to make sense of the seemingly high stakes.

What is the foreign military presence in Kenya?

The foreign military presence in Kenya isn’t very pronounced, but British and the American personnel do operate, either in training or assisting in security operations.

About 300 British officers regularly train in Kenya with Kenyan soldiers. They are mostly in Nanyuki, a town located about 285 kms north of Nairobi.

The British have been in Kenya since independence through bilateral security arrangements. Kenya’s dependence on the UK increased after 1964. In that year there was a mutiny at the Lanet military base in Nakuru as well as grumblings at the Langata Barracks in Nairobi. Soldiers in the Kenya Rifles were demanding pay rises, almost copying what had happened in Tanganyika and Uganda, the two other former British protectorates in East Africa. At the request of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, British troops helped to put down the unrest. Kenya’s reliance on Britain subsequently increased. Britain’s Major General Ian H. Freeland commanded Kenyan troops at the time.

The initial command of the armed forces was under British officers, on secondment. But the Africanisation policy led to African officers rising up the ranks. The UK helped to establish both the Kenya Navy and the Kenya Air force. Currently, the Chief of Defence Forces, and all service commanders, are Kenyans.

The US military presence in Kenya started largely as part of the Cold War chess game. For example, in 1980 the US entered into an agreement with Kenya for the use of its air-force and naval facilities.

In the post-Cold War period, the American presence in Kenya has largely related to countering terrorist activities in Somalia. For instance, there have been drone strikes against Al-Shabaab leaders in Somalia.

The Americans have made regular visits, mainly naval, throughout the period. Their objectives are to keep rivals off a geo-strategically important state in Eastern Africa, and reportedly give aid of military nature.

Americans are also in Lamu County, located on the Indian Ocean near Kenya’s border with Somalia, where they keep an eye on activities of the Al-Shabaab. The jihadist group has been fighting to overthrow the government in Mogadishu since 2006. It continues to launch regular cross-border raids.

What do we know about China’s reported interests?

The details of Chinese interests are not available. But China generally views Kenya as a gateway to the eastern Africa region. That makes Kenya a key area of focus for its trade and economic strategy in Africa.

In the last few years, it has become clear that there has been a rise in China’s efforts to achieve greater global status and presence. This has been true across all aspects of China’s foreign policies – from cultural, to industrial and trade. It also includes a drive to show a military presence outside China to protect external interests and to flex geopolitical muscles.

President Xi Jingpin is seemingly determined to shape discussions in the world using the slogans of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and paying attention to global ’common destiny’.

In terms of geo-political projection, China has increased its military presence through UN Peace keeping operations or by opening bases. In the 1960s and 1970s, China assisted liberation forces in Southern Africa’s remnants of colonial white settlerdom militarily. It has roughly 2000 troops as UN peace keepers in countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan and Central Africa Republic.

There are also reports that China could be establishing naval bases in Namibia, Mauritania, and Tanzania. Its established military base nearest to Kenya is in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.

How does Kenya benefit from having foreign troops on its soil?

Kenya benefits materially and psychologically. Besides donations of armaments, cash and training opportunities, the agreements give Kenya a sense of security, particularly when its neighbours appear to be hostile.

In the 1970s, Kenya had ideological differences with Tanzania while its leader, Kenyatta, had personality clashes with Idi Amin in Uganda. Kenya also faced the irredentist Somalia, Marxist Ethiopia, and unstable Sudan. These led to the breakdown of the East African Community, the Entebbe raid which involved Israeli forces freeing hostages from a hijacking, influx of refugees to Kenya from unstable neighbours, and increased availability of illicit small arms and ammunition.

There is an assumption that Kenya is responsible for the security and well-being of Eastern Africa as a region. Nevertheless, it cannot do it alone which is why it accommodates friendly big powers to help.

When Kenya acquired American F16 jet fighters between 1975 and 1976, it was a result of a feeling that Kenya, as a Western outpost, was vulnerable in terms of security and ideologically from its ‘socialistic’ neighbours. That was the argument that Kenya’s Foreign Minister Munyua Waiyaki used on US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to get the jets and train the pilots.

Another benefit is that Kenyan officers continue to receive high-level training in the US and the UK.

Would the US feel uneasy about China’s presence?

The US and China are in stiff competition for global dominance. The US has had the upper hand but has become increasingly uncomfortable that it may be losing to China on several fronts. The November 2021 visit by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, was partly motivated by American desire to counter Chinese inroads in Africa. It is concerned that China, its geopolitical rival, has chance to protect and advance such Chinese global interests in Africa, such as acquisition of strategic raw materials, commerce and financial operations, and gain political leverage.

China is the engine behind the current global power realignment. It has systematically taken advantage of the perceived geopolitical weaknesses of the US and the West. And it has skilfully projected itself globally as the reasonable power when compared to the West.

It has also made use of its new economic muscle. The US realised rather late that it was losing global influence in terms of the economy and geopolitics and thus tries to catch up with China.

US President Joe Biden has stated that competing with – and outdoing China – is a new American pre-occupation. It does not look good for the US to appear as a secondary power to China or any other region.


Read more: Biden's summit for democracy: what Africa needs to bring to the table


American interests, which include the image, require that it pays attention to Chinese interests in Kenya which it considers to be part of its geopolitical backyard in Africa.

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