Strategic Posture Review: Kenya

Strategic Posture Review: Kenya

After winning Kenya’s March 2013 presidential election, President Uhuru Kenyatta inherited the difficult task of leading East Africa’s most significant diplomatic and economic actor while simultaneously awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The charges, for alleged crimes against humanity, stemmed from Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections. Given Kenya’s historically strong ties to the West, the charges against Kenyatta and his deputy president, William Ruto, forced the new Jubilee coalition government onto an immediate diplomatic tightrope—one defined by an all-consuming campaign to weaken international support for the trials, while maintaining enough continuity of engagement with the West to prevent international pariah status.

In addition to navigating the delicate ICC process, the Kenyatta government assumed oversight of Kenya’s growing role in the maintenance of regional security, highlighted by the country’s 2011 invasion of Somalia and the continued participation of 5,500 Kenyan troops in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Despite hosting Africa’s United Nations headquarters and serving as a regional hub for commerce, infrastructure, transport and humanitarian operations, Kenya has long maintained a modest regional geostrategic footprint, pursuing a policy of nonintervention and “good neighborliness,” while earning a reputation as an “unwilling regional power.” However, rising security threats from Somalia and growing economic confidence—buttressed by regional integration, the discovery of oil in 2012 and increasingly robust economic ties with China and other emerging markets—have pushed the country toward a stronger projection of power. The September 2013 attack by the Somali militant group al-Shabab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, launched in retaliation for Kenya’s military presence on Somali soil, highlights Kenya’s ongoing security challenges, which both drive the country’s increasingly outward-looking posture and threaten its bold plans for further economic and infrastructural development.

As of January 2014, the case against Kenyatta at the ICC appears to be on the verge of collapse, which will likely lead to the mitigation of strained relations with the United States, Britain and Kenya’s other traditional Western allies. However, Kenya’s shift toward stronger engagement with regional and Asian partners, which began in part as a consequence of the ICC episode, is likely to continue, as the Kenyatta government courts investment from emerging markets and seeks to promote itself as a regional hub of services and information technology. Nonetheless, Kenya’s numerous security threats, compounded by deep ethno-political divisions, will pose obstacles to its economic ambitions and efforts to play a stronger role in regional leadership. Moreover, growing resentment in Somalia over Kenya’s military presence in the port city of Kismayo, coupled with a post-Westgate backlash against ethnic Somalis living in Kenya, threaten to inflame regional and domestic instability and undermine Kenya’s geostrategic ambitions.

National Security Issues and Strategic Priorities

Kenya faces several major national security threats. Deep-rooted ethnic tensions and patronage politics undermine national unity and threaten to result in electoral violence at both the local and national levels. Poaching, banditry and urban crime, combined with instability in neighboring Somalia, the movement of militants across the porous Somali border and the likelihood of additional terrorist attacks place high demands on domestic security forces and threaten several high-profile investments. In Somali-majority areas of Nairobi and much of the Kenyan coast, growing distrust of the state threatens to further alienate the Muslim minority. Finally, strains on resources and recurrent drought in the country’s north hinder Kenya’s capacity to feed its citizens and threaten to exacerbate land-based conflicts among the country’s 40-plus ethnic communities.

Ethnic Tensions and Electoral Violence

Kenya has experienced bouts of electoral violence since the introduction of multiparty politics during the presidency of Daniel arap Moi in 1991. The country’s most violent episode since independence occurred following the disputed presidential poll of December 2007, when as many as 1,300 people were killed and 500,000 displaced in ethnic clashes. The fighting broke out after the rapid swearing-in of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, who was declared the winner over opposition candidate Raila Odinga, a Luo, despite reports of widespread irregularities. Although some of the violence was spontaneous, investigations concluded that multiple attacks were planned, with high-level politicians on both sides implicated. These include the current president, Kenyatta, and his deputy president, Ruto, who are both facing trial at the ICC for their alleged role in instigating the violence. Kenyatta, Ruto and four others were first summoned by former ICC Chief Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo in 2010 after Kenya’s parliament failed to adopt a constitutional amendment that would have established a local tribunal to handle post-election violence cases. Charges against three of the original suspects have since been dropped.The trial of Ruto began in September and resumed on Jan. 16 after a break, though Ruto is not required to attend all sessions. The trial of Kenyatta has been repeatedly delayed and appears to be on the verge of collapse due to the continuing withdrawal of key witnesses, which ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has blamed on bribery and intimidation by associates of the president.

The roots of grievances among Kenya’s ethnic groups are complex, although perceptions of disproportionate access to power and inequitable distribution of land and other resources are important elements of tensions at both local and national levels. Accounting for 22 percent of the population, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu—who led the 1950s Mau Mau insurrection against the British—have long been disproportionally represented among political and business elites, fueling resentment among other communities. In Kenya’s Rift Valley province, which experienced some of the worst violence in 2007, ethnic Kalenjin have long complained that Kikuyu from central Kenya were unfairly settled on Kalenjin land following independence. According to the Waki Commission of Inquiry into the 2007-2008 post-election violence, “inequalities and economic marginalization, often viewed in ethno-geographic terms,” as well as the “widespread belief that the presidency brings advantages for the president’s ethnic group,” were major drivers of the clashes, which largely pitted ethnic Luo and Kalenjin supporters of Odinga against Kikuyu supporters of Kibaki. Nonetheless, the plurality of Kenya’s major ethnic communities and Kenya’s competitive multiparty political landscape since 1991 mean that ethnic alliances tend to shift. This phenomenon was apparent during elections in 2013, when former rivals Kenyatta and Ruto campaigned together on an anti-ICC platform and drew the votes of most Kalenjin and Kikuyu.

Despite multiple election-day technological failures and limited transparency during the vote tallying process, the 2013 poll, in which Kenyatta narrowly avoided a second-round runoff with Odinga, was considerably more peaceful than the vote in 2007. Nonetheless, the devolution of power to county-level authorities, as mandated in a new constitution passed in 2010 and implemented in conjunction with the elections, proved to fuel several local conflicts over access to resources and power. In 2012 and 2013, for instance, at least 164 people were killed and more than 40,000 people were displaced in clashes between ethnic Pokomo farmers and pastoralist Orma near the Tana River Delta of Kenya’s Coast province—violence linked to long-standing competition over access to pasture and water resources, more recent government and private sector land purchases in the area and boundary changes in advance of the 2013 poll. Although largely dormant during the 2013 election, national ethnic tensions could also re-emerge as political alliances shift. Recent tensions within the Jubilee alliance over government appointments, coupled with the possible isolation of Ruto should Kenyatta’s ICC trial be dismissed and his continue, could easily undermine the Kikuyu-Kalenjin rapprochement, increasing the likelihood of future clashes.

Somalia, Islamist Extremists and the Muslim Minority

Kenya has been at the front line of the fight against international terrorism since al-Qaida’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which together left more than 220 people dead. It has also suffered from spillover resulting from Somalia’s 22-year political crisis, including refugee flows; the smuggling of people, small arms and drugs; cross-border raids; and a surge in maritime piracy that peaked in 2009. Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, launched against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab in October 2011, elicited a spate of attacks by al-Shabab supporters on Kenyan police and military personnel, as well as mosques, churches, buses and markets in Nairobi, Mombasa and northern Kenya. Although al-Shabab has been considerably weakened inside Somalia, its four-day siege of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, launched in retaliation for the Kenyan military presence in Somalia, killed more than 67 people, wounded several hundred and was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the 1998 embassy bombing.

Although the four Westgate attackers were Somali, the episode coincides with a growing radicalization among parts of Kenya’s Muslim population, which accounts for roughly 11 percent of the country’s total. Some reports suggest the Westgate attack involved high-level coordination between al-Shabab and its Kenyan affiliate al-Hijra, whose ranks consist of Kenyans as well as youths from across the region, including some locals who have returned home after fighting alongside al-Shabab in Somalia. According to counterterrorism analysts, the filtering of fighters back into Kenya, frequently aided by corrupt border officials, has brought new discipline and expertise to the previously foundering group; one 2012 Kenyan intelligence report notes that al-Hijra militants are increasingly sophisticated, with a growing number of safe houses, weapons stores and local contacts.

Tensions between the government and segments of Kenya’s Muslim population have existed since independence, when ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District waged a four-year low-intensity civil war against the central government in a failed attempt to secede and join “greater Somalia.” Along Kenya’s predominantly Muslim coast, residents have long felt marginalized by a lack of investment in health and education from Nairobi as well as inequalities in access to land and the domination of the Mombasa economy—much of which is driven by illicit businesses such as port theft, tax evasion, land fraud and drugs—by the so-called upcountry elite. One coastal political movement, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), formed in 2008, has advocated secession of coastal areas and boycotts of national elections. Although the MRC does not appear to have links to al-Shabab, al-Hijra or other extremist groups, police have implicated the group in several attacks in Coast province, including the Tana River violence, and coordinated attacks during the March 2013 election that killed more than a dozen and marred what was otherwise a peaceful vote.

Coercive and repressive tactics by Kenyan security forces have also fueled resentment among coastal Muslims and Kenya’s estimated 2.4 million ethnic Somali residents, including roughly half a million Somali refugees. Since the 2011 invasion of Somalia, Human Rights Watch has documented a “pattern of violent and indiscriminate responses” to suspected militant attacks in the country’s north and in Nairobi’s Somali-majority neighborhood of Eastleigh. One such episode occurred after an attack on an army convoy in November 2012, when the Kenyan army surrounded the town of Garissa, shooting residents and traders, raping women and “assaulting anyone in sight.” Along the coast, a series of extrajudicial killings of individuals allegedly linked to al-Shabab, including the prominent cleric Aboud Rogo, who was assassinated by unknown gunmen in August 2012, have sparked violent demonstrations, fueled suspicion of the Kenyan government and increased support among youths for al-Shabab and other extremist elements. Residents of Eastleigh have also complained of arbitrary arrests, beatings and indefinite detentions—tactics that appear to have increased in use in the wake of the Westgate attack, with Muslims and ethnic Somalis in Nairobi citing increased harassment and police intimidation.

Food Insecurity and Climate Change

An additional threat to Kenya’s national security comes from climate change and environmental degradation, which places strain on food production, threatens additional refugee flows from more arid neighbors Somalia and South Sudan and helps drive local conflicts. In 2011, more than 4 million Kenyans required food aid when the Horn of Africa suffered its worst drought in 60 years. The drought caused widespread malnutrition among pastoral communities in the country’s north, a spike in food prices across the country and vast overcrowding at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, which, as home to half a million refugees, is now Kenya’s fifth-largest population center. Several of Kenya’s localized conflicts, such as recent fighting between the Pokomo and Orma, stem in large part from access to resources, including water and land, which are both under threat by climate change.

In the coming decades, the consequences of climate change are likely to intensify: According to a 2013 study released by the International Food Policy and Research Institute, shifting rainfall patterns resulting from global warming are likely to shift the distribution of Kenya’s cereal crop yields considerably by 2050, increasing soil fertility in some areas, but rendering the cultivation of maize and wheat impossible in others. Notably, the report warns that certain areas of the densely populated Rift Valley could see stark reductions in yields of the staple crop maize, which could decimate some subsistence farming communities and drive new bouts of ethnic and land-based conflict. Surveys suggest that Kenyans are aware of wider threats posed by environmental factors. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in the spring of 2013, 57 percent of Kenyans surveyed identified global climate change as a “major threat” to their country. Other major threats identified included international financial instability (56 percent) and Islamic extremist groups (55 percent).

Foreign Policy

Since Kenya gained independence in 1963, its foreign policy has been premised on the principle of “good neighborliness,” characterized by noninterference in the affairs of other states and respect for national sovereignty. Unlike Tanzania and Uganda, which have a history of supporting liberation movements on the continent, Kenya has traditionally eschewed robust regional engagement, focusing instead on domestic concerns and generally favoring multilateral, soft-power approaches to regional security challenges. As noted, Kenya’s 2011 incursion into Somalia and ongoing participation in AMISOM marks an unprecedented use of Kenya’s hard power for the protection of its security and economic interests. The country’s shift toward a more outward-looking regional posture comes as it seeks to deepen economic engagement with fellow members of the East African Community; strengthen trade ties with China, India and other emerging markets; consolidate its status as a regional leader in manufacturing, communications and services; and capitalize on recent oil finds in the Turkana Basin by the Anglo-Irish firm Tullow Oil. It also coincides with fallout from the ICC cases against Kenyatta and Ruto, which have complicated diplomacy with the United States, Britain and other Western partners, yet are unlikely to fundamentally disrupt traditional security and economic relations.

United States, Britain and the West

Kenya has long maintained strong diplomatic, economic and security ties with the U.S., Britain and other Western powers. Despite being imprisoned by British colonial authorities, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was a strident anglophile—and powerful business magnate—who welcomed British-style capitalism and positioned Kenya firmly in the Western orbit, even as his vice president, Oginga Odinga, drifted toward the Soviet bloc. Today, Britain remains a major trade and development partner. In 2012, the U.K. was the fourth-largest destination of Kenyan exports, after Uganda, Tanzania and the Netherlands, and the sixth-largest source of Kenyan imports, with total bilateral trade between the U.K. and Kenya reaching $1.08 billion for the year. According to the U.K.’s Department for International Development Operational Plan for 2011-2015, the agency appropriated $245 million to Kenya in fiscal year 2014, placing an emphasis on reducing poverty, stimulating economic growth and promoting stability and security. Several European governments, as well as the European Union, are also major trade partners and donors. As a bloc, the EU is Kenya’s largest bilateral trade partner, with two-way trade reaching $4.3 billion in 2012.

The United States and Kenya have also maintained close relations for decades, with cooperation accelerating following the embassy bombings of 1998 and particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the U.S. boosted security cooperation in the wider Horn of Africa region. The two countries maintain significant economic relations, with bilateral trade worth $985 million in 2012. Kenya is a major recipient of U.S. assistance and is routinely among the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid in Africa. The U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State, requested $563.8 million in bilateral assistance to Kenya for fiscal year 2014, up from $464.2 million in 2013. The bulk of this—$463.5 million for 2014— was budgeted to health. Kenya is also one of the largest recipients of U.S. security assistance on the African continent. Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided Kenya more than $80 million in military assistance, while the Departments and Defense and State have provided AMISOM with more than $800 million since the establishment of the Somalia mission. Washington and Nairobi have also worked closely in the battle against Indian Ocean piracy and maintain an agreement for suspected pirates captured by the U.S. Navy to be transferred to Kenya for prosecution.

Kenya’s relations with the West deteriorated significantly following the March 2013 elections, with the U.S. and EU member states pledging to maintain only “essential contacts” with ICC indictees Ruto and Kenyatta. Remarks during the campaign by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnny Carson that “choices have consequences,” ostensibly an endorsement of Kenyatta’s rival Odinga, were met with contempt across Kenya, as was President Barack Obama’s failure to visit the country, his father’s homeland, on a tour of Africa following the election. As president, Kenyatta has responded with aggressive tactics in an effort to avoid standing trial, refusing to accredit ambassadors from countries that are key ICC donors, threatening reduced cooperation with regional counterterrorism efforts and making exaggerated public overtures toward China. In November 2013, when the U.S., Britain and France abstained from a vote in the U.N. Security Council that would have deferred Kenyatta’s trial for a year, Kenyan officials accused them of “humiliating” Africa and exhibiting a “reckless abdication of global leadership.”

Despite strong posturing from both sides, however, a high degree of mutual dependence suggests that both Kenya and the court’s Western supporters are strongly committed to avoiding a collapse in relations, even if Kenyatta and Ruto cease cooperation with the ICC process. Although both the U.S. and U.K. remain committed to the ICC in principle, neither state is prepared to lose influence in East Africa, compromise gains made in Somalia and potentially push Kenya further into China’s orbit. According to an October 2013 report by Africa Confidential, both London and Washington have well-developed contingency plans that call for a “very broad” definition of essential contacts should Kenyatta refuse to stand trial, which would enable continued security and economic cooperation. With Kenyatta’s case likely to collapse, such preparations may be moot, although the likely continuing of Ruto’s trial could still pose diplomatic challenges.

The ‘Look Inward’

However the ICC episode plays out, the Kenyatta administration’s emerging foreign policy will be increasingly rooted in sub-regionalism, pan-Africanism and engagement with institutions such as the East African Community (EAC), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and African Union (AU). To a certain extent, Kenya’s “look inward” is a consequence of the ICC proceedings and the Kenyatta government’s courtship of other African states to campaign against the ICC and its allegedly “racist” agenda. That push resulted in AU consensus support for a deferral of all cases against active heads of state at an October 2013 summit in Addis Ababa, which prompted the Security Council’s November 2013 vote against the deferral. Notably, the keynote speaker at Kenyatta’s inauguration was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who congratulated Kenyan voters for rejecting the “blackmail of the ICC and those who seek to abuse this institution for their own agenda.” According to Charles Onyango-Obbo, a Ugandan journalist and commentator, Kenyatta’s lobbying of AU member states to support a deferral of the trials has pushed Kenya into “the most pan-African posture any Nairobi government has ever had to take.”

Nonetheless, Kenya’s emerging regional focus runs deeper than the ICC episode. Kenyatta’s predecessor Mwai Kibaki also championed regional and economic integration, mainly through the auspices of the EAC, which was revived in 1999 after its original incarnation collapsed in 1977. The deepening and expansion of the body, which today consists of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, has widened opportunities for Kenyan businesses and exports, which are among the most sophisticated and diversified in the region. Since the launch of the EAC’s customs union in 2005, overall intra-EAC trade has grown from roughly $1.6 billion in 2006 to $5.5 billion in 2012. Despite lags in the implementation of the EAC common market, launched in 2010, Kenya exported $1.3 billion to EAC members in 2012; Kenyatta, who assumed the EAC rotating chairmanship in November 2013, has championed plans for the rollout of an EAC single currency, expected to be completed over the next decade. The currency is expected to strengthen Kenya’s regional economic footprint, particularly in the country’s emerging services sector, known for its strength in telecoms, supermarkets and banking.

Kenya’s planned investments in regional infrastructure will also lead to growing economic ties with Ethiopia and South Sudan, which, along with Somalia, may ultimately join the EAC bloc. The planned $25 billion Lamu Port and New Transport Corridor Development to South Sudan and Ethiopia (LAPSSET) project, launched in 2012, entails the construction of a port in Lamu three times the size of Kenya’s current largest port in Mombasa, as well as an oil refinery; pipelines running to South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda; and an ambitious road and rail network that is expected to considerably improve trade and transport among Juba, Addis Ababa and wider East Africa.

Mutual interests in exploiting recent oil finds have also facilitated cooperation between Nairobi and Kampala—a relationship that has generally been amicable since Museveni’s rise to power in 1986 yet strained in recent years by Kenya’s unease over Uganda’s growing military footprint and an unresolved territorial dispute over Lake Victoria’s Migino Island. In June 2013, at a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Kenyatta and Museveni agreed on plans to develop a 930-mile pipeline as part of the LAPSSET project, which will link oil fields discovered near Uganda’s Lake Albert and Kenya’s Lake Turkana with the new port in Lamu. The summit was one of several recent meetings between the three leaders that excluded EAC members Burundi and Tanzania, exposing an intra-EAC schism between the Nairobi-Kampala-Kigali “coalition of the willing,” which supports a faster rollout of the integration process, and Tanzania and Burundi, considered to be relative integration laggards. Some of this fallout is also linked to Tanzania’s participation in the U.N. Intervention Brigade that recently assisted the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in battling the M23 rebel movement in the country’s east, a group supported in the past by both Rwanda and Uganda.

Nairobi, which has fewer interests at stake in the DRC, has emerged as an interlocutor between Kigali and Kampala on one side and Dar es Salaam on the other, and has made overtures in recent months to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete to confirm a mutual commitment to five-member EAC unity. Nonetheless, Kenya and Tanzania, whose economic rivalry led to the collapse of the original EAC, remain competitors on several fronts, including the transit of goods to their landlocked neighbors. As Kenya moves forward with both the LAPSSET project and a planned $11 billion expansion to its port in Mombasa, Tanzania is also planning construction of a new $11 billion Chinese-backed port in Bagamoyo, which will likely compete for goods—and tax revenues—bound for Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC.

Outside of the EAC, Kenya maintains important bilateral relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia, particularly in the context of regional security. Under Kibaki, Kenya played a leading role in brokering the Somali peace process that culminated in the creation of the new Somali federal government in August 2012. Kenya and Ethiopia, which has an active history of military engagement in Somalia, have worked closely since Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia and maintain an agreement on a common Somalia initiative. Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn have also emerged as leading figures in efforts to promote IGAD-sponsored peace talks in South Sudan following the violence that erupted across the country in mid-December. Kenya has also sponsored peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnic Somali group that has fought for an independent state for more than 20 years.

The ‘Look East’

Kenya’s engagement with China, India and other Asian countries has grown significantly since Kibaki took office in 2002 and will likely remain robust under the Kenyatta government. According to Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics, five of the top six sources of Kenyan imports in 2012 were Asian states, led by India ($2.2 billion) and China ($1.9 billion). Asian countries are also Kenya’s largest bilateral lenders: According to Central Bank data from October 2013, Japan topped the list with a debt stock of $997 million, followed by China with $775 million. China, in particular, has been a critical investor in Kenyan industries and infrastructure and, unlike many of Kenya’s Western trade partners, has found favor in Nairobi for its support of the African Union’s request for an ICC deferral. In August 2013, after a brief stopover in Moscow, Kenyatta visited Beijing on his first state visit outside of Africa; while there, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed $5 billion worth of deals to be spent on energy projects and a railway linking the port of Mombasa with the town of Malaba at the Somali border. Chinese firms also constructed Kenya’s Nairobi-Thika “superhighway,” which connects the country’s principal economic corridor and was financed in part by China’s Ex-Im Bank. A consortium headed by China Communications also won a $484 million tender, announced in April 2013, to build the first three berths of the new port in Lamu. (This is considerably less, however, than China’s pledge of $11 billion in financing toward Tanzania’s port in Bagamoyo.) The LAPSSET project has also drawn investment from the Japanese firm Toyota, which announced in September 2013 that it would invest more than $5 billion in oil pipelines linking South Sudan and Ugandan fields to Lamu.

Defense Policy

Despite strong military capabilities, Kenya has historically maintained a noninterventionist defense policy and modest geostrategic footprint. With the exception of a brief mutiny in 1964 and a failed coup to oust Moi in 1982, the country’s armed forces have always been under control of a civilian government, and none of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents have come from a military background. Although Kenya has played an important role in regional peacebuilding and provided troops to several U.N. peacekeeping missions, its current engagement in Somalia, which appears set to continue indefinitely, is the country’s first-ever deployment of soldiers into active combat.

Military Capabilities

The Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) consist of an army, navy and air force and are the best-equipped armed forces in East and Central Africa. Kenya’s $18.9 billion budget for 2013-2014 allocates $694.8 million to the Ministry of Defense, which represents 3.7 percent of total government expenditure. As of 2012, Kenya’s military expenditures ranked eighth-highest in Africa, following those of Algeria, South Africa, Angola, Libya, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Kenya’s military spending as a percentage of GDP rose from 1.7 percent in 2003 to 1.9 percent in 2012. The 2012 figure was the second-highest among EAC member states, following Burundi (2.4 percent), and ahead of Uganda (1.3 percent), Rwanda (1.1 percent) and Tanzania (1.1 percent). By contrast, Kenya’s concentration of armed forces personnel is low by EAC standards. According to World Bank data, the country had just 29,100 active military personnel in 2011, fewer than Burundi (51,050), Uganda (46,800), Rwanda (35,000) and only slightly more than Tanzania (28,400). Data from the South African publication Defense Web estimates Kenya’s troop strength includes 20,000 army, 2,500 air force and 1,600 navy personnel, as well as 5,000 members of the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary force that is administered by the Kenya police.

Kenya has upgraded its military hardware significantly since the mid-2000s, with high-level purchases from several arms exporters. Between 2007 and 2011, according to SIPRI, Kenya imported 15 F-5E combat aircraft from Jordan, 32 WZ 551 armored personnel carriers and four Z-9WA helicopters from China, three Mi-171 helicopters from Russia and 35 Puma M-26 armored personnel carriers from South Africa. During this period, Kenya also imported 655 grenade launchers, 44,500 assault rifles and 550 machine guns from Ukraine. Local media has also reported that Kenya has been shopping for superior fighter jets, possibly seeking F-15s from the U.S. or Israel, although there is no evidence as of January 2014 of any such purchase. Overall, the armed forces are said to have approximately 600 tanks and armored vehicles, 130 total aircraft and 21 naval vessels.

Linda Nichi and AMISOM

Kenya’s incursion into Somalia began on Oct. 16, 2011, when Nairobi dispatched 2,000 troops across the border in what was known as Operation Linda Nichi (Kiswahili for “Protect the Nation”). At the time, Kenyan officials portrayed the invasion as a response to a series of cross-border attacks by al-Shabab, including the kidnapping of three Westerners in northern Kenya in the prior month, which threatened the country’s billion-dollar tourism industry. However, Kenyan government sources later admitted the kidnappings merely provided a “good launch pad” for an offensive planned as far back as 2009, in which officials had proposed using pro-Kenyan Somali militias to create a buffer zone between the two states. Although this plan was scrapped in part due to U.S. skepticism, Kenya eventually decided to send its own troops into the country, fighting alongside local allies. The invasion was reportedly driven by a group of influential Somali-Kenyans, including then-Defense Minister Yusuf Haji, and launched by the Kibaki government for a variety of strategic considerations. These include myriad security and humanitarian challenges posed by al-Shabab’s control of southern Somalia; a desire to safeguard the viability of the LAPSSET project and Kenya’s status as a frontier oil market; and—most likely—concern over the growing military footprint of Uganda, which had already contributed and lost the most troops as part of AMISOM, and whose president had mocked the KDF as a “career army,” ill-equipped to face guerilla insurgency.

Despite the resulting internal security backlash, Kenya’s military operation is generally considered to have been successful. In October 2012, after integrating into AMISOM, Kenyan troops captured the key Somali port of Kismayo—al-Shabab’s last urban stronghold and a source of critical revenues whose loss, combined with internal splintering, has weakened the group considerably. Nonetheless, Kenya’s ongoing occupation of Kismayo, lack of a clear Somalia exit strategy and deepening engagement in fractious Somali clan politics suggest Nairobi’s interests may have shifted from containing al-Shabab to establishing a local sphere of political and economic influence in Kismayo’s Jubaland region. According to some analysts, this risks weakening the government in Mogadishu, fueling local resentment of the KDF and potentially providing fodder for a resurgence of al-Shabab.

Human Rights Record

Kenya’s armed forces are generally regarded as competent and professional, and the reputation of the KDF among Kenyans is reasonably high. In a November 2011 survey, the research organization Afrobarometer found that 69 percent of Kenyans polled trusted the army “somewhat” or “a lot.” Trust in the KDF was significantly higher than that for the police (32 percent) or any other government institutions, including the president and prime minister. Nonetheless, military recruitment and promotion has long been entangled with high-level corruption, ethnic loyalties and political patronage. Outsiders have also questioned the KDF’s battle-readiness and human rights record. Human Rights Watch has cited widespread abuses by the military in its response to attacks by domestic militants, including attacks against civilians in Garissa, noted previously, as well as the forced disappearance of more than 300 people in the Mount Elgon region during clashes from 2006 to 2008 between the insurgent Sabaot Land Defense Force and the Kenyan government. The military’s response to the Westgate attack also belies its reputation as Kenya’s most trusted institution. Early on in the siege, a unit of KDF special forces allegedly shot the commander of an elite GSU police force, prompting the GSU squad to withdraw from the rescue mission. Widespread reports of soldiers looting, captured on security cameras and revealed by local press, have also created serious questions regarding the KDF’s discipline and professionalism.


After decades as a reluctant regional power, a confluence of economic ambitions and cross-border security challenges have pushed Kenya toward an increasingly robust security role in wider East Africa. In addition to more-active engagement in future regional peacebuilding, including efforts to mitigate the emerging political crisis in South Sudan, Kenya will continue to play a critical role in AMISOM and the fight against al-Shabab, while collaborating with the United States and other Western partners in regional counterterrorism efforts. Although the ICC cases against Kenyatta and Ruto have strained relations with several key Western partners, the growing likelihood that Kenyatta’s case will be dismissed suggests the worst of the fallout may be past, and Kenya’s emerging foreign policy will include the maintenance of traditional trade, aid and security ties with the West while also placing greater emphasis on bilateral relations with both African and Asian partners.

Kenya’s internal problems, however, including ever-shifting ethno-political alliances, will continue to limit its ability to carry out effective foreign policy. Emerging rifts within the Jubilee coalition, which could be strained by coming events in The Hague, will consume government attention and resources and potentially sow divisions among Kenya’s population. The post-Westgate backlash against Kenya’s Somali minority could also prove a boost to al-Shabab’s recruitment capabilities, exacerbating domestic militancy and undermining gains made by the KDF and AMISOM in Somalia. Efforts to begin repatriating Kenya’s half-million Somali refugees, initiated following a November agreement among Kenya, Somalia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as internal Somali fissures linked to Kenya’s continuing occupation of Kismayo, could also heighten regional security challenges. Ultimately, the success of Kenya’s increasingly outward-looking posture will depend on Kenyan leaders’ ability to balance the wielding of hard power with the country’s traditional focus on peacebuilding, while confronting domestic security challenges without alienating individual ethnic or religious communities.

Jon Rosen is a journalist and independent consultant focusing on East Africa and Africa’s Great Lakes region. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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