Unlike other major states, the UK does not have a clear strategic vision for Africa
Symbolism has always been at the heart of the British monarchy. So, too, was King Charles III's recent visit to Kenya, an East African nation gearing up to celebrate its sixth decade of independence from Britain.
For Charles and Camilla, the royal couple, the symbolism was obvious as Kenya was the place where Princess Elizabeth learned of her father's death, which meant she was to become Queen. That was February 1952.
Britain and Germany together, again
A few months later, in October 1952, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya to put down the Mau Mau rebellion, perhaps the fiercest anti-colonial struggle in the history of the British Empire. The Mau Mau were seeking an end to colonial rule, a restitution of land rights, a return to native traditions, and an expulsion of foreigners from Kenya.
Foreigners first came to Kenya after 1886, when Britain and Germany signed a treaty to agree on their respective spheres of influence in East Africa, finalizing the deal by 1890. This fact is another piece of symbolism, as Germany's current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was vising Tanzania, once part of Deutsch-Ostafrika, at a time when Charles III was heading for Nairobi. Both were expected to offer an apology for their countries' wrongdoings during the colonial era.
In Kenya, these included not only the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau upheaval, which featured aerial bombings, mass deportations, even concentration camps, but also a broader legacy of white settlement. Fertile lands and an accommodating climate in the central uplands attracted the attention of British administrators, who believed Kenya could be more than a colony but "a territory admirably suited for a white man's country."
Incidentally, the country's White Highlands were even deemed convenient for a Jewish homeland, with Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain inviting a special "investigatory commission" of Herzl's Zionist organization in 1903. This, however, was met with resentment from British settlers, who were coming to Kenya in increasing numbers, especially after World War I. This was facilitated by the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1915, legislation that essentially snatched away any rights that Kenya's indigenous population had to their land.
Kenya soon became Britain's first colony to enfranchise women, albeit with the goal of consolidating the dominance of the European minority over the African population, whose interests were still represented by a nominated member of the Legislative Council, sure to be of European origin.
When the teacher Eliud Mathu was appointed as the first African member of the body in 1944, it was too late, as the local population was seeking another way to have their say. That year, the Kenya African Union was founded, with Jomo Kenyatta soon emerging at its helm. In 1951, they demanded independence by 1954, only to be rejected and banned. It was not until December 1963 that Kenya, through a quest"monstrous in its cruelty," achieved its independence, the last in East Africa to so do.
Many words, still no apologies
This snapshot of history explains why apologies were due. The calls for the King to say 'sorry' were heard from Evelyn Wanjugu Kimathi, daughter of the resistance leader hanged by the British in 1957, as well as from the Nandi tribe, who want the British to return the skull of Koitalel Arap Samoei, their supreme leader, who'd led a much earlier resistance against colonial rule, which lasted until 1906. Elders of the Maasai, too, decried the agreement with the British, which resulted in a loss of land and traditional lifestyles.
While King Charles cited his "greatest sorrow and deepest regret" to the people of Kenya at a state banquet, he stopped short of the expected apology for the misdeeds of colonial rule. This was in stark contrast to Steinmeier's behaviour in Tanzania, who said "I beg your forgiveness", promising answers "to the open, unanswered, outstanding questions that give no peace." Germany had a similar record with the Maji Maji Rebellion, with the skull of the executed Chief Songea Mbano taken to Germany.
So, the symbolism that was present for Charles III, was lacking for Kenyans, although President William Ruto commended the visiting king's "readiness to shed light on uncomfortable truths." Britain's approach has not changed much, however, beyond what Ruto called "timid half-measures."
Much ado about image
There was a broader context to the visit, too. With the media stressing Kenya's importance for Britain as a Commonwealth nation, which made it a preferred destination for the King after paying visits to his country's core partners in Europe, the East African nation holds undeniable significance for Britain's relations with the African continent.
Incidentally, the UK still lacks a clear strategic vision for Africa, despite "a significant fanfare" when Theresa May's government hailed in 2018 "a new strategic approach"to Africa. Since then, no coherent steps were taken, which is quite different from France, Germany, the US, China, or Russia for that matter. The House of Lords was willing to fill that void, while the Royal African Society acknowledged that Britain's relations with Africa suffered "political neglect," turning into a "philanthropic endeavour" for the government. For Africa, that meant that the UK was essentially losing its credibility as a partner.
Therefore, the royal visit does little to re-commit the Kingdom to engaging Africa on a new basis, nor does it entail a shift in Britain's policy. Unlike the state visit paid to South Africa by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, where they discussed the labour market, expanding cooperation in education, and business ties, what Charles III had on his Kenya agenda was much more symbolic than practical.
Every trick from the colonial rule book
During his Kenya trip, Charles also met Samweli Mburia, a war veteran believed to be 117 years old. On a symbolic note, the King returned to him the five medals he'd thrown away "for fear" during the Mau Mau Rebellion. While commemorative in nature, that could be read as another symbol of Britain's clinging to the old days, albeit patchily.
Also, no mention was made of the controversial presence of British troops at Nanyuki, mired in accusations of murder, sexual abuse and more. In 2021, they were responsible for a blaze that ravaged some 4,800 hectares, nearly 12,000 acres, of land. To this day, no compensation to the local community has paid. An open letter signed by 7,000 people seeking justice for their cause argues that "the British Army is using every trick from the colonial rule book" to avoid liability.
This is certainly not in tune with the 'strategic partnership' between the two countries announced in 2020. Last month, Kenya's parliamentary defence committee only started to examine the whole situation, with the submission of the final report expected by the end of the year. Consequences can be far-reaching, as Nelson Koech, committee chair, hinted at the possibility of Kenya "exiting" from the agreement if major violations are revealed.
The economic dimension of the relationship has twists and turns of its own. While bilateral trade has grown virtually twofold in the years since 1995, the volumes have been overwhelmed by other partners. In 1995, the UK accounted for 15.4% of Kenya's exports. This figure dropped to 6.5% by 2021.
More so, there is opposition in the country towards the Economic Partnership Agreement with Britain. The deal was signed in late 2020, but the East African nation's parliament turned it down when asked to ratify it. The country's farmers were anxious about their future as the deal meant a gradual reduction of tariffs on UK exports to Kenya. With the deal ratified by March 2021, Britain's exit from the European Union became another headache for Kenya, especially with other members of the East African Community (EAC) failing to reach similar EPAs with the UK.
Certainly, Charles III is a constitutional monarch who holds limited sway over his government's policies. Still, most of the issues that form the backbone of Britain's relations with Kenya were not addressed during the visit, and symbolism triumphed over pragmatism.