Business Daily (Kenya)
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Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (left) and his successor Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP.

Kenya is worried about interference from Somalia in the northeastern region. The United States sees corruption in the Kenyan government as a threat to the country’s stability. The Kenya Defence Force wins praise for avoiding political involvement, but Washington is concerned about Nairobi’s ability to defend itself against outside forces and is wary about becoming involved in internal Kenyan politics.

Such factors, influential in shaping US policy today, were also viewed as crucial considerations nearly 40 years ago as the administration of President Jimmy Carter sought to respond to turbulence in East Africa.

Candid, behind-the-scenes assessments on the part of senior US officials are recounted in a newly published State Department history covering US relations with countries in the Horn from 1977 to 1980.

The 319-page volume is part of a series titled “Foreign Relations of the United States.” Issued periodically decades after the events they consider, these official records compiled by the State Department historian reveal the thinking behind major US foreign policy decisions during specific time periods.

The Carter administration’s approach to Kenya took careful account of destabilising developments in neighbouring countries.

Ethiopia had become a self-declared Marxist state following the 1974 military overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Somalia, then ruled by dictator Siad Barre, invaded the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in July 1977.

Those actions caused Washington and Moscow to switch allegiances, with the Soviet Union spurning Somalia and embracing Ethiopia, and the US doing the opposite.

Regional ally

Then as now, Washington regarded Nairobi as a vital, stable and dependable regional ally. But the Carter administration was nervous about the prospect of a transition from Jomo Kenyatta, the only leader independent Kenya had known and a figure whom the US viewed favourably.

An undated State Department policy review paper, probably written in 1977 and included in the recently published history volume, suggested that Kenyans must grapple not only with a “territorial threat from Somalia,” but also with “post-Kenyatta threats to the very character of their society and its moderate foreign policy orientation.”

The paper warned that a protracted struggle over the succession to President Kenyatta, who would die in August 1978, “will present an opportunity to external elements desirous of altering Kenya’s policies.” And even if the transfer of power goes smoothly, “any successor government will initially have less self-confidence and authority than the redoubtable Kenyatta and will thus be more vulnerable to outside influence,” the unnamed authors of the policy document added.

But US officials were confident that whoever followed President Kenyatta would prove compatible with Washington’s worldview.

‘Least politicised’ armed force

“We should keep in mind the fact that all of the present contenders are people we can work with comfortably, they all have an interest in a smooth, rapid transition, and the Kenya military is probably the least politicised armed force in Africa and has a stake in the country’s stability and prosperity,” the policy paper stated.