A soldier and a Kenyan man employed to play an ‘insurgent’ take part in a simulated military excercise of the British Army Training Unit in Kenya. © TONY KARUMBA / AFP
While countries around the world are increasing their military cooperation with Kenya due to its strategic location, the UK’s position is becoming precarious due to the crimes of its soldiers
In August, the Kenyan government launched an inquiry into allegations of misconduct by the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), whose soldiers have been accused of murder, sexual abuse, and damaging land. It’s the first time the British Army’s activities are being examined in such a way since 1963, when Kenya gained independence from the UK.
The inquiry is led by the National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Defense, Intelligence and Foreign Relations. MPs put out a call for the public to submit petitions in respect of any alleged army crimes, and the investigations are to start in October, with the final report to be presented to the parliament by the end of the year.
This will definitely have consequences for a defense deal between Kenya and the UK.
The price of cooperation
Kenya was a British colony from the late 19th century up to 1963. British soldiers continued to stay in Kenya after independence under bilateral security agreements. Moreover, British officers held leading positions in the command of Kenyan troops. Since then, Britain has continued to have a major influence on Kenya’s armed forces, and Kenyan officers continue to be trained in Britain and the United States.
Kenya is a crucial partner for the UK’s entire African policy. British troops are currently in Kenya under a Defense Cooperation Agreement signed between the governments of Kenya and the UK in 2015 and extended in 2021. BATUK is a permanent support training unit, while the military base at Nanyuki, to the north of Nairobi, is Britain’s largest military facility in Africa. In recent years, the British Army and the Kenya Defense Force held several major joint exercises from BATUK, involving 600 Kenyan troops and more than 4,000 British soldiers.
However, there are also serious questions about how Kenya benefits from this cooperation. According to publicly available data, London allocates only about 1.2 billion Kenyan shillings ($11 million) annually to the defense partnership with Nairobi, which is an extremely low cost for access to two military sites and 13 training areas (the UK invested only $55 million in the defense partnership with Kenya from 2016 to 2021). This remains inadequate even with the social projects that the British Army seeks to implement in the country ($265,000 for all community projects from 2016 to 2021). (All dollar amounts are based on the 2021 exchange rate.)
While about 4,000 Kenyan soldiers are trained annually at Camp Archer’s Post under the supervision of the British military, and more than 1,000 of them are assigned to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenya continues to face serious security threats. The summer of 2023 witnessed increased activity by the terrorist group al-Shabab in the regions bordering Somalia, with many attacks occurring directly inside Kenya. This means that Kenyan forces are still not up to the task of securing their territory.
There has been growing concern in Kenya, and calls to review military cooperation with the UK. Although the current cooperation agreement between Kenya and the UK was renewed in October 2021, the agreement had remained unratified until April 2023, as the process was delayed due to Kenya’s presidential election and massive local opposition to the agreement.
Scandal after scandal
The BATUK investigation is the first time the British Army’s activities in Kenya will be examined in this way since 1963. The decision to launch an investigation followed numerous complaints made by residents and local authorities about the way British soldiers behaved in Laikipia County.
In the Archer’s Post area, home to one of the firing ranges used by the British Army in Kenya, soldiers regularly left large quantities of explosives, resulting in numerous casualties and injuries among local residents. Unexploded mines particularly affect Kenya’s two largest nomadic groups, the Samburu and Maasai, who often suffer the effects of British troops’ exercises.
The problem was already urgent at the beginning of the 21st century, when the number of victims exceeded 1,000, and the British Ministry of Defense was forced to pay £5 million to farmers and their families who were injured and killed.
Another major concern of the local population has been the use of white phosphorus in British Army exercises. Local residents complain of serious health problems following the use of such ammunition. Since 2017, the British Army has used white phosphorus 15 times in Kenya, without warning citizens about the nature of its effects on humans.
In addition, in late 2021, exercises by the British Army in the Lolldaiga Hills area led to a major forest fire that caused the death of Kenyans and widespread damage to nature.
While Nanyuki has become a center for sexual services in Kenya because of the Kenyan and British soldiers deployed in the town, British soldiers have been implicated in numerous sexual abuse scandals. The most famous case involved the murder of a 21-year-old Kenyan woman in 2012. A British soldier is suspected of the killing, but has not been extradited to Kenya. This high-profile case led Kenyan MPs to vote to change the defense agreement in 2023. Now, British soldiers can be tried for murder and other serious crimes committed against Kenyans in Kenya.
Given the problematic nature of the British military presence, their deployment in Kenya brings back negative memories of the Mau-Mau rebellion (an armed uprising by the Kikuyu people in the 1950s against colonial rule, brutally suppressed by the British). Many Kenyans continue to view Britain as a colonial power, and the prolonged presence of British soldiers raises questions about Kenya’s sovereignty and its level of independence from Britain.
Why is Kenya so important?
Kenya holds a critical strategic position in East Africa, with access to the traditionally volatile Horn of Africa, Central Africa and the long coastline of the Indian Ocean. Its geographical position, especially its Indian Ocean access, gives Kenya great geopolitical importance.
It is among the largest countries on the continent in terms of demographics (over 55 million people live there) and economics (it is one of the seven largest economies on the continent). Kenya is the main transportation hub of East Africa, and its largest port, Mombasa, is a key gateway to connect East and Central Africa with the rest of the world.
This position explains the interest of external actors in the country. The Western military presence in Kenya is not limited to the British contingent. Kenya is considered by Western countries to be the front line of defense against terrorist threats, including regional offshoots of Al-Qaeda, and the Kenya-Somalia border presents a major security challenge.
US Africa Command troops are stationed at a military facility in the Manda Bay in Kenya. The primary mission of this military base is to combat the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. In early 2020, this military facility was attacked by terrorists, resulting in increased defenses and more US soldiers stationed in Kenya.
In early 2023, Nairobi approached Washington to pay for the expansion of the joint anti-terrorism military facility, which started a serious discussion in the US over concerns that the denial would lead to increased Chinese influence in Kenya. According to a 2021 US Department of Defense report, Kenya is one of the destinations that China is actively considering for a military base in East Africa, in addition to the existing one in Djibouti.
Over the past two decades, China’s huge investment in erecting infrastructure has made Beijing Kenya’s largest creditor. The rapprochement with China has reflected the reshaping of Kenya’s foreign policy in the early 21st century and the promotion of the “Look East” vision. Beijing’s financing and construction of major projects such as highways and railroads in Kenya are part of China’s efforts under the Belt and Road Initiative. Today, China accounts for about 20% of Kenya’s total $34 billion external debt (64% of the country’s bilateral external debt). In addition, according to SIPRI, the countries’ military-technical cooperation also grew between 2000 and 2022, with China becoming Kenya’s second-largest arms supplier.
Despite this, Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, is seeking to diversify foreign relations and reduce dependence on China by increasing engagement with the West. This is evidenced by his increased contacts with US diplomatic officials, his personal attendance at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington, his neglect of the Russia-Africa summit, and only the foreign minister’s attendance at the BRICS summit. The new “Look West” may be related to the search for new investments to accelerate local production in the face of increasing debt to China.
The current statements about the investigation of BATUK’s activities and the possibility of reviewing the defense cooperation agreement with Britain are largely an attempt to ease the internal situation related to serious dissatisfaction with injustice and security threats to the local population. But what’s more important is that the investigation is a crucial signal to Britain. Keeping in mind the importance of the military facility in Kenya for the entire British presence in Africa, the risk of losing it could be a serious challenge to the UK’s broader ambitions not only in the region but also globally.
Andrei Shelkovnikov, expert with the Center for African Studies, HSE University