Covid-19 travel war rocks Kenya-UK relations

The countries have imposed travel bans on each other, Kenya retaliating for UK's "Red Alert"

In Summary

•The two countries have had chilly but subdued relations for a long time.

•The tension and the apparent bad blood finally spilt over into a clash that sent ties plummeting..

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Uhuru Kenyattaafter a joint press conference in London.
COVID WAR: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Uhuru Kenyattaafter a joint press conference in London.
Image: PSCU

The current row over a Covid-19 travel ban has lifted the lid on the diplomatic tensions that have simmered between Kenya and the United Kingdom for years.

The two counties have had chilly but subdued relations for a long time.

The tension and apparent bad blood has finally spilt over into a tit-for-tat clash that has exposed what some call a superficial camaraderie.

“Already there were some problems between them, but then this [travel ban] is like adding an insult to injury,” USIU international relations lecturer Macharia Munene told the Star.

On Saturday, Kenya hit back after the UK banned visitors from Kenya because of its high rate of Covid-19 infections. Kenya retaliated, banning visitors from the UK.

The UK had on Friday put Kenya on the ‘Red List’, saying it had established  the lethal South African coronavirus variant is spreading locally.

The listing effectively banned Kenyans or anybody transiting through Kenyan airports from setting foot in the UK starting on April 9.

On Sunday, Kenya responded in equal measure, banning passenger flights originating or transiting through the UK airports.

In addition, passengers from the UK will be required to produce negative Covid-19 certificates and valid Covid-19 vaccine certifications.

“All UK government officials and diplomats must have a valid Covid-19 vaccination certificate and a valid Covid-19 negative PCR test certificate to enter Kenya,” Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said.

Kenya only exempted cargo flights from the ban but said crew members must  present a both a vaccination certificate and a negative PCR certificate.

Munene termed the latest development "an international power play and diplomatic insult" to Kenya by its former colonial master.

He said there is no logic in the UK banning travelers from Kenya, considering that Kenya’s Covid-19 positivity is much lower compared with most counties in Europe, including Britain.

“If you look at the positivity rate, Kenya is at 17 per cent, the US is at 54, and German is skyrocketing. Not one of these countries in Europe has been banned. So, there is no logic in the whole thing [banning Kenya],” Munene said.

The don added, “If there is no logic or scientific logic, then it can only be political power play. The two counties have had some differences over some issues. So the way to explore some of those differences is to look for extraneous reasons or excuses.”

Wilfred Muliro, international relations lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), said the principle of reciprocity playing out between the two counties is caused by the regime and attempts by the British to "beat Kenya into submission."

“Since the time Uhuru Kenyatta was elected president, there have been frosty relations between Kenya and the UK for two reasons," he said.

He said the UK, viewed as the mother of the ICC, has had run-ins with the Uhuru regime because of its stand in the cases against Uhuru, Deputy President William Ruto and others. They faced crimes-against-humanity cases but they collapsed.

Secondly, he said, the UK seems to be beating Kenya to toe the line after the Nairobi government warmed up to China in terms of trade, loans and major infrastructure projects.

“In the international relations, there is something the great powers call a private agreement, a penholder,” he said.

He added, “This is in the sense that the country that colonised the other or had colonial relations with it, with will be consulted by the other colonial powers before they interact with that country.”

Muliro explained that the UK sees Kenya as having entered into agreements with the US and China without the two countries consulting the UK.

“It’s normal that if Kenya has a crisis, the country that would craft the resolution for intervention is the UK. But what happened is that the US and China are taking over. The US has replaced the UK in many countries,” he said.

“The British are severing ties with most of its [former] colonies. The British see countries like Kenya as their child; that you must do this before I come back,” he added.

The latest row comes hot on the heels of accusations that UK soldiers were behind a forest fire near their training base in Laikipia last week.

Families living nearby were forced to evacuate their homes around Nyati barracks at Laikipia Airbase East. It burnt more than 12,000 acres.

The British High Commission said it was investigating and the priority was to assist the local community and the Kenyan government.

A lobby group, the African Centre for Corrective and Preventive Action, wants the British Army Training Unit in Kenya and Loldaiga Conservancy compelled to compensate residents for environmental damages caused by the fire.

A lawmaker has filed a petition in the Kenyan Senate, pushing for the compensation of residents and restoration of ecosystems by the British government.

Nominated Senator Mercy Chebeni wants the UK government to not only compensate the families, but also restore the 12,000 acres.

Earlier, the UK government was forced to pay more than Sh700 million in compensation to 228 Kenyan pastoralists who were killed or maimed by bombs and ammunition left by the British army on training grounds in Samburu.

The group, mainly Samburus, filed a case at the High Court in London seeking Sh560 million compensation in July 2001.

They accused the British Defence ministry  of failing to clear its training grounds in Samburu with the same care as other foreign grounds in Cyprus and Canada.

The Kenya-UK relationship has also been strained after Kenyans accused  agricultural and manufacturing company, Kakuzi PLC, majority-owned by UK- based Camelia of human rights violations, including maiming and killings.

The company, fighting off the allegations after 79 Kenyans represented by law firm Leigh Day, filed a case in a UK court accusing the company’s security guards of  killings, rape, attacks and false imprisonment, among other things.

The company denied the accusations.

Earlier, about 218 Kenyans employed by the London-based company, Unilever, sued the company for damages for alleged inadequate security during the post-election violence in 2007-08.

Seven employees were killed and 56 women allegedly raped.

The High Court ruled in favour of the Kenyans but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal, forcing the employees to seek redress at the Supreme Court.

In 2013,the UK paid out £19.9m (Sh2.9 billon today) in costs and compensation to more than 5,228 Kenyans who suffered torture and abuse during the Mau Mau uprising.

Thousands of people were killed during the Mau Mau revolt against British rule in Kenya in the 1950s.

Kenya has also been in a ‘cold’ war with the UK over the huge trade imbalance that has for over the years favoured the latter.

Kenya’s exports to the UK represents barely five per cent of the country’s total bilateral trade. In 2020, exports to Kenya from the UK stood at Sh49.5 billion compared against Sh29.3 billion worth of imports

In February, Kenya’s National Assembly approved a trade pact with the UK whereby Kenya would liberalise up to 82.6 per cent of its trade with the UK.

The trade deal was opposed by various lobby groups as lopsided and in favour of the UK.

(Edited by V. Graham)