Kenya’s shuffling of its ambassadorial entourage in August may hint at a wider strategy designed to help the country recover from a series of events that have tarnished its international reputation. Or is it simply muscle flexing by the President? Report by Aamera Jiwaji
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s first year in power was highlighted by 28 foreign trips. In April 2014, for instance, he spent only 11 days within the borders of his own country. The rapid spate of trips abroad sent a strong message about the importance his government would place on foreign policy, trade and diplomatic relations.
But in the last four months, the gains Kenyatta made seem to have been reversed as Kenya’s diplomatic relations with other countries took a turn for the worse.
There have been two major reversals. In July, two of Kenya’s leading trade partners – South Africa and the United Kingdom – altered the visa application procedures that applied to Kenyans.
Effective 31st December, the UK government will move its Nairobi visa-processing section to Pretoria, and its Nairobi office will only handle Kenyan official and diplomatic applications, priority visas, compassionate and urgent medical cases.
The move came weeks after Britain temporarily closed its consular office in Mombasa, in response to the security situation on the Kenyan coast. While the High Commissions insisted the change will only affect the back office and that it is in line with a policy decision to operate fewer overseas hubs, Kenyans fear that aside from lengthening processing times and application fees for those travelling to the UK, the recent changes speak to a weakening partnership between Kenya and its former colonial master.
Revised visa-processing requirements from South Africa meanwhile require Kenyans to channel applications through global visa-processing institution VFS, which levies a mandatory service charge of KSh5,850 ($65) on every application, as compared to a free visa issuance previously.
Kenya initially made a retaliatory move to South Africa’s procedural change, which replaced free visas for South Africans at the border with a R750 ($70) visa fee and mandatory application process in Pretoria.
The tit-for-tat response threw into question the seemingly cordial relationship that was developing between President Kenyatta and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. But as of 21st August, Kenya has suspended its new visa requirements pending discussions between the two countries.
In the wake of the announcements by the British and South African governments, however, analysts have spoken of the detrimental impact that could be felt on Kenyan business and trade since both countries are leading players in their respective economic circles.
While the UK is a major export partner for Kenya, South Africa is a major importer of Kenyan goods. Government statistics show that in 2013, the total value of exports to the UK stood at $418m, making the UK Kenya’s largest export destination after its East African neighbours of Tanzania and Uganda. The UK also holds prominent status in terms of imports; it was the main source of Kenya’s imports from Europe with a value of $545m in 2013.
South Africa, meanwhile, is the main source of Kenya’s imports on the continent with an import bill of $786m. A more rigorous visa process suggests that there will be reduced travel from Kenya to either country, and fewer business dealings.