British post-colonial relations with Kenya – not so different from the French?

Post-colonial policies of France and Britain are often described as different. Poppy Cullen qualifies this with a short case study on Kenya.


Dr Poppy Cullen is a lecturer in Commonwealth history at the University of Cambridge. Her research examines post-colonial imperial history and British engagement with Africa, and especially Kenya, during the final years of decolonisation and into the post-colonial period. She explores the multiple and multifaceted economic, military, personal and diplomatic networks which were sustained well beyond formal independence. 


Much of the research on France’s post-colonial relations with Africa has found that these are particularly close. These have been based on a common currency zone (the CFA Franc), military commitments, economic aid, and a strong network of personal contacts; France also intervened militarily in the continent more than other former European colonial powers. By contrast, Britain has typically been seen to disengage more completely at independence, not having formal military agreements or the same level of personal connections and very rarely intervening militarily. The emphasis these European countries placed on Africa within their post-colonial foreign policies also differed substantially, as Africa remained a key region of French focus in a way it did not for British governments. Africa played a much smaller role in ideas of British great power status and foreign policy goals.

These differences between the two former colonial powers are clear, but my research into British post-colonial relationships with Kenya in the years immediately after independence suggests that they were perhaps not as stark as has often been suggested. Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963 and Britain continued to maintain multiple connections with Kenya thereafter. There was a clear British commitment to pursuing a close post-colonial relationship with Kenya, and Kenya remained closely aligned with Britain. These British interests included a significant military relationship; economic connections in aid, trade and investment; tourism and education; a stake in Kenyan security; and for Kenya to remain a partner in the Cold War. In pursuit of these interests, the policy-making methods used by the British government sometimes resembled those of the French rather more than the traditional image of the British in independent Africa.

Close post-colonial personal relationships were more obvious in French-African relationships than British. France’s personal networks were symbolic of the strength of their post-colonial relationships. French presidents were more involved than British prime ministers, and visited Africa with greater regularity, having closer relationships with African leaders. In the British case, the relationship with Kenya tended to be conducted at a lower level of civil servants rather than politicians. The British government had no Jacques Foccart, whose personal, informal networks with Francophone African leaders were so well established. But personal relationships were not only significant to France. British relationships with certain Kenyan individuals greatly affected their actions, and British officials often worked in informal and highly personal ways with leading Kenyans. In the case of Kenya at least, these personal relations were particularly significant to the style of British policy-making.

British diplomats, civil servants and politicians pursued informal and personal contacts. Indeed, when they ran into difficulties, these became the favoured way of interacting with the Kenyan elite. After formal ministerial aid negotiations between Britain and Kenya in 1970, the details were difficult to finalise and communication broke down. This was finally resolved by the British High Commissioner, Eric Norris, who invited the Permanent Secretary at the Kenyan Ministry of Finance, Philip Ndegwa, for ‘a private talk on where we go from here, what about a beer and a sandwich by my swimming pool next Tuesday[?]’.[1] Norris clearly recognised the value of informal and personal connections as a key strategy of policy-making. It is not clear if the two men met over ‘a beer and a sandwich by my swimming pool’, but Ndegwa and Norris did meet informally and it was at that meeting that the details of the aid agreement were finally agreed and signed. When more formal negotiations and procedures were not achieving results, personal connections were pursued.

This kind of personal interaction and informality was crucial to how this relationship worked. Despite his imprisonment as leader of the Mau Mau by the British Government in 1952, President Jomo Kenyatta had a close relationship with British officials after independence, who came to view him as the guarantor of stability and British interests in Kenya. Personal contact with Kenyatta and the elite group of Kenyans around him was particularly significant to British policy-making. By 1967, one British civil servant was ‘inclined to think that we shall come to look back on the President Kenyatta-era as the golden age in Anglo/Kenyan relations’.[2] Kenya’s post-colonial governance has frequently been described as ‘neo-patrimonial’, with individuals more important than official positions. Although the British system of government was bureaucratic, they did not find it difficult to work with the Kenyans in highly personalised ways. They engaged with Kenya’s elite as individuals, often bypassing Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or High Commission in London in preference for talking to certain people they had close relationships with. One former British High Commissioner to Nairobi recalled of the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that ‘any substantial matters between us and the Kenyan government passed through other channels’.[3] Kenya’s neo-patrimonialism was encouraged by this kind of interaction with the British.

These means of informal and personal policy-making were not as obvious or always favoured as they were among French policy-makers, and French officials were often more comfortable working in this way than their British counterparts. But in their relationships with Kenya, British actions bore some striking resemblances to the French.

[1] Eric Norris to P. Ndegwa, 21 January 1971, The National Archives, Kew, OD 26/277/213.

[2] M. Scott to Edward Peck, 20 July 1967, The National Archives, Kew, FCO 31/210/8.

[3] Edward H. Peck, Recollections 1915-2005 (New Delhi: Pauls Press, 2005), p. 219.

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