Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System Overview: Kenya is a republic dominated by a strong presidency. The political system is in flux as contentious debate continues on drafts for a new constitution. The current constitution, heavily indebted to English law, was drawn up at independence. This constitution, although already amended more than 30 times, is widely agreed to be in need of a major overhaul. The constitution to be replaced gives the president wide-ranging powers, provides for no prime minister, and is ill-suited to multiparty politics, despite the 1991 repeal of a section that had formalized the one-party state. Key proposals in the draft constitution call for reducing the powers vested in the office of the president, providing for a prime minister, and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. The final draft that emerges, possibly in 2006, will be subject to a popular referendum.

Executive Branch: Under Kenya’s current constitution, the president is both the chief of state and head of government. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term, with the possibility of reelection to a second term. The presidential candidate must receive the largest number of votes in absolute terms, and also, in order to avoid a runoff, must win 25 percent or more of the vote in at least five of Kenya’s seven provinces and the Nairobi area. The president appoints the vice president and members of the cabinet, who must be members of the National Assembly. The president also exercises direct control over the key areas of security and defense and has extensive powers over the appointment of the attorney general, the chief justice of the Court of Appeal, and Court of Appeal and High Court judges.

Legislative Branch: Kenya’s National Assembly, or Bunge, is a unicameral legislature with 224 members, 210 of whom are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The president appoints 12 “nominated” members, who are selected by the parties in proportion to the votes the parties receive in parliamentary elections. Two members serve ex-officio.

Judicial Branch: Kenya’s court hierarchy consists of the Court of Appeal, High Court, resident and district magistrates’ courts, and kadhis courts, which adjudicate Muslim personal law concerning personal status, marriage, divorce, and inheritance among Muslims. Kenya’s president appoints judges, including the chief justice, who presides in the Court of Appeal. The High Court is responsible for judicial review. Kenya accepts compulsory International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction, with reservations. The judiciary is constitutionally independent, and judges have security of tenure. This constitutional status and the theoretical life tenure of judges have not, however, ensured immunity from executive-branch pressure.

Administrative Divisions: Kenya is divided into seven provinces and the Nairobi Area. The provinces are Central, Coast, Eastern, North-Eastern, Nyanza, Rift Valley, and Western. Lower-level administrative units include 40 districts and further subdivisions.

Provincial and Local Government: The seven provinces and the Nairobi Area are administered by provincial commissioners who are answerable to the president. Elective municipal, town, and county councils have limited powers delegated by the national government. Important council officials such as the town clerk and treasurer all are appointed by the central government in Nairobi.

Judicial and Legal System: Kenya’s legal system is based on Kenyan statutory law, Kenyan and English common law, tribal law, and Islamic law. Bias and corruption in the court system frequently compromise the right to a fair trial. In 2003, following the resignation of the chief justice, the anticorruption authority found credible evidence of corruption against five of nine Court of Appeal judges and proof of misconduct against 18 of 36 High Court judges and 82 of 254 magistrates. In October 2003, one-half of Kenya’s senior judges were suspended over allegations of corruption, and tribunals were established to investigate the charges against them.

Electoral System: Suffrage in Kenya is universal at age 18. National parliamentary elections are held every five years. Election is by a plurality of votes. The most recent elections for president and for parliament were held in December 2002 and will next be held in late 2007.

Politics and Political Parties: Multiparty politics reemerged in Kenya after December 1991, with the repeal of Section 2a of the constitution. In 1982 Section 2a had officially made Kenya a one-party state, with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) the sole legal party. Kenya had been a de facto one-party state since 1969. As of that date, all political candidates had to be members of KANU. The reemergence of a multiparty system in the 1990s initially produced a fractured opposition to President Moi and KANU. After 1991 an important new opposition party, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), soon split into factions, and numerous other parties emerged. After two national elections in which Moi won against divided opposition, various opposition elements formed the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a coalition of a dozen parties, including the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). NARC ran Mwai Kibaki in 2002 and won a solid victory to become the governing party. Although NARC is expected to hang together, Kibaki is increasingly vulnerable to the shifting alliances that characterize Kenyan politics.

Mass Media: Kenya’s state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation remains the only broadcaster with countrywide coverage. A dozen private radio and television stations have ranges that are limited to the Nairobi area. A number of recently established private radio stations broadcast in local languages, including Kameme FM (Kikuyu), Metro East FM (Hindi), and Rehema Radio (Kalenjin). More than 100 applications for radio and television licenses are pending before the government-controlled Communication Commission of Kenya. Kenya’s print media are diverse, ranging from well-respected newspapers and magazines to an expansive tabloid press. Two independent national newspapers, the Daily Nation and the Standard, feature quality reporting, as does the weekly, The East African, which is published in Nairobi, as well as in Dar es Salaam and Kampala.

Under the Kibaki government, the media have demonstrated greater editorial independence than in previous years, and the number of press freedom abuses has declined. Still, some media policies and incidents continue to inhibit press freedom, e.g., the need to post a costly bond prior to publication and to register afterward. In 2003 the government invoked a restrictive constitutional provision on court coverage to intimidate journalists reporting on a possible political murder.

Foreign Relations: Under Kenyatta, one of the more pro-British of African leaders, Kenya was officially nonaligned but set a pattern of friendly relations with the West. Britain, the former colonial power, provided assistance to smooth Kenya’s transition to black majority rule by compensating white settlers. Kenya permitted the United Kingdom to use its hinterlands for military training. An important foreign relations development under President Moi was Kenya’s support of U.S. military commitments in the Indian Ocean. This support has gained renewed importance since the Horn of Africa became a front line in the fight against terrorism. The ongoing threat of terrorist attacks by Islamists in the area stands to cement the country’s close ties with the United States.

In addition to its ties with Western powers, Kenya is a major player regionally, taking an active role in the affairs of its neighbors. At various times Kenya has had conflicts with each of the five neighbors over, for example, boundaries, border incursions, harboring rebels, interfering with cross-border traffic flow, and the use Nile waters. Diplomatic and mediation efforts, often spearheaded by Kenya, typically have eased the conflicts. Most recently, for instance, Kenya helped in the peace talks that may end the civil war in southern Sudan, along with the war’s spillover effects in Kenya. The most intractable problems at present are with unstable Somalia, which claims a restive Somali-populated part of Kenya and is a source of outlaws, refugees, hostile craft, and, possibly, terrorists. More positive relations with neighbors, namely, Uganda and Tanzania, are currently developing through the relaunch of the tripartite trade bloc, the East African Community (EAC).

Membership in International Organizations: Kenya is a member of numerous international organizations whose focus is primarily Africa, including: the Africa Development Bank (AfDB); African Union (AU); Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); Cotonou Convention; East African Community (EAC); Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC); and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Some of Kenya’s other major memberships, which have a broader international focus, include: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); Group of 15; Group of 77; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD); International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol); International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); International Labour Organization (ILO); International Maritime Organization (IMO); International Monetary Fund (IMF); International Organization for Migration (IOM); International Telecommunication Union (ITU); Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); United Nations (UN); United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); Universal Postal Union (UPU); World Health Organization (WHO); World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO); World Meteorological Organization (WMO); and World Trade Organization (WTO).

Major International Treaties: Kenya has acceded to major international treaties, accords, and conventions in many areas, for example, human rights, the environment, and nonproliferation. The environmental agreements include some 16 global and regional accords on the atmosphere, hazardous substances, marine resources, and living resources of the sea, freshwater, and land. Kenya has signed major conventions regarding nuclear safety and biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and their Destruction. Kenya is a signatory to most of the major international human rights treaties, for example: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1972; Civil and Political Rights in 1972; Discrimination Against Women in 1984; Torture in 1997; and Rights of the Child in 1990.


Armed Forces Overview: In mid-2003, regular armed forces totaled 24,120 active personnel, including headquarters staff. The army numbered 20,000; the navy, 1,620 (including 120 marines); and the air force, 2,500. Kenya’s military participates regularly in international operations and exercises. Kenya also has a paramilitary internal security force, the 5,000-strong General Service Unit (GSU), which is part of the police. Among police units, the GSU is the most notorious for human rights abuses. The rest of the police has a reputation for graft.

Foreign Military Relations: Kenya long has had informal military alliances with the United States and the United Kingdom. Since 1980 Kenya has supported U.S. military commitments in the Indian Ocean by permitting the use of Mombasa port and air base facilities in exchange for U.S. military assistance. The U.S. Central Command⎯which covers the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa⎯has not sought permanent basing rights in Kenya, because of the availability of Djibouti. However, Kenya is a valuable point of entry and staging platform, for example, for U.S., British, and German aerial and naval search operations targeting al Qaeda-linked Somalia-based groups. U.S. and British forces also use Kenyan territory for training, the United Kingdom since before independence. The United Kingdom conducts three to four military exercises per year in remote areas, often with Kenyan participation. In recent years, the United States has provided joint peace support training through its Africa Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) program, as well as conventional military training under the Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA) program. A major amphibious joint exercise, “Edged Mallet,” is held regularly along the northern Kenyan coast and has involved up to 3,000 U.S. Marines. In 2004 the joint exercise had regional terrorism as the primary focus.

External Threat: Kenya has security concerns regarding several near neighbors, chiefly, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. Somalia poses a threat in the disputed and lawless semi-desert northeast region of Kenya, where there is a large Somali ethnic population. In the early 1990s, this population was augmented by a large Somali refugee influx fleeing political breakdown in Somalia. The Somali frontier is porous to illegal weapons traffic and other contraband and to livestock raiders and bandits. Sudan and Kenya have had a strained security relationship since the late 1980s. The Sudanese government accused Kenya of aiding the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Sudan also worries that Kenya could allow the United States to use it as a platform for actions against terrorists in Sudan. Further strain stems from Khartoum’s claim to the “Elemi Triangle”⎯a potentially oil-rich arid area on the Kenyan side of the frontier. Despite the tensions, Kenya has played a leading role as a mediator in Sudan’s civil war. Bilateral relations between Uganda and Kenya periodically also have been strained, with mutual concerns about cross-border incursions and arms provision to dissidents, as well as fears about Kenyan interference with transport and Ugandan cutoff of electricity supplies.

Defense Budget: Kenya’s military expenditures for 2003 totaled US$231 million, which represented 1.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a slight decrease from 1999, when expenditures constituted 1.9 percent of GDP.

Major Military Units: As of 2004, Kenya’s military had five brigades: two infantry, one with three battalions and one with two battalions; one armored, with three battalions; one independent infantry, with two battalions; and one engineer, with two battalions. In addition, the army includes the following three battalions: air defense artillery, airborne, and independent air cavalry.

Major Military Equipment: As of 2004, the army had 78 main battle tanks, 92 reconnaissance vehicles, 62 armored personnel carriers, 48 pieces of towed artillery, 62 mortars, 54 antitank guided weapons, 80 recoilless launchers, and 74 air defense guns. The navy had two offshore patrol craft and five missile craft. The air force had 10 combat aircraft, 34 attack helicopters (of doubtful serviceability), 18 transport aircraft, 13 transport helicopters, 34 training aircraft, and various missiles.

Military Service: Males are legally liable for conscription at age 21 for an active-service term of two years, followed by obligatory reserve service. However, many males begin service at age 18. About two-thirds of army personnel are conscripts. Navy and air force personnel are mainly volunteers. In 2002 males in the age cohort of 15 to 49 numbered 4,915,090.

Paramilitary Forces: In addition to the regular armed forces and the regular national police, the government can call upon a special security force, the 5,000-strong General Service Unit (GSU). Part of the police but semi-autonomous, the GSU acts as the uniformed paramilitary cousin of the security and intelligence units. The GSU handles violent crime, outbreaks of communal violence, and demonstrations. Since 2003, the GSU also has had certain counterterrorism functions, including patrolling around Kenya’s international airports. The GSU has 12 boats, an air wing of seven light, fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters, and eight armored cars. In carrying out its functions, the GSU is especially notorious among police units for human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, and torture.

Military Forces Abroad: Between 1989 and 2002, Kenya participated in 20 United Nations peacekeeping operations worldwide, contributing military observers, staff officers, police monitors, and infantry troops. Kenya is the third largest African contributor of troops to such operations, after Nigeria and Ghana. Kenyan forces have deployed for missions in numerous African countries, in the Balkans, and in East Timor. Kenya also has contributed personnel to the U.S.-led coalition forces operating in Afghanistan after October 7, 2001.

Police: Kenya Police, a national civilian force about 30,000 strong, is divided into a number of separate operational units, including an air wing, port police for the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria, and a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) intelligence division, which investigates criminal activity. An Anti-Corruption Unit, created in August 2001, reports to the CID director. Another element of Kenya’s large internal security apparatus is the National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS), the primary civilian intelligence organization. The NSIS was established in 1998 from the Police Special Branch (Security Intelligence Service) to monitor people considered subversive. The NSIS’s formation was spurred by the August 1998 U.S. embassy bombing. In the aftermath of the bombing investigation, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents and other consultants stayed on to help train the NSIS in urban counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy. With the victory of Kibaki in the presidential election in December 2002, further steps were taken to professionalize the NSIS, including the initiation in 2003 of a graduate training program. A Tourism Police Unit, with an initial contingent of 450 officers, also was established in mid-2003, with the charge of reducing concerns about the threat to foreign tourists from terrorism, especially in Coast Province. The various new police units augment the internal security capabilities that were long the province of the paramilitary General Service Unit.

Internal Threat: A relatively stable country, Kenya’s political status quo is not under significant threat either from its own security forces or from rebel political movements. Kenya’s nearest brush with a military coup occurred in 1982 in a brief failed action by air force officers. No local insurgencies of consequence currently exist. Kenya’s chief sources of internal unrest are ethnic tensions. Such tensions and flare-ups of inter-ethnic violence frequently arise from competition for productive areas. Serious inter-ethnic disturbances erupted in the Rift Valley after the elections of 1992 and 1998. The 1998 clashes may have displaced 300,000 people.

Another key security concern in Kenya is the escalating level of crime, both urban and rural. Urban areas, especially the capital, nicknamed “Nairobbery,” are plagued by burglary, armed robbery, and vehicle hijackings. Police complicity in illegal activity is much in evidence. The most prevalent form of serious rural crime is armed livestock rustling. Rustling and brigand activity, often linked to ethnic feuds, have rendered much of the North-Eastern Province and parts of the Coast and Eastern Provinces virtually ungovernable. Other prevalent forms of rural crime, attacks on tourists and poaching, have intermittently been better controlled, in particular, by the British Special Air Service (SAS)-trained Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Terrorism: Kenya’s vulnerability to Islamic terrorists operating under the al Qaeda banner has been demonstrated by several attacks. Kenya was attacked first in 1998 when a car bomb blew up the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, killing well over 200 people, mostly Kenyans, and again in 2002, when suicide bombers killed 18 people in the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, and when terrorists reportedly shot a missile at an Israeli airliner at Mombasa airport. The embassy bombing was one of the most serious attacks on American interests outside the United States. Warnings of further possible terrorist activity in Kenya in May 2003 led to a six-week suspension of commercial flights from the United Kingdom to Kenya and negative travel advisories by several Western countries. The advisories have since been withdrawn or, in the U.S. case, softened. The United States renewed travel warnings about Kenya on December 28, 2004.

Under pressure from the West, Kenya has taken action against suspected Islamic extremists, detaining and interrogating dozens of people in several drives in 2003. In 2004 in the country’s first-ever terrorism trial, four Kenyans were charged with involvement in the Paradise Hotel attacks. These attacks, according to a recent United Nations report, were prepared by a Somalia-based al Qaeda-linked group in neighboring Somalia, which is beset by a strong fundamentalist presence, weak rule of law, and arms smuggling from Yemen. Kenya’s Somalia border area and long, poorly guarded Indian Ocean coastline remain potential entry points for outside extremists. Kenya’s own Muslim community on the coast, while largely moderate, offers a potential foothold for terrorist infiltrators.

In January 2004, Kenya opened the new National Counter-Terrorism Center, the first of its kind in Africa. The center aims to improve security throughout the Horn of Africa by coordinating information. Kenya is also a major beneficiary of the U.S. pledge of US$100 million in aid for counterterrorism activities in Africa. Kenya will receive US$10 million for its Anti-Terror Police Unit and another US$40 million to upgrade air and seaport security. The Kenyan military also has participated in training and operations with the 1,800-member, U.S.-sponsored Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (JTF-HOA), a task force created to disrupt transnational terrorist groups in the Horn of Africa region.

Human Rights: The Kibaki government has worked to improve the human rights environment in Kenya and has significantly reduced the use of the legal system to harass government critics. The Moi administration consistently received international criticism of its record on human rights. Under Moi, security forces regularly subjected opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists to arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, abuse in custody, and lethal force. International donors and governments such as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Norway periodically broke off diplomatic relations and suspended aid allocations, pending human rights improvement. Under the new government, politically motivated human rights violations have diminished, but other serious human rights abuses persist, a great many at the hands of security forces, particularly the police. The police force is widely viewed as the most corrupt entity in the country, given to extorting bribes, complicity in criminal activity, and using excessive force against both criminal suspects and crowds. Most police who commit abuses still do so with impunity. Prison conditions remain life threatening. Apart from police and penal system abuses, infringements of rights in the course of legal proceedings are widespread, despite recent pressure on judicial personnel. Freedom of speech and of the press continue to be compromised through various forms of harassment of journalists and activists. Violence and discrimination against women are rife. The abuse of children, including in forced labor and prostitution, is a serious problem. Female genital mutilation (FGM) remains widespread, despite 2001 legislation against it for girls under 16. The abuse of women and girls, including early marriage and wife inheritance, is a factor in the spread of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS).

Kenya made some progress in 2003, when it set up the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, with a mandate to ensure Kenya’s compliance with international human rights standards. Also, parliament passed the Children’s Act to ensure the protection of minors, as well as the Disability Act, outlawing discrimination against the disabled.

Index for Kenya:
Overview | Government


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