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Multipolarity in East Africa: India’s Role in Kenya

Megatrends spotlight 2022 03, 10.03.2022

The influence of external actors in the Horn of Africa is usually measured in terms of material resources. India’s role in the region, however, is predominantly based on non-material factors such as shared historical memories and social ties seen in the Indo-African diaspora. In our article “Power, Status and Memory in Indo-East African Relations”, recently published in the South African Journal of International Affairs, we look at the significance of these factors in Indo-Kenyan relations.    

External Actors in the Horn of Africa – Focusing on Material Factors

When it comes to peace, development and stability in the Horn of Africa, many analyses focus on the influence of external actors. They usually discuss such aspects as the economic competition between the Gulf States and Turkey, the military bases of the US, China, Israel, and France, or external actors’ access to strategically important harbours in the Gulf of Aden, such as the Berbera Port in Somalia’s sub-region Somaliland. Likewise, major infrastructure projects in the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) attract much attention, as do state representatives’ new pledges of investment or cooperative projects at Africa+1 summits.

These analyses commonly focus on the material resources of influence that facilitate the assertion of geopolitical interests and justification of competitive advantages, whether expressed in terms of the trade volume or the number of diplomatic missions, defence agreements or joint military exercises. Our research, however, shows that this analytical perspective falls short of explaining actors like India, whose influence is largely based on historically developed non-material factors.

Indo-Kenyan Relations centred around Historical Memories and Social Ties

Without military bases and large-scale infrastructure projects, India is rarely more than a marginal note in foreign and security policy analyses of the influence of external actors in the Horn of Africa. With this in mind, our recent article “Power, Status and Memory in Indo-East African Relations” explores India’s role in the region with a focus on Kenya. Our conversations on the ground suggest that perceptions of India’s influence are largely based on (1) memory and status, and (2) social ties. There is much to suggest that these intangible means of influence will become more important in the future in multipolar actor landscapes such as those seen in the Horn of Africa.

1. Shared Colonial Legacy

India and Kenya look back on a long shared history. They are linked by maritime trade across the Indian Ocean, the experience of British colonial rule, mutual migration and political cooperation on issues of global governance. Indian workers, for example, played a central role in the construction of the first Kenya-Uganda railway line and served an important function in the administration of Kenya under British colonial rule. The predominantly non-violent resistance of the Indian independence movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s political activism targeting discrimination against Asians in South Africa served as a model for anti-colonial independence movements in many African states.

Then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also played a prominent role at the Bandung Conference of African and Asian States in 1955. The summit laid the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War and for South-South solidarity. India stood out in the eyes of many African states for taking on an active role as a credible representative of an anti-colonial/anti-imperial global agenda.

India’s shared history and special status vis-à-vis East Africa are important resources for India’s current foreign policy toward the region. They are maintained in the form of a common culture of remembrance of historical events, as evidenced, for example, in cultural events organised by the Kenya-India Friendship Association (KIFA) in cooperation with the Indian High Commission or in memorial sites such as the Indian-sponsored Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Library at the University of Nairobi.

2. Social Ties: Kenya’s Indian Community

About 80,000 to 100,000 people in Kenya are of Indian origin. This makes Kenya the African country with the largest Indian community after South Africa. In many sectors of industry and commerce, entrepreneurs with Indian roots are disproportionately represented, for example in the pharmaceutical industry, in retail and wholesale trade, and in manufacturing. For their contributions to Kenya’s socio-economic development and their commitment to building the education and health sectors, Asians – predominantly Indians – were even recognised as Kenya’s 44th tribe by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017.

Nonetheless, these social ties are not synonymous with harmonious relations. The history of Indian migration to Africa is also marked by social distance and violent clashes. In 1972, for example, Ugandan strongman Idi Amin expelled all members of the Indian community from the country. Nevertheless, the socio-economic integration of Indian communities into East African economic structures and their prevalence in everyday life in the region also represents a potential resource for Indian foreign policy – a means that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is increasingly trying to activate by employing an active diaspora policy.

The Influence of External Actors – Beyond Material Factors

A look at the historical and social ties between India and Kenya makes clear that India’s means of influence in foreign policy differ significantly from those of other external actors in the region – this is particularly true when compared to the United Kingdom and other European states with colonial histories in Africa. For Germany and the European Union, it is important to shed more light on the broad spectrum of material and non-material means of influence held by actors on the ground, also with a view to their own histories in the region. This would be an important step towards adapting foreign and security policy to social and political debates on multipolarity and the role of external actors in the Horn of Africa.


Dr. Karoline Eickhoff is a researcher with Megatrends Afrika and the Africa and Middle East Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs / Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).

Prof. Dr. Tobias Berger is a Junior Professor for Political Science with a focus on Transnational Politics of the Global South at the Otto Suhr Institute of the Freie Universität Berlin.