Neil Wigan, the British High Commissioner-designate to Kenya, has not even presented his credentials yet, but he may already be thinking of how to deal with an old problem: An inquiry into alleged atrocities inflicted on Kenyans by his country’s soldiers at their training unit in northern Kenya.
This and another tussle involving the Malindi Space Centre, a collaboration project between Kenya and Italy, could test the mettle of Kenyan legislators investigating matters that test the country’s foreign relations.
The lawmakers said Luigi Broglio-Malindi Space Centre, the only space facility in the country, is only benefiting Italy and not the initial arrangement where both countries were to benefit.
For the UK, the new envoy takes over from Jane Marriott, who completed her tour of duty amid a cloud of scandal involving the British military. Nonetheless, the relationship between the UK and Kenya seems to have defied this bump, growing every year on the commercial front.
Mr Wigan, however, arrives as the National Assembly committee investigates alleged abuses committed by the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk), which could have significant implications in the relations between the two countries.
The National Assembly’s Defence, Intelligence and Foreign Relations committee opened a public inquiry into alleged malpractices committed by the British soldiers in Laikipia, Isiolo and Samburu counties in Northern Kenya.
The investigations will focus on ethical misconduct, including corruption, fraud, discrimination, abuse of power, and other unethical behaviours within Batuk since its inception. The inquiry will also look into allegations of human-rights violations, including mistreatment, torture, unlawful detention, killings, or any other violations of internationally recognised human rights standards.
Further, the investigations will assess the Unit’s operational integrity especially safety protocols, compliance with legal requirements and adherence to established military standards.
“There has never been checks on what has been happening with the British army in Kenya. Whether it will be an incident that dates back to 1963 or happened yesterday, this inquiry will be able to look into it,” said Nelson Koech, the committee chairman.
“We have children who have lost their limbs, some have been cut and some have been killed and we have decided to go and look into these abuses and ethical misconduct that is coming from the British army operating in Kenya,” he added.
The unresolved case of Agnes Wanjiru, a woman murdered by a British soldier in March 2012, is among atrocities and human rights violations that the committee will be seeking to investigate and seek justice.
The public and other stakeholders have been given up to October 6, 2023 to submit their memoranda, opening a window of opportunity for the victims to present their cases.
The committee has so far received 10 petitions from Samburu and Laikipia counties on gross human rights violations implicating Batuk soldiers, accusing them of having committed “unspeakable atrocities to Kenyans”.
The panel will conclude the public inquiry process in April 2024 before submitting a report to Parliament.
Kenya and the United Kingdom have a Defence Cooperation Agreement that, among others, allows Batuk to operate in the country.
Batuk is operating in both Laikipia and Samburu Counties and the probe is geared towards ensuring the victims get justice.
The UK is the largest international investor in Kenya and is Kenya’s fifth largest export market and amongst Kenya’s top ten bilateral development partners, providing £72 million of bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) and £91 million ($116 million) to spend in Kenya in 2021 across all pillars of the strategic partnership.
The UK ODA funding supports the provision of healthcare and education to some of Kenya’s most vulnerable as well as supporting victims of gender-based violence.
The country is also providing training to the Kenyan Defence Forces through provision of new and innovative training programmes, including supporting counter-insurgency efforts.
“The UK and Kenya share a deep and complex history; one that has created strong bonds between our countries, governments and people,” said a statement from the British High Commission office in Nairobi.
The Batuk inquiry comes at a time when the National Assembly, especially the Defence committee, has been pro-active in enforcing adherence to DCA between Kenya and key allies.
Then there is the Malindi Space Centre probe. MPs had early this month called on the national government to pull out of the "one-sided" agreement with Italy that led to the establishment of a space centre in Malindi, Kilifi County.
In July this year, Mr Duale said Kenya wants a fair share of the proceeds realised from the facility as per the agreement between the two countries.
Kenya and Italy had agreed to the use of the space centre for scientific, technological and socio-economic development where the Kenya Space Agency (KSA) and ISA were to jointly manage the centre.
The National Assembly in 2020 approved the signing of a new five-year pact that allows Kenya to earn Ksh25 million ($17,000) annually from Italy for the use of the land hosting the San Marco Space Centre, now renamed Broglio Space Centre.
Kenya had been negotiating for the new deal since 2012 when the previous pact ended. The MPs retired a 1995 deal that gave Italy an upper hand in the use of the facility.
“As the representatives of the people, the House has a key role in ensuring that the agreement signed between the Government of Kenya and the Government of the Italian Republic on the Luigi Broglio - Malindi Space Centre in Kenya is fully implemented,” Mr Duale told MPs.