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Kenya’s decision to negotiate with Britain unilaterally causes trade tensions

Ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2019, the British government has strived to strengthen economic ties through increased trade between them and their former colonies, particularly those in Africa and in the Anglosphere.

In this continuing trend, Britain has begun negotiating new post-Brexit trade ties with Kenya, much to the dismay of the other members of the East African Community, the East African trade bloc which Kenya is an integral part of.

Kenya is seeking to replicate the trade terms which it had with the UK during the UK’s time in the European Union, and is emphasizing these negotiations heavily. These negotiations are crucial to Kenya’s future trade outlook, as the United Kingdom is one of the largest consumers of Kenyan goods, only behind Uganda, the Netherlands, US, and Pakistan. If the UK and Kenya are not able to negotiate a trade deal by December 31st of this year, Kenyan goods will be subject to import tariffs by the UK, which will almost guarantee a deterioration in trade between the two nations.

Despite the urgency of these negotiations, other members of the East African Community have responded to these events negatively. If Kenya alone manages to strike a unique trade deal with the United Kingdom, it puts the validity of the EAC’s common external tariff in jeopardy, and may increase trade barriers among a bloc of countries which have put in relentless work to decrease barriers to trade, and promote these policies among the rest of the continent.

In response to Kenya’s extra-EAC actions, the other members of the bloc, comprising of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, have organized a pan-EAC meeting to discuss the negotiations with Britain together, with the goal of getting the bloc in its entirety to agree to a new trade deal with the UK, not and just Kenya. This move, although inclusive and can facilitate more persistent trade between Britain and the bloc in the future, faces a decent amount of uncertainty, as both Tanzania and Uganda are set to have elections in the near future, with elections in 2025 and 2026 respectively. Depending on who wins these elections, trade with their former colonial ruler can be put in jeopardy or be facilitated further.

Messages regarding the tension between Kenya and the rest of the EAC from the UK’s perspective currently seem mixed. The UK seems to seek an exclusive agreement with Kenya first, and will then seek to ensure a trade agreement with the rest of the bloc based on the pre-existing EAC-EU trade deal, which was in effect before Brexit. This move on Britain’s end, however, can drive a spike into existing cracks in trade policy between the EAC’s members, as it can lead to more blocks of good between the member nations. Africa Kiiza, a trade policy analyst at the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI), based in Uganda, argues that the EAC is already beginning to disintegrate, and this UK-Kenya trade deal may be another nail in the coffin of Free Trade in East Africa.

The decision for Kenya to begin trade negotiations with Britain alone was a one made out of necessity, but also made hastily. It showed that the current Kenyan government is not currently focused on facilitating trade deals amongst its neighbors, and promoting free trade, but is rather focused on solidifying trade deals with larger powers to ensure further development.

While this complex situation has the potential to implode the valuable work the East African Community has done to improve trade relations amongst its members, the African leaders involved have handled the situation quite well, and have responded with further meetings and diplomacy to remedy the situation. More news about the situation is still developing, and a more informative update will be given after the crucial September 11th meeting.


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