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Kenya lies across the equator in east-central Africa, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. It is twice the size of Nevada. Kenya borders Somalia to the east, Ethiopia to the north, Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, and Sudan to the northwest. In the north, the land is arid; the southwest corner is in the fertile Lake Victoria Basin; and a length of the eastern depression of the Great Rift Valley separates western highlands from those that rise from the lowland coastal strip.
Paleontologists believe people may first have inhabited Kenya about 2 million years ago. In the 700s, Arab seafarers established settlements along the coast, and the Portuguese took control of the area in the early 1500s. More than 40 ethnic groups reside in Kenya. Its largest group, the Kikuyu, migrated to the region at the beginning of the 18th century.
The land became a British protectorate in 1890 and a Crown colony in 1920, called British East Africa. Nationalist stirrings began in the 1940s, and in 1952 the Mau Mau movement, made up of Kikuyu militants, rebelled against the government. The fighting lasted until 1956.
On Dec. 12, 1963, Kenya achieved full independence. Jomo Kenyatta, a nationalist leader during the fight to win independence who had been jailed by the British, was its first president.
From 1964 to 1992, the country was ruled as a one-party state by the Kenya African National Union (KANU), first under Kenyatta, and then under Daniel arap Moi. Demonstrations and riots put pressure on Moi to allow multiparty elections in 1992.
The economy did not flourish under Moi's rule. In the 1990s, Kenya's infrastructure began disintegrating and official graft was rampant, contributing to the withdrawal of much foreign aid. In early 1995, President Moi moved against the opposition and ordered the arrest of anyone who insulted him.
A series of disasters plagued Kenya in 1997 and 1998: severe flooding destroyed roads, bridges, and crops; epidemics of malaria and cholera overwhelmed the ineffectual health care system; and ethnic clashes erupted between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups in the Rift Valley. On Aug. 7, 1998, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi was bombed by terrorists, killing 243 and injuring more than 1,000. The embassy in neighboring Tanzania was bombed the same day, killing 10.
In a successful effort to win back IMF and World Bank funding, which had been suspended because of Kenya's corruption and poor economic practices, President Moi appointed his high-profile critic and political opponent, Richard Leakey, as head of the civil service in 1999. A third-generation white Kenyan, son of paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey, he had been a highly effective reformer as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. But after 20 months, during which he made a promising start at cleaning up Kenya's corrupt bureaucracy, Leakey was sacked by Moi. Kenya is regularly ranked among the ten most corrupt countries in the world, according to the watchdog group Transparency International.
An anticorruption law, sponsored by the ruling party, failed to pass in Parliament in Aug. 2001 and imperiled Kenya's chances for international aid. Opposition leaders called the law a cynical ploy meant to give the appearance of reform; the proposed law, they contended, was in fact too weak and full of loopholes to make a dent in corruption.
Opposition leader Mwai Kibaki won the Dec. 2002 presidential election, defeating Moi's protégé, Uhuru Kenyatta (term limits prevented Moi, in power for 24 years, from running again). Kibaki promised to put an end to the country's rampant corruption. In his first few months, Kibaki did initiate a number of reforms—ordering a crackdown on corrupt judges and police and instituting free primary school education—and international donors opened their coffers again.
But by 2004, disappointment in Kibaki set in with the lack of further progress, and a long-awaited new constitution, meant to limit the president's power, still had not been delivered. Kibaki's anticorruption minister, John Githongo, resigned in Feb. 2005, frustrated that he was prevented from investigating a number of scandals. In July 2005, Parliament finally approved a draft of a constitution, but in Dec. 2005 voters rejected it because it expanded the president's powers. A drought ravaged Kenya, and by Jan. 2006, 2.5 million Kenyans faced starvation.
Kenya descended into violence and chaos following Dec. 2007's presidential election. Preliminary results had opposition candidate Raila Odinga, of the Orange Democratic Movement, defeating incumbent Kibaki, 57% to 39%. In the days after the election, however, Odinga's lead dwindled and Kenya's electoral commission declared Kibaki the winner, 46% to 44%. International observers said the vote was rigged. Odinga, a champion of the poor, had promised to eliminate corruption and tribalism. After the announcement of the official results, violence broke out among members of the Luo and Kikuyu tribes. Odinga is Luo, and Kibaki is Kikuyu. The fighting between the tribes intensified in Jan. 2008, with more than 800 people dying in violence across the country. Odinga refused Kibaki's invitation to discuss the political crisis after Kibaki appointed his cabinet, which did not include any members of Odinga's Orange Democratic Party. Parliament, however, did elect Kenneth Marende, of the Orange Democratic Party, speaker over an ally of Kibaki. The deployment of the Kenyan military did little to stem the brutal ethnic fighting. In late January, Melitus Mugabe Were, a member of Parliament who has worked to mend the ethnic strife in Kenya and help the poor, was dragged from his car and shot. Members of the opposition said the killing was a political assassination.
By Feb. 2008, more than 1,000 people had died in the ethnic violence. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan met with representatives from the government and the opposition in an attempt to resolve the crisis. After protracted negotiations that left Annan frustrated, the government and the opposition agreed in late February on a power-sharing deal that has Odinga filling the newly created position of prime minister and the two rivals dividing cabinet positions. Parliament met in March, a much-needed first step toward restoring peace to the battered country. Kibaki announced an enormous national unity cabinet in April that includes 94 ministers. His supporters head powerful ministries, such as finance and foreign relations. As expected, Odinga was named prime minister. Power sharing quickly proved difficult, and the legislative process has been hampered by infighting accusations on both sides of corruption. A draft constitution published in November 2009 diminished the role of the president, making it a mostly ceremonial position, and devolved power to regional leaders. The constitution also includes provisions for land reform, establishes a bill or rights, and includes a system of checks and balances. By a margin of about 2–1, voters approved the constitution in an August 2010 referendum. The vote was split on ethnic lines; the Luo and Kikuyu tribes largely approved the referendum, and the Kalenjin, proponents of former president Daniel arap Moi, voted against it. The peaceful vote signaled that Kenyans are eager to return to stability.
Despite international pressure, Kenya refused to establish a special tribunal to investigate the post-election violence. In November 2009, the International Criminal Court announced that it would launch a formal investigation to determine if crimes against humanity had been committed in the violence.
On August 4, 2010, a new constitution passed by a wide margin. The new constitution included a bill of rights and transferred more power to local governments. The new constitution went into effect on August 27, 2010.
On October 16, 2011, Kenyan sent several hundred troops into battle against the Shabab militant group. Armored trucks, tanks and helicopters were also sent. Helicopters bombed Shabab bases. More Kenyan troops were sent in later with the goal to clear the Shabab out. It was a rare aggressive act by a country known for its laidback foreign policy. The act came as a surprise to the United States, an ally of Kenya. The U.S. had no advance knowledge of the invasion.
The Shabab, an insurgent group, has killed scores of civilians, carried out numerous suicide bomb missions and sworn their allegiance to Al-Qaeda. The Kenyan government justified its invasion, blaming the Shabab for a series of recent kidnappings in Kenya.
In January 2012, four well-known Kenyans were ordered to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the capital of South Holland. The four men were charged with crimes against humanity for their roles in the violence that erupted after the disputed 2007 elections. More than 300,000 people were forced to leave their homes and at least 1,100 people were killed in the violence.
One of the men brought up on charges was Uhuru Kenyatta, the richest man in the country and the son of Kenya's first president. Former education minister and Kenyatta's political rival, William Ruto, was also charged. Both Ruto and Kenyatta said they would run in the next election, regardless of the court's ruling. Radio executive Joshua arap Sang and cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura were the other two men charged. No trial date has been set, but the presidential election is expected in late 2012 or early 2013.