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January 17, 2019

Why Envoy bashing is misguided

Supporters of Kenyan Opposition leader Raila Odinga hold placards during the U.S.ambassador Robert Godec protest outside the embassy in Nairobi on February 16,2018.Photo/Enos Teche.
Supporters of Kenyan Opposition leader Raila Odinga hold placards during the U.S.ambassador Robert Godec protest outside the embassy in Nairobi on February 16,2018.Photo/Enos Teche.

Roughly 10 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Kenya was considered to be a uniquely attractive diplomatic post by foreign service officers from many Western nations.

The friend who gave me this news – a serving officer at the time - told me that the only real competition we Kenyans have in such matters is The Philippines. And that between the genuinely friendly locals, and the easily accessible tourist attractions, diplomats could generally look forward to three or four highly enjoyable years in Kenya.

However, this pleasant generalisation – I was to later realise – only applies during what I shall call ‘normal times’. For ever since the return of multiparty politics in 1992, there has been a reliable pattern of Kenyans - at the prospect of a presidential election - losing their minds and that “genuine friendliness” and relapsing into primeval barbarism.

The toxicity of Kenyan presidential elections is impossible to exaggerate. Consider that since 1992, we have had six such elections. And in these, only one – in 2002 – was unequivocally free of violence. In all the others, there was some degree of election-related violence, with the 2007 election being so violent as to approach the “crimes against humanity” threshold and to bring Kenya to the attention of the International Criminal Court.

During such elections, a totally different dynamic comes into play:

On the one hand we have the side that has just won eager to quickly secure the fruits of this victory and determined to prevent any close examination of how exactly they won. And on the other side we have those now condemned to five years in opposition crying foul and declaring that the presidential election was rigged.

Furthermore, all this takes place in an atmosphere where there is either some degree of continuing post-election violence; or else there was plenty of violence just prior to the election.

In either case, once a disputed presidential election divides the country into two seemingly irreconcilable groups, it brings an abrupt end to the idyllic existence of many diplomats from “our key Western development partners”.

And there is a unique historical context in all this. Here in Kenya we are accustomed to having Western diplomatic missions getting involved in the issues surrounding our elections. Usually, this is very much to our advantage:

For example, without the aggressive intervention of the US State Department, following the end of the Cold War in 1991, it is most unlikely that retired President Daniel Moi (a classic African Big Man and President-for-Life) would have even briefly contemplated a return to political pluralism, and allowed for multiparty elections.

And again, in early 2008, arguably our darkest hour as a nation, it was the African Union supported by Western diplomatic missions which stepped in to compel a power-sharing agreement that put an end to the inter-tribal massacres.

So, it is very much in keeping with our political traditions that when the country faces a political crisis, or deadlock, then - along with civil society represented by the clergy and NGOs - the Western diplomatic missions take a lead in trying to broker a solution.

However, the problem with seeking any solution in an atmosphere overflowing with mutual fear and loathing among politicians is that each party only wants to hear whatever reinforces their defiant posturing. Any pleas for moderation will be regarded as heresy, and virtually any statement made - however well intended - is bound to offend one or the other of the rival political coalitions.

Subsequently, whoever is offended is likely to go overboard in a campaign of vilification against the diplomats who have upset them. It leads to an odd situation in which the diplomats who are doing the most to help us will end up being those who are most frequently abused by our politicians and their hirelings.

And I imagine it cannot be easy for any ambassador or high commissioner to explain to his colleagues back home that those bitter insults directed at him, and routinely published in the Kenyan media, are but proof that he is performing his duties exceptionally well.

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