31 May 2011

The Rogue Ambassadors: Two undiplomatic American diplomats to Kenya (guest post)

The following is a guest post by Abdullahi B Halakhe. Abdullahi worked as a journalist in both Kenya and Uganda for various media outlets. Currently he reside in New York City, and his area of interest lies at the intersection international security policy, communications and climate change, in Africa.

Two American ambassadors to Kenya, Smith Hempstone and Michael E. Ranneberger, have had undiplomatic relations with the host country.

Opinions about them were divided down the middle: opposition groups saw them as the vanguard of democracy, while the government regarded them as undiplomatic.

Smith Hempstone served as the American ambassador to Kenya from 1989-1993. He was appointed by George H. W. Bush, arrived in Nairobi towards the end of the Cold War, and stayed until 1993.
The nascent opposition movement in the 1990s regarded him as the guardian angel; however, the government considered him a racist. The then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wilson Ndolo Ayah, once branded him a “racist with a slave-owner mentality,” to which he replied, with good measure, “All the people I am helping are blacks”

Hempstone’s arrival coincided with the period when the Breton Woods institutions were pushing for expansion of the democratic space as a precondition of disbursement of any financial aid to most African countries. This placed him on a collision course with Moi, who saw that as interferences in the internal affairs of Kenya.

This led to strained relations between the two countries. The fact that Kenya was in the West’s corner counted for little when it came to the push for democracy from the United States. In fact, the ambassador and Washington continuously catalogued the regime’s abysmal human rights record, entrenched corruption, and incessant crackdown on opposition groups.

Because of his abrasive nature, and journalism background as the foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily, for which he covered Kenya’s independence, Washington considered him as the right person for the job. Besides, he was an author of two books about Africa: “Africa, Angry Young Giant” in 1961 and “Rebels, Mercenaries and Dividends” in 1962.

Hempstone’s robust approach and little regard for diplomatic protocol preceded his posting to Nairobi. In 1954, he met Hemmingway in his hotel in Venice without first requesting an appointment. Hemingway asked him if he had been to Africa, to which Hempstone replied no. Hemingway advised, “Africa is man’s country – fish, hunt, write.” It seemed Hempstone took the advice to heart.

Few in the government shed tears when he completed his tour of duty. But Hempstone will draw considerable satisfaction that the opposition groups that he supported came to power in 2002, before his death in 2006. Albeit, they were no less corrupt than those in Moi’s regime whom he had fought.

But one thing that Hempstone will be remembered for, aside from popping up at randomly at Nyama Choma (roasted meat), since his love for meat was legendary, he successfully forced President Moi to amend section 2A of the constitution, which made Kenya de jure, a multiparty state.

In the 2007 elections, the number of registered political parties was over two dozen, wheras when Hempstone arrived in 1989, Kenya Africa National Unity (KANU) was the only party, and Kenya was de jure a single party state.

Ten years after Hempstone left, Michael E. Ranneberger was posted to Nairobi as the United States ambassador, and he proved a chip off the old block. He became an instant hit with the opposition groups and civil society organizations that saw him as the second coming of Hempstone. However, the Kenyan government considered him loquacious and meddlesome.

Remarkably, though, the current Kenyan government was in the opposition when Hempstone left. And, just like Moi’s regime, every time they were criticized over corruption, they invoked the time-honored inviolability of the sovereignty of Kenya as their defense.

Hempstone had his wars with the entire KANU establishment, but principally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But Ranneberger also had some run-ins with the Minister for Foreign Affairs Moses Wentangula because of his undiplomatic conduct.

While Hempstone arrived when the world was divided into East and West, when he left, the United States was the sole superpower. However, Ranneberger arrived when other powers, like China, were rising, but that never changed the United States’ Modus operandi towards Kenya.

When Hempstone was the ambassador, a code of secrecy dominated the diplomatic craft, but that is no more. The whistle blowing website Wikileaks leaked a cache of diplomatic correspondence between Washington and the American ambassadors across the world. In one of the cable to Washington, Ambassador Ranneberger described Kenya as “a swamp of flourishing corruption.”

On the evening of his farewell Ranneberger said, “I will be back,” before adding, “On a personal level, I have been fortunate to become a king to a certain lady, and she became a queen to me. That, to me, is a very fulfilling experience.”

That makes his engagement with Kenya to continue even after his tour of duty comes to an end.
Having been bitten by a Kenyan love bug, he will still be engaged with Kenya outside the formal circle.

A dose of wisdom that can serve well the incoming ambassador is that today’s anti-corruption crusaders, once in power, are as corrupt as the previous regime, confirming the maxims “the more things change the more they remain the same,” and “history has a bizarre way of repeating itself.”