24 March 2019

Kenya: U.S. Envoys - the Toughies, Softies, and in-Betweens

Immediate former US Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec was a good, result-oriented, backroom operator.

Before his posting to Kenya, he'd been his country's ambassador to Tunisia where he coordinated various activities behind the scenes.

Not long after the "handshake" between political rivals -- President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga -- in March last year, the latter said on television that the American Ambassador had nothing to do with the deal.

Mr Odinga's statement easily reminded one of a reply by George Washington, the first US President, when told that he'd misrepresented facts: "How can I be President if I never tell a lie!"

Truth be told, Mr Godec's moonlighting had a lot to do with the "handshake". There is background to it.


Mr Godec was appointed acting ambassador to Kenya in September 2012 following the abrupt resignation of Mr Scott Gration.

He was confirmed to the position after US President Barack Obama started his final term in January 2013.

Within weeks, there was a presidential election in Kenya where Mr Odinga was the candidate to beat. He was prime minister and his running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, the vice president.

Their competitors, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto -- were perceived to be underdogs with the added burden of facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court.

While a self-assured Mr Odinga largely assembled a rusty campaign machine, his opponents had a sleek message that included craftily labelling The Hague trials as political persecution by foreigners.


Next they got the best of spin doctors to do their dirty stuff, but officially projected themselves to be just what the doctor had prescribed for Kenya -- a country devoid of ethnic-based politics and "analogue" leadership. Voters believed them.

Mr Odinga only realised the river had changed course midstream when elections results began trickling in at the Bomas of Kenya presidential tallying centre.

Quietly, Ambassador Godec pulled strings to stop 'Team Raila' from throwing stones into the pool. He personally visited the Bomas tallying centre to know what was going on before retreating to his office to work the phones.

Multiple sources disclose that it's the US Ambassador who quietly told Mr Odinga's camp that disrupting the process would come with a heavy price, and that the only available option was to go to court in case of a dispute.


Three years down the line, the shoe was on the other foot. Now it was the turn for Mr Odinga's competitors to feel the heat of Godec's silent diplomacy.

With only a year to the 2017 election, Mr Odinga's Nasa brigade said the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) couldn't be trusted to preside over another election and demanded that its commissioners be sent packing. The climax of the battle were weekly protests.

Despite the pressure, IEBC commissioners, with strong backing by the government, decided to stay put.

Tough talking Interior Cabinet Secretary Major-Gen (rtd) Joseph Nkaiserry, now deceased, even said he had ordered enough tear gas.

Then, out of the blues, came a group calling itself the Nairobi Business Community, baying for the blood of anti-IEBC protesters.

Smelling a nasty confrontation, the international community moved into action.


Someone from the National Council of Churches of Kenya told me that it is Mr Godec who approached the religious leaders and enjoined them in a coalition that pressured the government to climb down and accept that IEBC commissioners go home, if that is what it would take to save the country from bloodshed.

With IEBC commissioners shown the door, Mr Odinga had won round one. Round two would come in the ballot where he lost the 2017 presidential election.

The Supreme Court however nullified the election on grounds of "irregularities and illegalities".

Mr Odinga boycotted the repeat elections, and after a few tumultuous months swore himself in as the People's President on January 31.

Once again the international community saw trouble coming. It is a badly kept secret that it is Ambassador Godec who made Mr Odinga's "swearing-in" an anti-climax by quietly making sure it was a one-man affair.


Even more importantly, he negotiated a give-and-take that the authorities should let the event go on uninterrupted.

The ambassador's behind the scenes activities culminated in the surprise truce between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga.

Like Mr Godec who came to Nairobi at a crucial transition period, Ambassador Antony Marshall (December 1973 to April 1977) came to Kenya in the tail years of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta's presidency.

The Head of State was advanced in age, and his health was deteriorating (an insider in the government, Mr Duncan Ndegwa, has written that the President would go into coma lasting as long as three days!).

Everybody -- including close family members -- seemed to be doing their "own" things.

At the same time a vicious succession war played out between two rivals eyeing the presidency once the old man was gone.


Hardly was Ambassador Marshall settled in Nairobi when a crisis was tossed his way.

The Nairobi-based chief executive of the US giant oil dealer, ESSO, which had been supplying petroleum products to farms owned by the Kenyatta family, was ordered to leave the country after he demanded an accrued huge bill be paid or he cut supply.

Ambassador Marshall quietly demanded an explanation from Foreign Affairs Minister Njoroge Mungai.

But just in case the minister didn't see the implications of mistreating an American doing genuine business, the ambassador reminded the minister that children of prominent Kenyans -- including those of the President -- were studying in the US and that his embassy retained discretion on who to grant a US visa.

That same day, the ESSO bill was paid in full and Mr John Skane, the expelled chief executive, allowed back into the country.


Not long after, an American mineral prospector, one John Saul, located rich deposits of rubies within Tsavo West National Park in Taita-Taveta.

He applied and was granted permit to extract the minerals for export. Subsequently he partnered with another America, Elliot Miller, and they registered a company called Taita International Ltd.

For "protection", they entered into a partnership with Vice President Daniel arap Moi and two other Cabinet ministers, but retained 49 per cent shareholding.

Soon after, they stumbled into even bigger mineral deposits in the area.

Then, out of the blues, a Greek by the name George Criticos, who was a business partner to a member of Mzee Kenyatta's immediate family and a niece, approached the two Americans and requested that they be allowed shareholding in their company. The request was declined.


The following day, the company's main shareholder, Mr John Saul, was served notice declaring him a prohibited immigrant and requested to immediately leave the country "on grounds of national security".

On the same day, the file on the mining prospectors registered in Kenya "disappeared" at the Ministry of Environment.

When it reappeared, the name of the company owned by the Americans was missing, replaced by a new one owned by the Greek and two members of the Kenyatta family.

Once again, Mr Marshall quietly approached Foreign Minister Mungai with a warning that the US was at liberty to react to such gross violation of its citizens' rights.


A few days later, stories appeared in the influential Sunday Times of London and Washington Post with graphic details about corruption and violation of liberties in Kenya.

Names of members of the Kenyatta family were mentioned, something no local newspaper could do those days.

The Kenya government read the writing on the wall and quietly compensated the two Americans for loss of business.

The Foreign Affairs minister was dispatched to cool tempers in London and Washington.


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