Kenya: Why Joe Biden Is Sending Billionaire Meg Whitman to Kenya As U.S. Ambassador

Meg Whitman speaks at the Tech Museum in San Jose, California on February 17, 2009.
12 December 2021

She is rich and powerful in Washington. President Joe Biden's nomination of billionaire Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and eBay, as the next US ambassador to Kenya has got the attention of various entities -- for, it now appears, Nairobi has turned out to be a critical diplomatic station.

Whitman is the best-known diplomat ever nominated for Nairobi. According to Forbes, Meg, as she is fondly known, is worth $4.8 billion (Sh480 billion) -- which is not the story here -- and is number 151 of the richest Americans.

As one of Biden's major donors, and given that such donors get prime postings, the nomination is the latest indicator of how the Nairobi station is seen from Washington. Initially, influential analysts in Washington had hinted that she was earmarked for a state secretary position. That did not happen.

A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, Whitman is an insider in Washington and is reported to have spent a record $144 million of her personal wealth in a bid to become governor of California on a Republican ticket. She then later switched camps to endorse Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump and donated money to the Biden campaign.

To understand this nomination, we need to reflect on the bigger picture -- for this is about the emerging US foreign policy in the region.

Whitman is not your usual "down-the-drain" diplomat -- a term coined by William Attwood, the first US ambassador to Kenya, on how Washington insiders dismissed him. He was a journalist. According to Attwood, who wrote the tell-all book, The Reds and Blacks, "the (1960s) thinking in Washington was that the US needed to send tough diplomats in countries threatened by Cuban and Soviet military advisers."

The US ranks its valued diplomatic stations by the calibre of diplomats its sends. Actually, Whitman's nomination became big news in respected Capitol Hill journals. Her statement, sent from the White House upon her nomination, was telling and described Kenya as "a strategic partner" and that she would work on "a variety of issues to advance peace, prosperity and health in the country and throughout the region."

If approved by the Senate, it means that she will be in Nairobi at a critical transition time as President Uhuru Kenyatta hands over the presidency to whoever wins the race in August 2022.

More so, it came a few days after the Biden administration unveiled a new strategy to fight corruption globally -- after his June 23 pronouncement that the fight against corruption was now a "core national security interest of the United States".

US national security

The strategy now tasks diplomats to help fight grand corruption, which Washington has defined as "when political elites steal large sums of public funds or otherwise abuse power for personal or political advantage." It has also promised to fight "Kleptocracy: a government controlled by officials who use political power to appropriate the wealth of their nation; State capture: when private entities improperly and corruptly influence a country's decision-making process for their own benefit and Strategic corruption: when a government weaponises corrupt practices as a tenet of its foreign policy."

Those who understand diplomacy will tell you that when national security interest is invoked, the US will spare no one. "Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself," President Biden said in his directive.

In that memorandum, Biden calls for "corrupt individuals, transnational criminal organisations and their facilitators" to be held accountable, including taking criminal enforcement action against them.

In the 38-page memorandum which was released this week, the Biden government said it will "elevate and expand the scale of diplomatic engagement" as part of the US policy to fight corruption and by sending a notable CEO to Kenya, regarded as a bastion of corruption and cartels in the region, Biden is certainly sending a strong message on how the US will engage with corrupt politicos going forward.

"We will improve security assistance and integrate anti-corruption considerations into military planning, analysis, and operations and develop new protocols for assessing corruption risk," says the document dated December 6. According to the new policy, the new Biden strategy at the embassy level is to "elevate corruption as a diplomatic priority in a manner tailored to local conditions."

More so, Whitman will be heading to a diplomatic station surrounded by fragile states -- where domestic politics, terrorism and military mischief overlap and make the entire horn of Africa a conflict basket.

A month ago, the US Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken flew to Nairobi in what the Washington Post described as a day that "illustrated the frustrating limits of American influence in a region undergoing deep turmoil."

Various competing interests have pitched tent in the region and the American diplomacy -- especially during Trump's presidency -- suffered due to his disregard of the continent. For instance, Americans lost their place at the Horn of Africa, where Qatar, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates appear to be the main power brokers and kingpins of upheaval.

The emergence of irredentist claims in the region -- such as Somalia taking Kenya to the International Court of Justice over the Indian Ocean waters, Eritrea's occupation of parts of Tigray or Ethiopia's claims in Fashaga, Sudan -- is of concern in Washington. But much more disturbing is the war in Ethiopia where beleaguered Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy has been battling the Tigrayan rebels.

US companies' fortunes

On November 14, a month after President Biden discussed the Ethiopian crisis with President Kenyatta in White House, the Kenyan president flew to Addis Ababa to meet with Prime Minister Abiy -- a sign that he has become an important figure in stabilising the region. More so, President Biden dispatched his Special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, for a series of meetings in the region, which included a meeting with Mr Abiy.

As it emerged later, Feltman had discouraged Abiy from pursuing a military solution against Tigrayans and was of the view that Abiy's confidence is getting overrated. "I'm just looking at a map over ... what's happened since the Ethiopian National Defence Forces withdrew from Tigray at the end of June. Just looking at a map makes me question his confidence," he told a teleconference. "But be that as it may, even if it's true, what I was trying to tell him was that the cost to Ethiopia's stability, the cost to the civilians, the dignity of Ethiopians being damaged by this war, the costs are too high."

Mr Feltman told a press briefing on November 23 that "the continued war risks unravelling Africa's second-most-populous country, the home of the African Union, and the traditional linchpin of security and stability in the strategic Horn of Africa/Red Sea area". He also worried "that the military developments on the ground are moving more rapidly than we've been able to get the diplomatic process to move".

But that is only half of the problem.

By sending a corporate executive to Nairobi, the US hopes to reverse the American companies' fortunes after years where the big tenders have been gobbled by Chinese firms. Biden feels that democracy in Africa, and which is the cornerstone of US policy, would not flourish if the countries are being baby-sitted by China.

And that is the region that Biden has thrown Whitman into.

The other place that she will be looking at is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an investigation by the New York Times revealed that the US surrendered its cobalt acquisitions in Kisanfu to China and accused Washington of "failing to safeguard decades of diplomatic and financial investments in Congo".

Kisanfu was an important mine for US interests since it is deemed one of the world's largest cobalt mines. But when US company Freeport-McMoRan, announced that it wanted to offload the undeveloped site, the US Obama administration did not show interest and it was snapped up by China for $550 million and the deal was sealed during the Trump presidency.

"The loss of the mines happened under the watch of President Barack Obama, consumed with Afghanistan and the Islamic State, and President Donald J. Trump, a climate-change sceptic committed to fossil fuels and the electoral forces behind them," said the paper.

The mine had been secured through the help of the CIA, which was keeping watch in the DRC so that crucial uranium mines did not fall into the hands of the Soviets and China. DR Congo is once again becoming an interesting watch by diplomats in the region given that Nairobi is the biggest CIA station in Africa.

And with all that, Nairobi requires not just a diplomat, but a person well-grounded in Washington. Diplomats will closely follow Whitman's nomination, for she is being thrown into a region that had been neglected, with low-key diplomats. And with Kenya holding a Security Council position in New York, it appears that the country is turning out to be the centre of regional stability.

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