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Will Ambassador-designate to Washington DC bring Obama to Kenya?

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Barak Obama-United States-PoliticsDuring the vetting session by a parliamentary committee this week, ambassador-designate to Washington, Njeru Githae, said if appointed, among the things he will discuss with President Obama at their first meeting is his much talked-about visit to the land of his father.

President Obama’s visit to Kenya can only be a symbolic gesture to the more substantive issue of thawing of the ice between Kenya/US relations. It is no secret that relationship between the two countries has not been at their best in the last two years.

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The genesis of the icy relations is the badly kept secret that Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto were not Washington’s favourite candidates for presidency at the expiry of the term of former President Kibaki last year.

And though White House was very guarded in taking sides, then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnny Carson, carelessly or otherwise, let the cat out of the bag when he publicly stated that “it would no longer be business as usual” between the two countries should Uhuru/Ruto pair take over the reins of power in Nairobi.

Washington jitters were that the two Kenyan leaders still have pending cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

So what could have changed? International Relations expert Prof Macharia Munene says the most significant thing that happened is that Uhuru and Ruto went ahead to convincingly win in the presidential poll against “predictions and expectations” of the West.

Munene says the outcome of the elections immediately placed both Washington and Nairobi in an awkward position. “Despite all the grandstanding, the two countries knew they needed each other one way or the other”, he says.

“It was only a matter of time before they sought out the other and met half way”. Could the direction taken by Uhuru/Ruto cases at the ICC have hastened thawing of ice in relations between the two countries? “Most likely yes”, argues Munene.

“The much hype at the initial stages of the Kenya ICC cases has gradually petered out. Actually, the whole thing looks an anti-climax. In diplomacy, nobody wants to pull an empty bag, hence the change of heart in Washington”.

But there is another fundamental side to it, says Munene. “The Kenya ICC bogeyman was more a British and not US thing. It’s the UK that seems to have issues with Kenya and Washington may have only been tip-toeing along to make London happy.

However, at the end of the day, the US will always pursue it’s strategic interests in disregard of the thinking at the Whitehall.” Munene says he highly doubts the US was at any one time about to sacrifice it’s security and economic interests in Kenya, whichever way Kenyans voted in the last election.

He says: “Washington is known to go to bed with dictators, even to flout international conventions, as long as it serves her interests. So why sacrifice it’s interests in Kenya because of an unproven case at the ICC when US isn’t even signatory to the Rome Statute?”

The choice of Githae, a key Uhuru ally, as ambassador to Washington is also a key pointer that the Jubilee administration equally no longer harbours hard feelings against the US. Initially, indications were that Kenya was ready to play hard ball if that is how the US and other western countries wanted it.

In a speech on Jamhuri Day last year, President Kenyatta was categorical that his administration will deal “on basis of mutual respect and interests.” Traditionally, the Kenyan diplomatic posting reserved for the “President’s man” was the Court of Saint James in London.

That the “insider’s” slot has now shifted to Washington could be US and Kenya’s way of telling London: “Well, just mind your own business as we mind ours,” says Munene.

Tellingly, even as Kenya is warming up to the US as indicated by the high profile diplomatic posting, there appears not to be much enthusiasm in naming a High Commissioner to London where the current holder of the office is in an acting capacity.

And as if to spike London, Kenya has named an ambassador to Ireland, a clear pointer to the pecking order of priorities in Nairobi. Going by precedent and given Jubilee dominance in the National Assembly, it is highly unlikely that President Kenyatta’s nomination of Githae as ambassador to Washington will be shot down by Parliament.

The question now is whether he is the right man for the job given the stakes at hand? Will his appointment turn out to be merely a reward to a political friend but who can’t deliver? Githae, 57, is a lawyer with no training or experience in diplomacy.

However, more often than not, it is political appointees as opposed to career diplomats who have been known to deliver better results the world over. The Director of the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies at the University of Nairobi Prof Maria Nzomo, however, is of the opinion that political experience alone will not adequately equip Githae in his new job.

“Diplomacy isn’t like politics where everything goes. As a diplomat, you’re confronted with wide range of issues that need lots of tact and experience”, she says adding, “he may have to undergo a learning curve as he settles in his new job.”

But Munene differs slightly. “Githae is a well-considered choice. He isn’t a stranger to the corridors of power in Washington having served as Finance Minister in the Kibaki administration. He knows his way around there having dealt with the World Bank and the IMF”.

Politically, says Munene, Githae has an advantage in that he has President Kenyatta’s ear. “Washington knows that it can reliably deal with him as they know he has direct access to the high authorities in Nairobi. As for the technical aspect of his job, there will be enough career diplomats under him to handle that.”

During Tuesday’s vetting by MPs, Githae exuded confidence on his ability to deliver on his new job based on “the extensive contacts” he made when he was Finance minister. He listed his priorities as securing direct US-Kenya flights, welfare of the Kenya’s diaspora in the US and more US direct investments in Kenya.

The former MP for Ndia constituency in Kirinyaga County served as Minister in the defunct docket of Nairobi Metropolitan before he was appointed to the Finance portfolio. Prior to joining politics, he had a long career as company secretary at CFC and Diamond Trust banks.

Former Kenyan Ambassadors to Washington

Peter Rateng’ Oginga Ogego: Appointed by retired President Kibaki, Ogego was a politician-turned-diplomat. Wearing the two hats endeared him to Kenyans in the US who viewed him as the most helpful of all the Kenyan ambassadors that had ever been sent to Washington.

But the political side would cost him the job as he was viewed as a divisive diplomat during Kibaki’s second term in office because of his open disagreement with former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Elkana Odembo : Appointed during the grand coalition government, Odembo, a distant relative of the former Prime Minister succeeded Ogego.

Odembo came to office with the civil society. Before taking up his appointment, he was serving as the Executive Director for Ufadhili Trust, an NGO he had founded to coordinate funding for small organisations.

Jean Kamau: Kamau was appointed in acting capacity when Odembo was recalled at the end of his tour of duty. During Odembo’s tenure, Kamau worked as a Charge d’affairs at the Embassy, a position she had served in during Ogego’s tenure.

Kamau like Odembo, had previously worked in civil society before Kibaki appointed her as an envoy in 2003. She had previously worked as research manager at International Republican Institute in Nairobi.

Incidentally, it is only Kamau who is still in diplomatic service among all the ambassadors appointed to Washington in the last decade. She has been nominated by Uhuru Kenyatta as ambassador to Bangkok, Thailand.


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