Foreign diplomats chose the path of least resistance

American Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec leads other diplomats during a press conference at Radisson Blue in Nairobi on October 23,2017. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Expectation that the diplomatic community will take an interest in Kenya’s domestic affairs is historical.

  • Smith Hempstone, US ambassador from 1989 to 1993, became the most outspoken diplomat of the time.

Last week, the opposition coalition, Nasa, termed as interference with the internal affairs of Kenya a statement by 11 Western missions represented in Nairobi, which had called on the opposition to accept the judgment of the Supreme Court upholding the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as President of Kenya.

This is not the first time that diplomats have spoken on internal affairs of the country.

In the course of the country’s long elections season last year, there were important developments to which the diplomatic community felt a need to react publicly, like when Chris Msando was killed in July, or when the Supreme Court annulled the first presidential election in September.

Expectation that the diplomatic community will take an interest in Kenya’s domestic affairs is historical. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Kenya faced governance challenges similar to those experiences more recently, the diplomatic community played a very public role in the search for solutions. Smith Hempstone, US ambassador from 1989 to 1993, became the most outspoken diplomat of the time.


Later, William Bellamy (2003-2006) was also outspoken. It was not just the United States that played a public role in Kenya’s domestic issues. Scandinavian diplomacy, distinctly different from the style employed by the US and the United Kingdom, was also very prominent in the country.

At the time, Western diplomats usually spoke individually, rather than collectively as they now do, and some of them established a strong connection with the larger public, rather than with just the country’s top leadership.

Speaking individually tended to have an equalising effect among the diplomats, away from the current practice where European diplomats are happy to take cover under the European Union ambassador, and the US ambassador feels a need  to carry the voice of the entire diplomatic corps.

However, taking individual positions also came with individual risks, like when Kenya broke relations with Norway in 1990, a consequence of that country’s lone position in criticising Kenya’s leadership at the time. Through the Moi years, different US ambassadors found themselves at odds with the Kenya government. 

Subsequent political difficulties have made the period after the 2002 elections seem like a season of bliss for Kenya, even though it was during this time that then British High Commissioner Edward Clay emerged as a fierce critic, accusing leaders in the new government of “gluttony” and “vomiting on our shoes”.


A level of polarisation followed the 2007/8 violence, and has had a profound effect on what is regarded as acceptable political posture. In the face of the polarisation, and with common ground becoming ever more elusive, moral equivalence became evident in public debates, with the effect that diplomats are increasingly struggling to find positions which will not expose them to accusations of siding with one or other of the political sides. In an attempt to demonstrate “balance”, taking positions on the basis of conviction has become rare, and there has been a decline in amount of risk that individual diplomats are prepared to take.

Speaking collectively is now a way of avoiding risk. However, taking collective positions projects weakness, not strength, and signifies a perfunctory engagement with the issues at hand. Speaking collectively must also mean that the position taken is the product of compromise, maybe the preference of the least courageous among them.

Even with the precaution to speak in groups, diplomats have not avoided accusations of bias, with a number of missions facing accusations that they prefer one or other of the dominant political formations in the country. The United States and the United Kingdom are good examples.


Up until the two presidential elections last year, the diplomats could find common ground on the country’s polarised situation. However, the intractable political situation now unfolding has come with a further erosion of common ground and, with it, the lack of a safe place where the diplomatic community can pitch. At the same time, the situation is now more demanding of their voices than was the case before.

Last week’s statement by the diplomatic community was profound and will go a long way in shaping the country’s immediate future. The statement was a final position on the rival acts of brinksmanship which the protagonists in the country’s crisis have employed, in order to consolidate their entrenched positions. The envoys rejected Nasa’s mock swearing-in of Raila Odinga as the “people’s president”, but chose to see Jubilee’s excesses as isolated illegalities, rather than the onset of authoritarian nationalism in Kenya, of which there is abundant and ever-growing evidence.

Faced with this stark situation, the diplomatic community has cast its lot with Jubilee, whose brinkmanship will only increase, pronouncing that any dialogue can only be held on a basis that recognises Uhuru Kenyatta as the validly elected President of Kenya, even though dialogue on such terms would leave the opposition with no guarantees that any agreement reached could ever be honoured.


An important countervailing force against one-party excesses was the role of foreign governments, which promoted human rights even in the worst of times.

Last week’s position takes Kenya to a place where, in addition to the power it derives from controlling the state machinery, the group in power also enjoys the support of influential foreign governments which are prepared to minimise concerns over what could end up as the next Mugabe-like regime on the African continent.

While it was open for the foreign envoys to confront Jubilee, and insist that they organise a national dialogue, the diplomats have chosen appeasement, the path of least resistance. In addition to its control of the state machinery and the fortuitous backing from the diplomatic community, Kenyatta enjoys the support of a sector that always opposed Moi: The business sector. Dialogue on the terms proposed by the diplomats would be impossible to organise.

In the absence of dialogue, there will be no place for a formal opposition in Kenyan politics, since political power will be privatised in Jubilee.


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