Washington DC is a plum diplomatic posting. ELKANAH ODEMBO ABSALOM, a denizen of the human rights movement, is Kenya's latest ambassador. DEA's JOHN MULAA spoke to him about where he intends to steer Kenya's diplomacy vis a vis the Superpower. Excerpts
DIPLOMAT EAST AFRICA: Kenya-US relations, where are we and where do you intend to take them?
ODEMBO: I have come from Paris. My first observation is how different Washington is from Paris—an equally important station. Washington is a complex and challenging assignment. The USA is a complex and important country. It isthe world's leading superpower, which makes our relationship vitally important.My goal as ambassador is that Kenya be seen, heard, and felt across the United States. Obviously, perceptions about Kenya in the USA are mixed, and there have been tensions between the two countries chiefly revolving around the issue of governance in Kenya. However, I also know that there is a reservoir of goodwill for Kenya in the USA.
I have seen and felt it. The level of goodwill has increased since Kenya held and passed a referendum on the new Constitution. I am very optimistic. My goal is to help advance Kenya's interests—economic, political, environmental, you name it. The specific tools I will deploy are the country's mission here and the Kenyan Diaspora in the US, estimated to be close to 500,000. I intend to mobilise these resources to advance Kenya's agenda using innovative diplomacy. The diplomacy of yesteryear may have been adequate for its place and time, but times have changed. We too must change and so must the role of ambassador.
First and foremost, I intend to highlight the many positive things happening in Kenya (the Constitution, Vision 2030). They need to be known and appreciated.The how of it will involve deploying a sophisticated media and communications strategy. We have more or less put that in place. Already, a US company on a two-year contract is helping us to get our message out. I am mapping out important actors, a complex undertaking in the light of the complexity of the US, which has very many stakeholders compared to, say, Paris. There is Congress, departments, lobby groups, and states. My strategy is to focus on those parts that are likely to yield highest returns for Kenya.
I will also strategically deploy stakeholders in Kenya to come here and make their case, for instance the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority and the Independent Electoral Commission. A road show for both would not be a bad idea.
Q: Eyebrows were raised in some circles about US involvement in the recent constitutional changes in Kenya. Care to comment?
A: The US was and is involved because it has always been concerned about governance issues in Kenya. The Constitution is at the centre of the governance agenda Agenda 4. The US would like to see progress on this agenda and indeed provided support for civic education and provided resources to enable the process to go forward. The US has always supported the creation and expansion of civic space in Kenya. I hear there was all manner of talk, including assertions that the US had taken a position.
Q: How about the President Obama factor in the process?
A: President Obama was very keen. When I presented my credentials to him, one of the first things he said to me was, 'Congratulations on the new Constitution. This is your moment and you have my support. That coming from him is a clear indication that he was keen to see the outcome of the referendum.
To be honest with you, a No win would have set us back many years. President Obama is excited for good reasons. Because he has paternal links with Kenya, he has a soft spot for the country. He is going to hold the bar a bit higher for us. I have heard from people close to him that he really wants to see Kenya become an example of a well-managed and -governed African country. That would give him pride because he has roots in Kenya. If things go haywire in Kenya, it impacts on him as an individual, and also people's perceptions of who he is. If Kenya becomes a success, he can proudly refer to it as he recently did at the United Nations General Assembly. Kenya is the only African country he referred to, and in a very positive manner.
Q: The merits of the new Constitution from your perspective?
A: The new Constitution provides a promise of a new life and beginning. President Obama is hopeful because he is aware of the country's potential and besides he has a stake in it. We should exploit that tremendous goodwill, but ultimately we must get on with it ourselves.
Q: The Hague Issue: How prominently does it feature in your diplomacy here?
A: It comes up very often in the context of people wanting to know whether, as a country, we are serious about fighting impunity. Unfortunately, it reared its head more prominently when Sudan's President Omar Bashir was invited to our promulgation of the Constitution. I have encounters with the media where all they want to talk about is Bashir, who invited him, why he was not arrested. And then they usually tie that to the idea that if we have disregarded ICC's position vis a vis Bashir, how likely are we to cooperate with the international body on the issues emanating from the post-election violence?
My answer always is we must separate those two things. Kenya is a signatory of the Rome Statute, but we are also a member of the African Union. AU has written to the ICC and the UN Security Council pleading for more time for the AU to conduct its own investigation after condemning the things that took place in Darfur. The two bodies never so much as acknowledged the AU entreaties.For the international community to turn around and accuse us of bad motives ignores the facts on the ground.
To begin with, there is the larger context of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and Kenya's role in it. The agreement was signed in Kenya after the loss of more than two million people over 20 years in southern Sudan. No doubt the 300,000 deaths in Darfur are abhorrent, but let us remember that the stakes in terms of potential loss of human life are very high if it unravels.
Q: What assets do you bring to your assignment?
A: I am not a trained diplomat. What I have is nearly 30 years of community development work in Kenya, and as a human rights activist. I also worked with several US entities, including the Oklahoma-based World Neighbours Organisation, at country and regional level, and with the Ford Foundation.
I have great passion for my country. That background provides an intimate knowledge of what Kenyans desire and a good sense of the issues Americans view as important. I spent nearly eight years here as a student. Several assets I bring to the task more than compensate for the shortcomings of my lack of diplomatic background.
Q: What has been the impact of the posting on your family?
A: Becoming a diplomat has had quite some effect on our family. We have two children, a girl and a boy, both teenagers. We uprooted them from school in Nairobi when we headed to Paris about two years ago. After they were just beginning to settle, we came out here. My wife, Aoko, has personally felt the impact too. She was a businessperson in Kenya and an independent woman to boot. But the US is not entirely new to her. She attended graduate school here and has many friends. Whatever the downside, we agreed as a family that being posting here provided us with a grand opportunity to make a difference.
Q: Any messages?
A: To the Diaspora, this is our moment. Whatever your circumstances, get involved back home. It produces a wonderful feeling. The Diaspora has the potential to become the 48th County and the most affluent.
How do we leverage that? By being united and working on all things—small or big—that influence our country. The nonsense of retreating into ethnic cocoons that have zero value is self-defeating and useless. I know some of us out here are struggling, hustling as it were, but even then small efforts can produce huge outcomes.
Q: Give us a pen self-portrait—in a nutshell.
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