When US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman stood on the podium to speak at the devolution conference on August 16,2023, she did not expect to be called “rogue”, owing to the fact that she had delivered a strong pitch for Kenya as Africa’s best investment destination.
But that pitch as well as her remarks terming last year’s General Election as the freest, fairest and most credible in Kenya’s history irked the opposition who have for the past one year, expressed their continuous dissatisfaction with the outcome of the polls.
But Ms Whitman is not the first US envoy to ruffle feathers with the political class.
The very first ambassador to Kenya William Attwood ended relations with the late President Jomo Kenyatta on the wrong footing after he published a book that did not paint the Kenyatta regime in good light.
The book The Red and the Blacks: A personal Adventure which was published after the completion of his tenure infuriated the Kenyatta administration so much that it was banned in the country and he was forbidden from ever setting foot in Kenya.
In the book, the former ambassador alleged there was a plot by the then Vice President Oginga Odinga to overthrow Kenyatta’s administration.
He wrote “Odinga and his backers were in a position to stage a coup. They had the weapons and enough people in key places, such as the radio station, to conceivably seize power in Nairobi in the event Kenyatta was assassinated.”
Mr Attwood is not the only ambassador to get in trouble for publishing a tell-all book.
Smith Hempstone, a journalist who became United States ambassador to Kenya in 1989 endured verbal abuse from the then Foreign Affairs minister Ndolo Ayah who referred to him as “a racist who had contempt for Africans and the attitude of a slave owner.”
In his publication, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir, he details how there were attempts to end his life and how he had always carried a gun and avoided eating at diplomatic receptions for fears of being poisoned.
Mr Hempstone’s tribulations with the Moi regime had begun due his relentless push for democracy at the time when the government was still a one-party state. He received numerous threats but was not one to be cowed and at one point he even threatened to have aid from the US cut unless democracy was adopted.
He was even quoted saying “We don’t just export Coca-Cola and blue jeans. We export democracy.”
He openly castigated economic corruption and invited government opponents to embassy parties.
When it was time for him to leave in 1993, his dream of multiparty elections had been realised in 1992 but President Moi in a televised farewell party told him “I had nothing personal against you until you sided with the opposition.”
Just like Mr Hempstone, the 13th US envoy to Kenya Michael Ranneberger was not liked by the government.
When he was posted to Kenya in 2006 just a year before the 2007 General Election, it was a time of political uncertainty in the country as Mwai Kibaki’s party Narc had split up as campaigns heated up.
Mr Ranneberger is remembered for the leaks released by the whistleblower Wikileaks in which it is revealed the ambassador would send cables to Washington saying he believed Kenya was a hotbed of corruption.
He accused government officials, especially cabinet ministers of engaging in and benefitting from corruption.
The leaks were met with sharp criticism from the government with the then Defence minister Yusuf Haji dismissing the accusations as “market gossip.”
The then Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta at the time said the Americans were feeling threatened by China’s rising influence while Interior Cabinet minister George Saitoti disregarded the leaks as propaganda.
In his relentless effort to expose corruption in government, he prepared and handed over a dossier containing names of MPs who were suspected to be in the narcotics business to Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission.
Some MPs at one time even called for the ambassador to be recalled by former President Obama after he opposed the re-opening of Charterhouse Bank despite Parliament’s approval.
Mr Ranneberger’s predecessor, William Bellamy, was also very critical of the rampant corruption by government officials and took a step to suspend all aid from the US meant to fight graft.
In February 2005, he announced the US would withhold $2.5 million set aside to be used by anti-corruption agencies in Kenya.
He was also quoted in the leaks published by WikiLeaks having sent a cable to Washington in June 2005 in which he described Kenyan politicians as “corrupt” and police “worse than useless.” He further noted that crime rings enjoyed police and political protection.
While Elinor Constable, the first female US Ambassador between 1986-1989 had a good relationship with the government, she made sure she would not be looked down on because of her gender.
In an interview, she recalls how the Kenyan government, having never worked with a female US Ambassador, expected her to be “soft, sweet and nice.”
But when some American missionaries were arrested and accused of planning to overthrow the government, she tried to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and State House all in vain.
When the matter had already reached the press, she was finally able to reach the Permanent Secretary at the ministry who received her wrath.
“I don’t give a damn what you guys publish in your stupid newspapers. If you touch any American citizen, it’s war. I will pull out all the stops here. You are nuts. You will regret it!”
Ms Whitman who is only one year into the role has not had the best relations with the opposition since she took up the role.
In April, during the American Chamber of Commerce Business Summit held in Nairobi, she said last year’s polls had been rated the “most transparent and democratic.”
Those remarks did not sit well with Azimio leader Raila Odinga who accused the diplomat of turning a blind eye to the violation of fundamental human rights.
“The American Ambassador addressed American businessmen saying that Kenya had the most transparent and democratic elections in the history of Kenya. I told her that she did not know which country she was talking about.” he said in April.
Despite the backlash, the government has come out to fiercely defend the ambassador with President William Ruto saying what Ms Whitman presented about Kenya was purely facts.
“The US ambassador said that Kenya had a free and fair election and that is a matter of fact. Let us learn to respect ourselves before we demand to be respected. I was asking myself between the people organising demonstrations and destroying property and the ambassador who said the statement, who is rogue? I leave it up to the Kenyans to decide.”