US envoys: The bulldozers and doormats


Smith Hempstone

This picture dated March 1992 shows former US ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone during a press conference in Nairobi. As an envoy, he was almost involved in a fisticuff with a Cabinet minister. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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In the final instalment of his two-part series on the US ambassadors who have served in Kenya, writer Kamau Ngotho tells of a hot tempered one who nearly exchanged blows with a Cabinet minister inside State House, another who got a senior official in the Kibaki administration fired and a meek one who police detained for an hour.


It was a tumultuous week for President Daniel arap Moi.

Early in the week, the country’s leading development partners had met in Paris and decided there would be no more funding for Kenya until he allowed multiparty democracy and stopped runaway corruption.

In the same week, he’d been forced to sack two of his most trusted allies, powerful Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott and Permanent Secretary Hezekiah Oyugi — and had them arrested in connection with the murder of Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko.

And now that morning he’d received an urgent request to meet a visiting US diplomat, which he reluctantly agreed to.


At State House, the US deputy assistant secretary of State Bob Houdek, and the ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone told President Moi that they had instructions from Washington to ask when Kenya would adopt the multiparty system and what the Head of State intended to do about theft of public funds.

Before the President could answer, Foreign Affairs Minister Ndolo Ayah interjected to say that demanding specific dates and answers from the President was a show of disrespect to him and Kenya’s sovereignty.

He went on to claim that Kenya had all along been a calm country, but for disruptions brought about by the US ambassador who was “inciting and funding chaos with intention to overthrow the Moi government”.

At that juncture, Ambassador Hempstone leaped from his seat, faced the minister and said: “You’re a liar! Nations shouldn’t relate on basis of untruths!”

As tempers flew, President Moi abruptly called off the meeting.


In the cloister, as he saw off the visitors, minister Ayah stopped to reprimand the US Ambassador for calling him a liar in the President’s presence.

Fuming, the ambassador uttered a four-letter word and charged forward in clenched fists.

Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Bethuel Kiplagat quickly moved in between the two men before things got out of hand.

It wasn’t the only time when Ambassador Hempstone, a US marine during the Korean War and who served as envoy to Kenya from 1989 to 1993, threatened to get physical.

During the Saba Saba riots, he granted asylum to lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria, who had fled to the US Embassy building to escape arrest.

Fearing Kenyan security would grab the dissident lawyer on his way to board a flight to the US, the ambassador personally escorted him to the airport.


When security men demanded Kuria alight from the plane for a second check before departure, Hempstone reluctantly agreed but went hand-in-hand with Kuria and three embassy staff with instructions that any attempt to grab the lawyer be physically resisted. Nobody dared.

On another occasion, Kanu youth wingers were dispatched to scare off the US envoy while on a tour of Homa Bay Town.

He confronted the drunken goons and told them to do their worst. They retreated.

Another of the US envoys in the mould of Hempstone was Michael Ranneberger, who served in Kenya from June 2006 to January 2011.

It was a time of political uncertainty following disintegration of President Mwai Kibaki’s Narc that had taken over power in 2003.


With elections within a year of his posting, Ranneberger decided to throw his lot with incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and advised Washington it was the best bet to secure US interests.

Confidential cables he sent home and later leaked by the whistler-blower, WikiLeaks, told as much.

The cables reveal the ambassador was determined that results of 2007 presidential election come out a certain way and went out of his way to ensure election observer reports didn’t paint a different picture.

He blocked the inclusion of his predecessor, Mark Bellamy, in a US funded election observer team because he perceived him to be biased against President Kibaki.

More intriguing, he was ready to endorse a pre-poll survey that predicted presidential candidate Raila Odinga would lose his Lang’ata parliamentary seat, a situation that under the old constitution would have made him not be declared president even if he had won the popular vote.

Apparently rigging out Raila Odinga in Lang’ata was a “Plan B” by his opponents when it looked he was set to win the presidential ballot.


On noting President Kibaki was somehow aloof and hard to reach (the retired president has never carried a phone even before State House), Ambassador Ranneberger developed close liaison with Mr Stanley Murage, a powerful presidential aide and the chief strategist in his re-election bid.

The latter was abruptly fired as principal assistant to the president (he served at rank of permanent secretary) within few days of the chaotic 2007 presidential election, when hardliners in the Kibaki circle felt he was making “unacceptable” concessions to Ambassador Ranneberger.

An insider told me that on weighing the situation following outbreak of violence, Mr Murage had conceded that power-sharing was the way to go, something hotheads in the Kibaki corner never wanted to hear, but had to finally accept following international pressure even from the US.

On arrival in Kenya, Eleanor Constable (October 1986 to September 1989) went out of her way to ensure everybody knew she wasn’t going to be lesser of an ambassador because of her gender.


She reckons in a memoir: “When I arrived the staff mostly had never worked for a woman. I explained to them that they couldn’t call me ‘Madam’, they had to call me ‘Ambassador’. Then I said the way to approach working for a woman was to treat her just like a man, except when we needed to look for a bathroom. Other than that, there is no difference.”

As for the Kenyan leadership, never before having dealt with a woman US ambassador, she says: “The Kenyans I am sure expected me to be soft, sweet, and nice. So I’d let them believe that when it suited me, or I would get very nasty when it suited me.”

She says she had a good working relationship with President Moi but admits to having played on his psychology to have things her way.

“The President of Kenya and I had a very good relationship, partly because, as a woman, I could get away with things only a woman can. I‘d have private meetings with him and would say something and lean over and pat him on the knee, and say no, you don’t want to do that, now come on. And do things no man can ever get away with …”


But when offended she would charge like a lioness whose cub had been snatched.

It happened one time when some American missionaries were arrested and framed with a plot to overthrow the Kenya government.

When the matter appeared in local media, she tried to get appointments with the Foreign Affairs ministry and State House, all who deliberately made themselves scarce.

When finally she got through on phone to the Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary, she emptied her entire bile on him:

“I don’t give a damn what you guys publish in your stupid newspapers. If you touch any one American citizen, it’s war. I will pull out the stops here. You are nuts. You will regret it!”

Not long after, another woman was posted to Nairobi who was Eleanor’s complete opposite.


Detaining even the ambassador of a banana republic and humiliating him or her for an hour is a no-no in the world of diplomacy. Yet exactly that happened to a US ambassador serving in Kenya!

One Saturday morning during her tenure in Kenya, US Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal (August 1993 to September 1996) left Nairobi for a lunch invitation at the Naivasha home of Dr David Silverstein, a well known physician who was the personal doctor to President Moi.

She was in her official car, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz, with diplomatic plates registration 29CD IK. There was no mistaking who she was.

Just before Naivasha, police stopped her at a roadblock and demanded to know her destination. Innocently, she told them where she was headed.

They didn’t believe her, suspecting she intended to visit a camp where Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the 1992 election violence were settled — which in any case wasn’t a crime if she so wished.


After keeping her waiting for 15 minutes as they consulted their seniors on radio, police ordered her driven to a nearby police station where she was questioned and kept for another 45 minutes before she was set free.

Compare that outrage and the case when her predecessor, Hempstone, was stopped at a roadblock on the same route and a police officer demanded names of the people in his vehicle.

He had rudely replied: “What for? Can’t you see the CD plates? If it’s my name you want, I am Hempstone Nyama choma and everybody in the car is an American diplomat, period!”

I got to know how Ambassador Brazeal was viewed in her host country while attending a journalists’ seminar at Nairobi’s Safari Park Hotel, when we were told the envoy was coming to address us.

Many heads turned to ask: “What’s the name of the US ambassador these days?”

When journalists can’t tell who the US ambassador is, either there is something amiss with the ambassador or with the journalists!

Having got used to taking Ambassador Brazeal for granted and getting away with it, the largely male-chauvinistic Moi administration — in all 24 years he was in power, the President believed a woman could only head the ministry in charge of children, gender and social services — there wasn’t much reason to take her successor, Prudence Bushnell, seriously.


Ambassador Bushnell records her frustrations with the Kenyan ruling elite in her memoirs released two years ago.

Surprisingly, in her own account, neither was she taken too seriously back in Washington.

It is a sad note that despite all her pleadings that extra measures be taken to secure the US embassy building on Haile Selassie Avenue, it fell on deaf ears until terrorists struck to devastating consequences on August 7, 1998.

She concludes her memoir – Terrorism, Betrayal, and Resilience: My Story of the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings – with regrets that US authorities never undertook to get to the bottom of the Nairobi terrorist bombing.

At the time, the main preoccupation in Washington was the Clinton-Lewinsky affair; which may have contributed to the gaps that resulted in the 9/11 tragedy.


Ambassador William Harrop (May 1980 to September 1983) was posted to Kenya in the Cold War period when Third World Big Men leveraged with the US by siding with Washington to frustrate Moscow, and the US returned the favour by turning a blind eye on excesses of the former.

Just before his arrival, President Moi had secretly allowed US to put up military facilities at Mombasa.

At the same time, Kenya was lobbying African countries to boycott Olympic Games scheduled for Moscow.

US multinationals, including General Motors and Union Carbide, were also doing roaring business in the country.

With that, President Moi could get away with the worst as Washington looked the other way.

Ambassador Harrop reckons he was having difficulties raising issues on human rights violations and corruption with Moi, whom he found “not so warm and inflexible”.


He got the worst of it when, after the failed coup by the Kenya Air Force, he pleaded with Moi to treat the rebel soldiers with lenience. He was cut short. “Look, I am the President, I don’t take advice. I give it!”

The new US ambassador, Kyle McCarter, is no stranger to Kenya. Previously, he was involved with NGO work in the country and speaks fluent Kiswahili.

Already, he has outlined the 3As to give priority to during his tour of duty: Anti-terrorism, Anti-corruption, and Alliance for mutual benefit that creates more opportunities for trade and investment, not sink Kenya into a dung-heap of debt that risks the country’s sovereignty.

In going about his duties, he may also want to adapt a 4Fs approach outlined by the first US envoy to Kenya, William Attwood: friendly by lending a helping hand in priority areas of mutual benefit; frank discussions with leadership of host country through admission of errors by either side when they occur; fast by acting in time and on interventions that have visible results and reach larger cross section of population; and last, but very important, firmness when dealing with leaders who are corrupt and disruptive to the stability of host country and a threat to US interests.

Karibu Bwana Balozi!

[email protected]

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