Return of an old Kenya hand

Sunday February 24 2013

PHOTO | STEPHEN MUDIARI US Ambassador to Kenya Robert F Godec during the interview at his residence in Nairobi.

PHOTO | STEPHEN MUDIARI US Ambassador to Kenya Robert F Godec during the interview at his residence in Nairobi. NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MURITHI MUTIGA [email protected]

Early in the morning on August 7, 1998, Robert F Godec and his wife drove out of Nairobi heading for what they hoped would be a relaxing day out at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.

Not long after they left the city centre, Mr Godec received a shocking phone call. Bombers had struck the US embassy.

He turned the car around and returned to a scene of utter carnage. The embassy in the bustling heart of the city next to the Railway matatu terminus had been brought to the ground by the force of the blast.

It was a scene of utter devastation as rescuers desperately worked through the rubble to save hundreds of victims who had been caught up in the attack.

For many around the world, the first reaction was one of shock. Few had heard of Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda before the midday attack in Nairobi that claimed 212 lives and injured an estimated 4,000.

For Mr Godec and his wife, Lori Magnusson, the distress was personal.

Mr Godec was Economic Counsellor at the embassy while his wife was in charge of the human resources department.

“It was awful. The most awful day for me personally. I lost so many friends, so many colleagues; people I had hired. It was devastating for Lori because every person on her staff was killed except one woman who survived because she was in a different part of the building and another one who was badly injured,” Mr Godec recalls.

It was a soul-searing experience for all involved. But the incident helped deepen Mr Godec’s relationship with Kenya in a way few other events ever could.

Profound gratitude

“In the days after the attack one was overwhelmed by a sense of shock, horror, sadness and a tremendous desire to help Kenya recover. There was a profound sense of gratitude to the Kenyan people for their response to an awful event. Kenya and the US have had 50 years of friendship. And sometimes terrible things can bring people closer together. I am happy both Kenya and the US recovered and our engagement is greater than it ever was before this incident.”

Mr Godec was nominated by President Obama to take over as ambassador to Kenya last September.

He is what, in diplomatic circles, would be described as an “old Kenya hand” due to his previous stint in the region.

The State Department in Washington will certainly be hoping he brings a steady hand to the Nairobi Embassy, which has become something of a revolving door in recent times. Mr Godec becomes the third ambassador the country has had in the space of three years and the fifth to serve in Nairobi in the 10 years in which President Kibaki has been in charge.

In his first interview with the Sunday Nation on Wednesday, the career diplomat said he was glad to be back.

“As a diplomat, people always ask what your favourite posting was. The standard answer is that there is something you liked about each posting. But for me and my wife I have to say Kenya is immensely special. It is our favourite. Kenyans are a great people, a very warm people. It is great to be back here, to listen to Kenyans and to work with them to address some of the challenges they face.”

The seeds of Mr Godec’s journey to the world of diplomacy were sown at a tender age.

He was born into a military family in Illinois, a state in the Midwest of America, in 1956. His parents constantly moved house due to work, instilling in him a sense of curiosity.

“I came to love getting to know different cultures and learning from different people everywhere we travelled.”

He studied Foreign Affairs for his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and later obtained a Master of Arts in International Relations from Yale University.

Mr Godec briefly worked in Congress as a legislative assistant before joining the State Department in 1985. His first assignment abroad was in Germany but the posting that made the biggest impression was his next one in Cameroon.

“I got to travel and see the country. It was a vibrant society. I got introduced to the makossa music beat. I was fascinated by the people. I also felt I could make a contribution because I was an economic officer and my job involved working with Cameroonians in their efforts at economic development and in advancing their struggle to increase democracy.”

He returned to Washington to work on East Asia issues, with special focus on Thailand and Burma.

He describes a meeting with pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and a later meeting with South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela as the two highlights of his diplomatic career.

“They are both extraordinary characters with profound vision, charisma and wisdom. They are inspirational people who are at the same time very down to earth.”

Mr Godec began his first tour of duty in Nairobi on February 14, 1996. What changes has he noticed since returning?

“It’s very clear to me looking back then and seeing the situation now that the country has made a lot of progress. I give great credit to the people and to the government. There have been many challenges, most prominently the 2007 violence.

“But there has also been a lot of progress. There is the new Constitution which is a very impressive document, one of the most progressive in Africa. There is also the improvement in infrastructure and in communications. My Internet connection is much faster. Free primary education has been a major step forward. The people are doing better. You now have a middle class that is bigger and more affluent.”

Before returning to Nairobi, Mr Godec served as Economic Counsellor in South Africa and as ambassador to Tunisia.

American ambassadors around the world could have been forgiven for drawing a collective gasp of breath when they heard their private communications to Washington had been released on the Internet by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Mr Godec is one of those who came out with credit when his letters to Washington from Tunis were revealed. One cable dated July 17, 2009, in particular, noted with great accuracy, that the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali could not long survive.

He told Washington that President Ben Ali had turned his country into a police state where corruption thrived and political repression was brutal. He wrote that “Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family (for their corrupt ways)” and said “the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing”.

President Ben Ali was the first leader toppled during the uprisings that swept North Africa and the Middle East two years ago.

Mr Godec would not comment on the “alleged cable” but said Kenya was a completely different environment to work in because it is an open society where “people speak out and I listen and they want to hear what I have to say.”

Asked whether his style would be of the rough-edged variety made famous by Smith Hempstone and to a lesser extent Michael Ranneberger or whether he would adopt a more understated approach, he said:

“The first thing I will do is listen. I will engage with the Kenyan people; I will talk to the people, the government, civil society. Along the way I will speak up on things that are important to us and which will help strengthen our 50 years of friendship.”

Uhuru and Ruto

Mr Godec would not be drawn into the possible “consequences” of the election of the Jubilee ticket of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto who have been indicted at the ICC. He said the choice of who would be president was up to the Kenyan people. He said the US had confidence in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and was working with it to help improve its capacity to handle the most complex election in the nation’s history.

Mr Godec, a keen amateur marathoner, sailed through his Senate confirmation hearings in Washington, where the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, Mr Chris Coons, described him as a “smart choice” to lead the biggest US embassy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So does he feel any extra pressure serving in the country where the US president traces his roots?

“President Obama is following Kenya. He is following this election. That’s why he sent the video message of goodwill to Kenyans. There’s interest from across official Washington in Kenya. For me that’s good because I know that they will listen to us and to the needs of Kenyans when we relay them.”