Book narrates the history of Kenya’s diplomatic service

Saturday November 24 2018

Cover of the book

Cover of the book "Kenya's 50 Years of Diplomatic Engagement" by Kipyego Cheluget. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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On Thursday, November 29, at 6pm, former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka will be at the University of Nairobi to launch a book titled Kenya’s 50 Years of Diplomatic Engagement: From Kenyatta to Kenyatta.

The book was compiled by Amb. Dr Kipyego Cheluget, the assistant secretary general at COMESA. It is a collection of essays from former ambassadors who remember the recruitment of diplomatic cadets in 1961, the birth of our Foreign Service at independence and key moments in the evolution of our foreign policy.

Too often, when governments are involved in narrating the past, their pen-men polish that past. They sieve out unsavoury bits and embarrassing moments. Outliers are seen as inconvenient people who have soiled the state’s goals and muddied the waters of official history. Invariably, their names are buried in a shallow grave marked ‘Untold Histories and Uncertain Legacies.’ Not entirely so with Cheluget’s volume.

The Foreword and the Introduction are the usual out-of-date poetry of officialdom from government representatives. Thereafter, Cheluget and a few of his contributors break with stately traditions in fairly refreshing ways. There are whispers of forgotten narratives of dissent, some refreshing confessions about missteps in the infancy years of the ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and one or two self-incriminating revelations.


Take for instance the delightful chapter by Leonard Kibinge who served in Washington, and later as Permanent Secretary MFA. Kibinge shuns the lazy generational politics of pretending that things were always done properly in the old days. He writes with the sort of critical eye, self-deprecating humour and brutal honesty that advancing age should visit on us all.

His account of forgetting Kenya’s Independence Instruments is hilarious. Kibinge received the sacred documents from John Strong, a British High Commission Second Secretary, hurriedly wrote a one-liner acknowledging receipt, stored them in the Secret Registry and promptly forgot about them. Three years later, in 1966, the National Assembly Clerk, Leonard Ngugi, walked to Kibinge’s Harambee House office in search of the historic records of our freedom and retrieved them for storage in the right place — Parliament.

Dennis Afande is candid about the image of Kenya in the US in the 1980s. How can one be an effective representative of a repressive regime? Countering stubborn perceptions and scandalous leaks was a difficult job. Afande refuses to address rumours about what happened in America, weeks before the heinous murder of MFA Minister Robert Ouko in February 1990. But Afande is firm that he had advised against the visit by the Kenyan delegation.

There is another piece of sketchy diplomatic history in the story of Theophilus Koske, “The Forgotten Ambassador.” The abridged version of Koske’s story is this: a 1950s Makerere graduate, at Independence, his friend Tom Mboya introduced him to Jomo Kenyatta. He was posted to Cairo. Soon thereafter, he was transferred to Peking, now known as Beijing. Why?

“The posting to Beijing did not last long because he was soon recalled and banished to his Kericho home for the rest of his life. According to his son, it seems his father had been instructed not to leave Kericho, without the knowledge of the police, and he did not travel much from that time in 1968 to the end of his life in 2005.”

It is commendable that Cheluget interviewed families of deceased diplomats and dug into their home libraries. It is disappointing that, in the wake of a new Constitution with clear provisions on the right to information, Cheluget concludes Koske’s story in diplomatic-speak. “His files at the Ministry Headquarters, Cairo and Beijing are not likely to be traced!” Are they or are they not there? Did Cheluget even try to source them? What is the name of the stone wall that he encountered?

Kenya has played an unforgettable part in the search for peace in the Horn, Eastern and Central Africa. This did not happen by accident; it was a resolute policy of good neighbourliness.


Bethuel Kiplagat’s chapter has the quality of a thriller novel. Suspense, surprise, even excitement, colour Kiplagat’s narration of his encounters with shadowy contacts in Nairobi and canoeing on River Shire in the night as he journeyed to negotiate peace in Mozambique.

This book has been nine years in the making. It grew from the Kenya Early Diplomacy Symposium held in September 2009. Cheluget was inspired by the valuable presentations from old ambassadors at that forum. He found priceless photos to augment the history. He wrote five out of the 19 chapters. Then he decided to place our foreign policy in the context of global politics through the contributions of several academics. If only Cheluget had resisted the incessant voices in our media — Prof Macharia Munene and Dr Peter Kagwanja — and had, instead, matched the wisdom of diplomacy doyens with that of veteran academics like Prof Michael Chege, Prof Maria Nzomo and Prof Rok Ajulu.

The near-absence of women as contributors is in no way mitigated by the Appendix on “Appointment, Placement and Mobility of Senior Women Diplomats since 1970s” and the random sample of “Number of women in presidential trips abroad.

Since the Cabinet Secretary Education is the host at this launch, and since we are in the grip of examination season, I will not resist the urge to grade this publishing effort. It scores A+ for Conception, B+ for Execution and B- for Presentation.

A good publisher cleans up a worthwhile manuscript with careful copy-editing. Here, malignant slips such as ‘send’ instead of ‘sent’ and ‘prove’ instead of ‘proof’ corrupt the reader’s grammar. The digital copy for Kindle — on sale via Amazon — carries the draft cover with its misleading lay-out of presidential portraits and poor colour choice. The list of contributors’ bios would be easier to navigate if it was in alphabetical order. This e-book was not formatted yet it was launched on October 26 at Northern Arizona University, where Cheluget received the 2018 President’s Alumni Award in recognition of his “achievements, service and embodiment of NAU’s tradition of excellence.”

Like the growth of our diplomacy and foreign policy over the years, publications are a journey of revisions. The publisher should quickly raise the bar of excellence on the e-Book. With time, release of a tidied-up revised paperback edition of this important addition to our corpus of memory work will consolidate the production of knowledge by Kenyans.


Dr Nyairo is a Cultural Analyst.   [email protected]