Outgoing American Ambassador Bob Godec is urging President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga to speed up the process towards launch of a national dialogue.
As anxiety grows over lack of progress since the famous March 9 televised handshake between the two principal political foes, Mr Godec, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Nation, expressed hope that the peace gesture will lead to an all-inclusive dialogue to address some of Kenya’s most intractable problems.
Mr Godec describes the handshake as a pivotal moment that helped cool down political temperatures, but is conscious that lack of information on the way forward does not bode well.
The ambassador, who is set to leave Kenya after a record six-year stint (the typical tenure is three years) played a pivotal role in brokering a truce following a period of political tensions in the wake of the disputed presidential election last year.
Ahead of the surprise Harambee House meeting, Mr Godec had been at the heart of rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Mr Kenyatta’s State House and Mr Odinga’s Capital Hill office involving a large number of intermediaries, including other western envoys, and religious, business and community leaders.
He does not want to claim credit for the breakthrough and remains coy on inner details of the interventions that finally broke the ice, but the discussion makes it clear that the United States was a key player, and committed itself to offering financial and technical support.
Since the handshake and appointment of a joint secretariat headed by diplomat Martin Kimani and lawyer Paul Mwangi, there has been no announcement on progress and the way forward.
In an intervirew with the Nation a fortnight ago, Mr Odinga was not willing to reveal much, only saying an announcement would be made in due course.
Mr Godec now adds that a lot of work has been taking place behind the scenes, and hopes that the discussion will lead to unveiling of a framework for national dialogue. He hopes an announcement can be made soon to calm any anxieties and also make public the finer details to what he hopes will be an a open, transparent, all-inclusive dialogue to address not just a political settlement, but the deep-seated underlying issues that invariably lead to conflict.
He is keen that the issues, including ethnic divisions, inclusivity, the political and electoral system, protection of judiciary and fundamental freedoms be addressed before the countdown to the 2022 General Election.
Having been so closely involved, Mr Godec no doubt would like to see some progress before he makes way for his successor Kyle McCarter. He is marking time unsure of when he will exactly depart, awaiting the arrival of Mr McCarter who still has to go through the formalities of vetting by Congress.
The long-serving envoy, however, continues to be fully engaged in nudging Kenyan politicians to reach a settlement that will ensure the country is never again at risk of violent meltdown over competition for political office.
Mr Godec believes that once President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga put aside the issue of whether the former was legitimately elected, they opened the door for Kenyans to look at the broader picture beyond political competition. Both leaders were genuine, he believes, in putting aside their differences and reaching broad concurrence on the critical issues that ail Kenya.
As he prepares to depart, Mr Godec radiates hope and optimism that Kenyans will negotiate a way out of political impasse and the ever-present threat of ethnic violence with every electoral cycle.
He reels of a long list of accomlishments he is proud of during his tenure, but also expresses disappointment and regret on some critical issues. One is the state of security, with the terrorist threat still looming in the background. One thing that seems to pain him is accusations that he was partial towards Jubilee during the electioneering period, and in the aftermath after Nasa boycotted the repeat presidential election and launched the #Resist campaign, which included the mock sweating-in of Mr Odinga and the ‘Peoples President’.
He insists that the US was absolutely neutral, with interventions guided mostly on the principle that once the Supreme Court upheld President Kenyatta’s victory in the repeat presidential election, that formed the reality from which everything else had to be built around.
That was why, he explains, he, along with other western envoys, opposed Mr Odinga’s mock swearing-in, which they saw as illegal and potentially dangerous. He denies that they were simply echoing the President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party line, but simply acknowledging the reality and existing law.
That was also what they put to Nasa co-principals Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetang’ula and Musalia Mudavadi, who dramatically left Mr Odinga in the lurch at the last minute. Mr Godec deftly avoided a query on whether they were threatened with visa bans and other sanctions.
The stance also caused a rift with the activist civil society groups who traditionally enjoy US funding and patronage. While Mr Godec emphasises that he never deviated from established policy of support for civil society, he concedes that there had to be differences when it came to the issue of whether or not to recognise President Kenyatta’s legitimacy.
Mr Godec is emphatic that recognising President Kenyatta’s election in no way reflects political bias or a repudiation of long-established US support for civil rights campaigns.
That was why the US played a leading role in pushing political players to the negotiating table. At a time the Jubilee regime seems to be, despite the handshake, adopting an authoritarian and intolerant streak, Mr Godec expresses strong support for a Judiciary increasingly under siege from ruling party operatives.
He expresses distaste at political attacks on the Judiciary and regular disobedience of court orders, abhors the shut-down of TV stations after broadcasting Mr Odinga’s swearing-in, harassment and arrest of opposition politicians, and voices unwavering support for freedom of media and freedom of expression that are seemingly under threat.
Mr Godec also addresses ‘external’ issues of keen interest to Kenyans, including the advent of President Donald Trump, the spectre of US-Chinese competition on Kenyan soil, and the Somalia situation and terrorist threats.
On the infamous ‘shithole’ reference to African counties, Mr Godec absolves President Trump on the basis that he denied making the comment, and had since written to African presidents re-affirming support for the continent.
The ambassador also makes light of any threats posed to Africa by Presidents Trump’s recorded protectionist tendencies and antipathy towards trade pacts. He points out that Congress in 2015 renewed the African Growth and Opportunity Act allowing favourable tariffs for African exports to the US, and he sees no sign of a rethink. The catch, however, is that Mr Trump has not shied away from trashing international trade pacts and other bilateral or multi-lateral agreements signed by his predecessors.