Why Obama ally quit as Kenya ambassador

Friday June 29 2012

United States ambassador to Kenya Scott Gration has resigned citing differences with Washington over his leadership style June 28, 2012. FILE

US ambassador Scott Gration’s quiet diplomacy has cost him his job after bosses in Washington decided that the Nairobi station had suddenly become too quiet.

Mr Gration, a retired Air Force major-general, had stayed in Nairobi for only a year when his tour of duty was cut short.

The Nairobi embassy was recently evaluated by a team from Washington under a programme carried out every five years.

The assessment in May by officials from the Office of the Inspector-General measured the embassy on the three “Ds” — Democracy, Defence and Development.

Staff interviewed for this story believe the mission, one of the largest in Africa, scored poorly on democracy and defence.

He will leave his diplomatic posting at the end of next month.


Mr Gration came to Nairobi promising a different style of diplomacy from that of his predecessors.

He replaced Mr Michael Ranneberger, whose five-year tenure was characterised by major clashes with the Kibaki administration.

Even in diplomatic circles, Mr Ranneberger had a reputation for stealing the limelight during joint news conferences.

This style proved embarrassing for the ambassador when diplomatic cables were leaked through WikiLeaks and it emerged the station had dispatched unsavoury comments about top Kenyan politicians, including some thought to be close to the embassy.

The ambassador’s boss in Washington, Mr Johnny Carson, is a former ambassador in Nairobi.

Mr Gration, who grew up partly in Kenya, promised to adopt a more behind-the-scenes approach to his work, coming out in the open only when this failed.

True to his pledge, Mr Gration did not adopt the activist style of some of his predecessors. His style also contrasted with that of NGOs and lobbyists who wanted a more activist role for Washington’s representative in Nairobi.

Despite this, the ambassador still found himself in trouble with authorities when the government complained about Washington’s travel advisories on Kenya.

Just last week, the embassy issued a warning to American citizens to leave Mombasa because of a pending terrorist attack.

The government complained that the advisory was unnecessary and would hurt tourism.

The acting head of the Civil Service, Mr Francis Kimemiah, said Kenya’s security agencies had alerted the Americans over the threats, with agreement that no travel advisories would be issued.

“They (US embassy in Nairobi and State Department in Washington) work together. We cannot issue anything without the State Department approving the statement and the wording,” said the embassy spokesperson Katya Thomas.

Mr Gration said he submitted his resignation letters on Monday to his masters in Washington, who were not satisfied with his way of leading America’s interests in the country.

The letters were submitted to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Even though Mr Gration had deep roots in Kenya, he said he was not ready to play along the lines of leadership and priority setting that were being expected by the Obama administration.

“However, differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it’s now time to leave. 

“Accordingly, I submitted my notice of resignation last Monday to the Secretary of State and to the President of the United States of America, to be effective as of 28 July 2012,” he said in a statement released by the US embassy in Nairobi.

Mr Gration started his tour of duty in May 2011, three months after President Obama had nominated him to the position that was left vacant by Mr Ranneberger. He was confirmed by the US Senate on April 14 and five days later took oath of office.

He served as a national security adviser to the Obama presidential campaign and was named a special envoy to Sudan in March 2009. He served until April 2011 when he hopped across the border to Nairobi.

His nomination, however, was opposed by some Darfur-focused activist groups in the US such as Stop Genocide Now, who accused Mr Gration of being ineffective as special envoy to Sudan.

They claimed he repeatedly made serious judgmental errors, failed to boldly articulate a range of issues and alienated politicians, rebel leaders and humanitarian aid providers in Darfur.

They warned that Kenya being a platform for the US’ fight against terrorism in the region, the weaknesses he had displayed in Darfur showed he would not ably lead America’s embassy in Nairobi.

Mr Gration won over the Senate given that he is a fluent Kiswahili speaker raised partly in Kenya by US missionary parents, and was seen as being well-acquainted with a country where he also trained Kenyan Air Force pilots and worked on development projects in the 1990s.

During vetting in the US Senate, he introduced his wife, Judy, who, he said, “was born in Nairobi and spent her childhood in Kenya, where both of her parents are buried”.

Speaking of his time in Nairobi, Mr Gration described it as “his a dream job for my wife and me. 

This assignment has been the perfect opportunity to use my deep-rooted knowledge of Kenya — its people, its language, and its culture — and my diplomatic, development, security, and humanitarian experience”.

He bade farewell to Kenyans, wishing them success in the implementation of the Constitution, a peaceful election next year and establishment of a devolved system of government.

“Judy and I have been extremely honoured to lead Team Kenya, and we wish all of you the very best as Kenya implements its constitutional reforms, holds elections next year, and proceeds with the devolution of political and economic power,” he said.

Style of leadership

Mr Gration was perhaps undone by the style of leadership of his predecessors, among them Mr Ranneberger, Mr Michael Bellamy, Mr Carson, Ms Prudence Bushnell, Ms Aurelia Brazeal and Mr Smith Hempstone.

On Friday, Justice minister Eugene Wamalwa, who he worked closely in raising youth empowerment to the chagrin of the government, said: “We worked with Ranneberger more on youth empowerment than the current ambassador but we were going to enjoy working with him.

“Of course, Ranneberger was more outgoing, outspoken and daring without keeping grudges. Mr Gration was more reserved in his approach.”

However, he said the outgoing US envoy was supportive of constitutional reforms and urged President Obama to swiftly appoint a new ambassador as the country heads to elections.

“We enjoyed very very cordial relations with the ambassador on reforms. He was very supportive,” he said.