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Macharia Kamau: The diplomat with fast fingers and quirky views

Sunday May 12 2019

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau reacts during an interview in his office in Nairobi on April 16, 2019. Last week, Somali government wrote to Kenya to protest what it called detention and deportation of officials in a delegation to Nairobi for lack of visas. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

AGGREY MUTAMBO
By AGGREY MUTAMBO
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Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau, the son of a PCEA cleric, cuts the image of a distinguished diplomat.

With more than three decades in foreign service and the UN system, few of his contemporaries are still serving in the Kenyan government.

When Parliament vetted him for the PS job, he said he was “drawing the line in the sand” to stop any further violations of Kenya’s territorial integrity or torture of its citizens abroad.

Outside of Kenya, he is associated with environmental advocacy, having served as Special Envoy of the President of the General Assembly on Climate Change and UN Secretary General on El Niño and Climate.

While serving as Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, he was awarded the Elizabeth Haub Award, Gold Medal, for Environmental Diplomacy.

But he is also a controversial diplomat. This week, through his unverified Twitter account, he attacked a panellist appearing on KTN News and called her, among other things, a “nincompoop”.

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SGR ISSUE

Ms Jerotich Seii, the activist and fierce critic of Kenya Power’s services, was appearing in a KTN News show hosted by Ben Kitili where the subject was Chinese loans to Kenya.

The show on Tuesday came in the wake of Chinese and Kenyan governmental denial that the standard gauge railway (SGR) extension was part of the agenda when President Uhuru Kenyatta met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last month.

The key question Ms Seii asked was why the government has refused to publicly diverge details of the SGR loan.

“What about this issue of one million Chinese who are supposed to make their way quietly into Kenya regularly … then dispatched to different locations … where are these Chinese? She posed on the show, referring to an alleged plan to ship in Chinese to work in Kenya in exchange for the Asian nation loans, which the government has previously denied.

“Our bureaucrats are too short-sighted, too corrupt and too foolish to understand that this is a long game,” she said.

DEVELOPMENT

The allegation appeared to incense Mr Kamau. He went ahead to incorrectly say the old railway line, the Lunatic Express, was constructed by the British under a loan arrangement (It was actually part of the British strategy to conquer the hinterlands and acquire the highlands).

“It’s a wonder we are still not slaves!!Where do they find these nincompoops? Where would Kenya be without the loans and rail?” he wrote.

When members of the public called him out for violating free speech, he said it was sacrosanct.

“That was never my contention. Mine is the manner of the uptake by some. The reason I like this medium is precisely because it avails feedback (sic). Some welcome, some not so. But all good. And for your information, the views here are personal.”

So why does the distinguished envoy rant in an office where diplomatic tone is almost daily dose?

In an interview with the Nation, he argued that he speaks his mind and tries to balance between office needs and his personal convictions.

“You have seen my tweets. Sometimes don’t say things that are flattering to the government of the day. Because even though I am a principal secretary, I am also a private citizen,” he told the Nation in April.

“And I have to manage this relationship. I am proud that I live in a country where I am free to do this even though I am a government official.”

FREE SPEECH

He takes his liberty as a private citizen to exercise certain rights, “knowing very well that they might be perceived by some people, including journalists, as non-governmental. This is an amazingly progressive government.”

This freedom has seen him criticise Nairobi City County’s traffic jams and the National Environmental Management Authority’s lethargy in addressing noise pollution near his holiday apartments at the Coast during Christmas.

On the global scale, when serving as envoy to the UN, he infamously wrote to the UN Security Council asking it to stop ICC’s “offshore” trial of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto as it was hindering them from serving Kenyans.

Later, the contents of the 13-page letter were thrust into mystery after then-Attorney-General Githu Muigai claimed Kenya would continue to cooperate with the International Criminal Court. The cases were later dropped.

MEDIA

But Mr Kamau also dislikes the way journalists report on government. “I think there is an abdication of patriotism on the part of Kenyan journalists. Their interpretation of patriotism, sadly, appears as bashing the government of the day,” he said.

His first fit of anger, outside of Twitter, came when he criticised Somalia for auctioning oil blocks (which it denied), and summoned Kenya’s Ambassador to Somalia back Nairobi.

“Am I angry? Are you happy to learn that you are about to lose a third, if not half, of your maritime area? Does that make you feel good as a Kenyan?”

To the diplomat, making sense in international relations today also means you have go to the edge of ideas. “You can’t’ just sit there saying nice conservative things and hope that you are going to provide leadership on the world stage,” he said.