“Michael & Me” – retrospective thoughts on tying up with Amb. Ranneberger and separating “foreign policy” from “personality”

With a new political appointment announced for the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, Raila Odinga’s criticism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on his last U.S. visit of the role of the U.S. and U.K. envoys in supporting Kenyan elections for favoring immediate stability over democracy raises the underlying question of how much of the issue has to do with specific envoys and how much is pre-determined policy handed down from Washington or London.

Thus some overdue consideration of my interactions with Ambassador Michael Ranneberger in 2007-08 in that context:

I have written about the actions of the Ambassador as “the point of the spear” that I dealt with in Nairobi with a desire to be cautious to speak to direct knowledge, along with such documents as I have obtained from FOIA, and other direct sources. Addressing specific interactions with the Ambassador and comparing those with his now-disclosed reporting to Washington raises some questions, but does not provide clear answers, as to how responsibility should fall as to decisions about how the State Department played Kenya’s 2007 election during Ranneberger’s tenure.

Obviously I got along fine with Ranneberger for a period of months before we “crossed up” over specifics of my job with the International Republican Institute (IRI) in the month of the election; where I did not agree with his approach, it not lead me to personally dislike him, nor did I feel I was informed adequately or was otherwise in a position to challenge how he was doing his job as Ambassador. Rather my obligation as I saw it was to stand my ground to be able to do my own job. At some level the problem was simply institutional in that Ranneberger felt that his job encompassed managing my work in managing the IRI Election Observation Mission and I did not (nor did IRI as I was told without exception).

When Ambassador Ranneberger and I contradicted each other about issues from our interactions during the 2007 Kenyan election on the front page of the New York Times in a story published in January 2009, soon after the Obama inauguration, Ranneberger was quoted as reacting by claiming that he was being falsely accused by people who were out to get him.

By the time the Times story ran I had been back at my job in the States as a lawyer for defense contractor Northrop Grumman for a year-and-a-half. It was potentially consequential to be called a liar in the New York Times by the serving American Ambassador to a country in which my company at the time had business for the U.S. as a national security contractor.

Fortunately I was treated very well by my client/employer (as when they held my job open for me to take “public service leave” to support democracy in Kenya in the first place). When my security clearance came up for renewal a year later I seemed to draw some flack from somewhere leading to a follow up along the lines of whether I had in some sense let my loyalties “go native” to which I re-iterated my loyally clean conscience. Since my clearance was renewed I did not lose my job. (Likewise, I assumed that it was understood that I had not been lying in my interviews with The Times.)

It was well after the Times story ran that it was mentioned to me in passing that there were efforts from Kenyans to persuade Washington to replace Ranneberger. I was never involved in such efforts and did not know anything about the topic when I was interviewed by the Times July 2008 or in a follow up after the U.S. election that November. The decision to accept the interview request from the Times was strictly mine and I did not consult with anyone about whether to agree or what to say. As I have written here, I requested a meeting with IRI with no reply that October (2008) and had a discussion with the IRI Press Secretary that November but again IRI never followed up with me.

I can say this: I was surprised that the Obama Administration continued to be represented by Ranneberger for more than half of Obama’s first term after the election debacle. I would have assumed that Obama’s message from the campaign of a changed foreign policy approach along with the personal factors of being identified with Kenya through his father and having visited Kenya I believe three times by then, would have given extra assurance that Obama would want to get a fresh start after the previous mess sooner rather than later. But just for these “macro” reasons, not because of any details of the election saga I filled in for investigating reporters.

At some point subsequently I made an extracurricular call on a staffer to Sen. Feingold to inquire as to what response the Asst. Secretary of State and the Asst. Administrator for USAID had provided to the Senator’s demand for answers as to why the USAID/IRI exit poll was being embargoed at his hearing on February 8, 2008 Subcommittee Hearing on the Kenyan elections. I got nothing in the way of cooperation on my inquiry, but did get out of the blue and to my surprise what may have been a less than ingenuous question that “since it seems like we are going to need a new Ambassador” if I had any recommendations. Perhaps this reflected in some fashion Ranneberger’s conspiratorial notion of my motives? [no way to know, it just seems strange; I had no relationship with that office or stature that would warrant the question, especially in the context of being stonewalled on the small actual request for information that prompted the visit]

Here is how I viewed things at the time of Ranneberger’s departure from the Embassy in September 2011 (from a draft I did not post then):

Ambassador Ranneberger has been giving “exit interviews” and traveling to say his goodbyes to return to Washington.  He has indicated that he loves Kenya in particular of his postings and would like to settle in Kenya (although he says he has not acquired property) and he has introduced the woman that he has described as the “Queen” to his “King”, with hints of a future wedding.

The British Royal wedding was a big hit in Kenya, and now we have the “changing of the guard” at the U.S. embassy as well.  Swapping U.S. ambassadors is an unusually high profile public event in Kenya right now because, aside from the U.S. being “the sole superpower” and Kenya being a tourist destination and Nairobi being a big regional haven for “the international community” and being important in the regional economy, Ranneberger himself plays so large in Kenyan media and politics.  Ironically, he is just a bit like Prime Minister Raila Odinga in this way.

Ranneberger has somewhat reinvented his public persona in Kenya the last couple of years, in that he now openly criticizes and challenges Kenyan politicians and is outspoken against corruption.  Readers of this blog will know that I agree with him on corruption and that corruption is nothing new.

His style of saying a great deal in public and taking a high profile was there before, and is largely a matter of taste.  Some people like it, some people dislike it.  I am in between personally.  My ultimate disagreement with him while I was IRI East Africa Director in Kenya was over content and underlying substance during the election, not over style and I have never borne him any personal ill will.

A key difference between Raila and Ranneberger is that Raila is in reality “the second man” in the Kenyan government and power structure behind the President who is extraordinarily quiet in the way that he conducts business and exercises that power while Raila takes a more public role both in Kenya and internationally.  Ranneberger, on the other hand, is in most cases the only American present with a significant public profile.

The recent position as anti-corruption critic is clearly a departure from Ranneberger’s stance during my time with IRI in Kenya during the 2007 election campaign and the aftermath of the vote.

Nine days before the 2007 election Ranneberger appeared in the Standard newspaper in a big full page “exclusive interview” with his official photo. He announced that he was confident that the election would be “free and fair”.

“Q: What are your views on corruption?

A: Lots of people look at Kenya and say lots of big cases have not been resolved because of Anglo Leasing and Goldenberg. I always point out that we have lots of corruption even in the US. These cases take a lot of time to bring to justice. We had the famous Enron case. It took over four years to resolve in a system that works efficiently, yet only a couple of people were convicted. These things take a long time.

There has been substantial effort to fight corruption in Kenya and the award the country won for Civil Service reform [from the World Bank] is a pointer to that effect. The fact that the Civil Service is more professional than ever before is progress as are the new procurement laws recently put in place and the freedom of the Press to investigate and expose corruption. More, of course, needs to be done.

The economy has grown by 7 per cent. How much of that has actually trickled down to the people will again be determined by time.

A career diplomat, Ranneberger has been in Kenya for close to one-and-a-half years, and has served in Europe, Latin America and Africa.”

During previous days The Standard had been running new revelations about corruption in the Kibaki administration from documents from exiled former Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission chairman John Githongo.  Githongo’s personal adventure trying to address corruption in the Kibaki administration is the subject of Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat.

It may be that Kenyans benefited from a re-born zeal for the post-debacle “Reform Agenda” from Ranneberger, given a second chance of sorts under a new U.S. administration. Likewise, Ranneberger’s aggressive behind the scenes style may have been valuable in helping “deliver” finally a reformed Kenyan constitution through the 2010 referendum. At the same time, the bleed over of millions of dollars from officially neutral process support for the referendum into the “Yes” campaign suggests that the “new” Ranneberger was not quite so different–just as the new administration was not quite as different as many expected either.

Kenya 2007 election- Ambassador Ranneberger and Connie Newman at polling station Nairobi

Ken

American lawyer who took leave from career and moved family to Nairobi for a year to "help" with democratic development. After stolen '07 election in Kenya and violent aftermath have tried to bring out truth of events for those who care in hope we can improve.

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