In my last post, I explored the fact that Amb. Kyle McCarter is the United States’ first Ambassador to Kenya to come from a background in elective politics. Because he had just done what seemed to be a well-received television interview I added in introductory material to the original draft to reflect that.
In the aftermath of following the interview with an invitation for questions on Twitter, the Ambassador got drawn into the Kenyan controversy about the Chinese-Kenyan Amu Power coal plant proposed for the Lamu area on the Coast. My sense is that he seemed to respond to a Kenyan political and legal controversy as a politician would in asserting his own opinion and judgment based on his own experience and positions–an easy thing to do on Twitter–in a quite different way than a diplomat would normally react.
In the context of following this discussion, I did a bit of quick updating on the internet of the status of the coal mining industry in Sen. McCarter’s former State Senate district in Illinois. By coincidence I spent some time visiting in the area as a young lawyer back in the 1990s and knew that at that time there was a perception of economic strain associated with a decline in local mining employment. I after going through some history of mining, I found a recent article in a local newspaper about a young mayor of a town in the area responding to the economic circumstances by promoting solar energy in his immediate community. I shared the article with the Ambassador and a Kenyan leader on the citizen fight against corruption in the power generation and resale businesses in Kenya (as opposed to an anti-coal activist or someone otherwise involved in the Lamu case).
The Ambassador responded tartly that coal provided 95% of the power in his region in Illinois, he knew the mines and plants, and that coal was the cleanest and cheapest approach to needed power in the context of the highest environmental standards in the world. Further, he was not inclined to be persuaded by “well paid activists” and that “facts are stubborn things.”
This furthered an impression–hopefully not intended–that the Ambassador was weighing in on the Kenyan legal and policy controversy about the Chinese-Kenyan Amu Power deal.
The next day, the Kenyan court finally issued its ruling that the Amu permit for the Lamu plant had been improperly granted without a meaningful, legally adequate environmental review. From the outside, as a casual observer with a background in Kenyan policy making and the history of these large projects, along with awareness of the established record of corruption in the Kenyan power sector, this looked to me like a straightforward victory for the rule of law in Kenya. The sort of thing we say we want and that USAID and the State and Justice Departments and others have been spending our money on.
Likewise, this generated pushback form “Kenyans on Twitter” who felt patronized or insulted, as well as those who have a different view on “macro” issues relating to power generation and environmental issues than they interpreted the Ambassador to have Tweeted. As for me, I had just intended to share an interesting recent news article, without comment, and not to get under anyone’s skin, or debate the philosophy of coal economics in the global context.
One thing is certain with active Twitter use: all of us who Tweet actively will “step in it” sometimes. The Ambassador well knows this because his ultimate voice vote confirmation in the Senate was held up for some months in apparent reaction to a few previous Tweets that generated push back and follow-up. The Ambassador is also representing the United States and has a professional communications staff of public servants to help him.