Ambassador Godec, as Acting Assistant Secretary of State, should articulate U.S. policy for Kenya’s election

Amb. Robert Godec and Sec. Gen. Kofi Annan handshake

Ambassador Robert Godec has served as the Biden Administration’s Acting Assistant Secretary of State since the inauguration.

Ambassador Godec served in Kenya from August 2012, as Chargé d’Affaires following Ambassador Gration’s ouster, becoming the Ambassador in January 2013 after November 2012 confirmation hearings ahead of Kenya’s March 2013 election.

Godec thus led U.S. engagement with both the later stages of the 2013 election and the ensuing litigation (both the presidential election petition at the Supreme Court and first five years of the on-going attempt to prosecute IEBC technology procurement fraud from that election).  He led during the formation of the Jubilee Party in 2016, the eventual replacement of the Issack Hassan-chaired IEBC following protests in which opposition supporters were killed, the attacks on the USAID-funded International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) by the Jubilee Party, President Kenyatta and Cabinet members, the change of U.S. Administrations from Obama to Trump, the acquisition of the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) from Safran Morpho (n/k/a Idemia) shortly thereafter, the abduction and murder of IEBC acting ICT Director Chris Msando on the eve of the 2017 vote, the general election with two US-funded international observation missions and the successful Supreme Court petition annulling the presidential portion of the vote, the boycotted re-run, the announcement of the “Big 4 Agenda”, the post-election diplomatic negotiations, the “People’s President” swearing in, the “Handshake” and most of first year of the Building Bridges Initiative.

For the status of things in December 2018 as Ambassador Godec’s replacement, Ambassador McCarter was being confirmed see: “Something afoot in Kenya: Nation newspaper is running investigative reporting on IEBC procurement corruption in 2017” and “As U.S. Mission passes from Godec to McCarter, Africa Confidential explains how Kenyan politics is still ‘frozen’ in 2005-07 ‘time warp‘.

So at this point, Ambassador Godec is a seasoned veteran of Kenya’s post-2007 politics who knows the ground intimately from the last two election cycles.  (His prospective “permanent” replacement, Mary Catherine Phee, was nominated in April and got a favorable vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this summer, but a confirmation vote by the full Senate is blocked along with dozens of other nominees.)

I was asked a few months ago to write an article about U.S. support for the BBI process, but I have been unable to do so because it is not clear to me what our policy has been or is now, and I have not found people involved willing to talk to me.  Given my role in telling the story of what went wrong in 2007 when I was involved myself it is no surprise that I might not be the one that some in Washington want to open up to now, but even people that I am used to talking to privately have not been as forthcoming as usual.  Nonetheless, Kenyans inevitably have questions, and those Americans who care may in the future.

Members of the Kenyan Diaspora Alliance-USA have announced that they have sent Freedom of Information Requests to USAID about support for the Building Bridges Initiative and some Kenyans on social media and in a few cases in print have asserted suspicions or accusations that the U.S. Government was intending to back “unconstitutional constitutional amendments” in the form of the BBI referendum for some negative purpose.  Looking at the degree to which the Obama Administration backed the passage of the new 2010 Constitution as the terminal event of the post-2007 “Reform Agenda”–to the point of having millions of dollars bleed over from neutral democracy assistance programing into supporting the “Yes” campaign in the 2010 referendum during Ambassador Ranneberger’s tenure–I am having a bit of difficulty understanding why my representatives in Washington would be working in general terms to undermine the new Constitution we helped midwife in the first place.

At the same time it has openly been our policy under Ambassador Godec originally and then his predecessor Ambassador McCarter to support the Building Bridges Initiative in broad terms and we did provide some USAID funding for the conducting the consultative process itself.  I think it would be in the interests of the United States and of Kenyans for the State Department to get out front of the questions now, with the BBI referendum effort rejected both at trial court level and by the Court of Appeal, and with the Kenyan presidential race that has been going on since the Handshake entering into its later stages (the IEBC has just now been restored in preparation for 2022 after being without a majority of members since 2018, so critical decisions have been backlogged).

We remain Kenya’s largest aid donor, we have many relationships and support many government and private assistance programs of all sorts in Kenya. Americans have become the largest customer base for Kenya’s economically important tourist business and have other significant economic relationships, especially remittances from Kenyans working in the U.S.  Most Kenyans remain in economic need, and the U.S. continues to have the same issues regarding terrorism as during the past 25+ years (most especially since the 1998 embassy bombing). In general the geographic neighborhood is experiencing more specific crises and some overall erosion of peace, prosperity and governance.  While we may not be as influential in Kenya as we were prior to 2007, and anyone with money can play in Kenyan politics, we will be engaged and we will have influence in 2022.  So there is no time like the present to articulate what our policy is for the coming year.

Here is my take on the BBI report from December 2019: “Important Kenya BBI reads, and my comments“.

And from January 2020: “How will the Trump Administration’s support for the Uhuru-Raila handshake play out in 2020?

And The Economist this week: “Kenya’s judges do their duty. A pity about its politicians” asserting that the BBI is “a cloak of respectability” needed to cover “a deal built on rank expediency”, that Raila is a four-time loser in running for president and that Ruto, the obvious political beneficiary of the demise of BBI “denies any wrongdoing” in amassing his fortune vis-a-vis the corrupt Kenyattaa and Odinga families.  Needless to say, The Economist is right to a point, but leaves out a hell of a lot and a lot of hell in terms of the election fraud and post-election violence of 2007-08.

“Six Years An Ambassador” : Godec’s Kenya valedictory with Macharia Gaitho

Macharia Gaitho seems to have been of late the designated Kenyan columnist to convey certain background perspectives from the American Embassy.  His April 8 Sunday Nation column provides in interview form a review by outgoing Ambassador Godec of his tenure and the position of the State Department at present.

For me the primary “takeaway” is, as the Nation headlined, the continued/renewed statement of the need for “national dialogue”. The issues were apparent from the 2017 election going back to the 2007-08 election. The “handshake” of a month ago is said to open an opportunity for that dialogue. Likewise the U.S. position is reiterated on the status of the October 26 election and Kenyatta as legitimate per the IEBC and Supreme Court as the U.S. sees it.

I have not met Godec and I really do not have an opinion about him personally. I am not able to say, with the late American humorist Will Rogers, that “I never met a man I didn’t like” but I try to be able to say “I never dislike a man that I’ve never met.”

What makes me sad is that Godec as the Ambassador has been controversial and drawn more anger as well as more disappointment from many Kenyans than I have seen in the past.

Some of the heat would fall on the shoulders of anyone who was the voice of the controversial policies from Washington. Some of it reflects more specifically the reasons that “national dialogue” is needed: the 2008 “peace deal” got only perhaps half-executed and a lot of Kenyans are unenthused as they should be about getting the short end of the stick over the past ten years from their own government. As a “friend” of the Government of Kenya we naturally find ourselves with some “guilt by association” from the Kenyan public. And of course some of it is the behind the scenes stuff that we Americans back home have to hope to evaluate, someday, from the media or private conversations with insiders or the Freedom of Information Act, if ever.

Godec was candid enough to acknowledge that “peace” was prioritized first as a “must” in United States foreign policy in regard to Kenyan elections as but noted that we continued to also support other equities of justice and fairness. For instance, we support  allowing civil society freedom to operate. Nothing was said however to indicate we ourselves need to take a fresh look at our own role in supporting the election mechanisms or our role in supporting reform and transparency out of our own experience in these last three Kenyan election cycles.

It perhaps goes without saying that we no longer mention any notion or prospect of justice for the victims of the 2007-08 post election violence. (Or pre-election 2013 for that matter.) That was something we always used to talk about.

Ambassador Godec noted that his biggest regret was the ongoing security situation as reflected in the Westgate and Garissa University attacks. I assume we are not waiting for those reports from the Government of Kenya on those attacks that Kenyans have been waiting on. (Of course both Kenya and the United States remain at war in Somalia as we were when the Ambassador arrived as Charge in 2012.)

The biggest thing that really struck me from Ambassador Godec’s interview was that there are now 28,000 Americans living in Kenya. More people have been realizing what a great place to live Kenya can be if you are an American, as I can attest. I hope that’s a good thing.

I also hope the Ambassador will sit down with The Elephant as a newer Kenyan publication that is able to generate more depth on current controversies than the big media groups usually feel able.