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Obama Nominates Scott Gration as Next US Ambassador to Kenya

  • Michael Onyiego

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration outlined challenges ahead of next year's referendum at an event in Washington.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration outlined challenges ahead of next year's referendum at an event in Washington.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration has been nominated by President Barack Obama as the next Ambassador to Kenya. Gration’s arrival will end the term of influential and often controversial envoy Michael Ranneberger.

After much speculation, U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration as the next U.S. Ambassador to Kenya. The move, which had been rumored for many months, answers many questions regarding the fate of current U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger.

Diplomatic appointments would not usually make headlines but, as Nairobi University international relations professor Gerrishon Ikiara explains, the U.S. post in Kenya is different. “It is very important. The American ambassadors here have had a lot of impact in many ways. We have had quite a number of American ambassadors who have left a permanent impact,” Ikiara said.

Ambassador Ranneberger is no exception. The U.S. envoy was a highly visible player in some of Kenya’s largest crises. During the 2008 post-election chaos he was at the center of American shuttle diplomacy which saw visits from Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer and then-Secretary of State Condolezza Rice.

Ranneberger has also been an outspoken advocate of political reform and anti-corruption initiatives. In 2008, the Ambassador issued United States travel bans on senior members of Kenya’s government, including the Attorney General who he believed were slowing the pace of reform.

More recently, the U.S. Ambassador has launched a campaign to fight the illegal narcotics trade. Though not releasing names, Ranneberger issued travel bans against members of Kenya’s parliament allegedly profiting from the trade and announced the opening of a Drug Enforcement Agency office in the country to combat the growing problem.

But Ranneberger’s tenure has been nothing, if not controversial, and Kenya’s politicians have increasingly accused him of meddling in Kenya’s internal affairs. "Putting in place a new constitution really is key to the entire agenda to reform Kenya and to bring about fundamental change,” he said. “The other reforms, police reform, judicial reform, ending the culture of impunity, ending negative ethnicity, can’t really come about unless this new constitution is put in place."

The U.S. Envoy openly advocated the adoption of Kenya’s new constitution in August of last year. But opponents accused him of secretly funding the referendum campaign, and members of the United States Congress slammed his support over abortion clauses contained in the new Kenyan laws.

Ranneberger has also frequently addressed Kenya’s youth, urging them to take the country’s future into their own hands. The envoy has often described those programs as part of a campaign to end impunity in Kenya’s notoriously corrupt public sector. But such action has not come without consequences.

Many politicians, including President Mwai Kibaki, have criticized Ranneberger and accused him of fomenting revolution in the east African nation. Some have even accused the envoy of using the programs to build ethnic militias and provoke civil discord.

But perhaps most damaging to Ranneberger’s influence in Kenya has been the leak of classified diplomatic cables through the controversial website Wikileaks. Though many cables contain routine assessments of Kenya’s political climate, one particular cable pegged Kenya’s President and Prime Minister as directly involved in the country’s corruption. The envoy also labeled the principals as part of an “old guard” blocking critical reforms in the east African nation.

The release of the cables kicked off a diplomatic storm and provoked the fury of Kenya’s parliament. The lawmaking body considered demanding that Ranneberger be sent back to Washington. A motion was introduced to censure the U.S. envoy, but the vote ultimately fell short.

Though Ranneberger has been frequently accused of overstepping the traditional bounds of a foreign diplomat, it is not the first time an American ambassador has played an outsize role in Kenya’s politics. Nairobi University Professor Gerrishon Ikiara pointed to former ambassador Smith Hempstone, who was often called the “Rogue Ambassador,” as an example.

“He left a permanent mark here as the country struggled through political reforms during the Moi regime. He was loved a lot by very many ordinary Kenyans, activists, NGOs. Obviosly the government of the day didn’t like him. He was very outspoken but he made a permanent impact on the reform process in Kenya,” Ikiara states.

Hempstone was a vehement critic of Kenya’s one-party state and the rule of President Daniel Moi during the early 1990s. His brusque style led members of the Kenyan media to term his approach “bulldozer diplomacy.”

With Senate confirmation still pending, Gration will likely not arrive in Kenya for months to come. But many in Kenya will be anxiously waiting to see how the new U.S. Ambassador to Kenya will approach the country’s rampant corruption and whether he will assume the mantle of rogue ambassador.