December 17, 2010
With little truly damming information contained in the east African portion of the WikiLeaks cables released last week, anti-Western commentators have been left grasping for straws – distorting America’s intentions and overselling the leaks’ diplomatic ramifications.
This trend has been most pronounced in Kenya, a country deeply preoccupied with Western influence after a traumatizing chapter of white colonial rule.
“US envoy pushed for Regime Change,” shouted one mainstream headline. “[Michael] Ranneberger – Another Rogue Ambassador?” asked another, with the first graph claiming that the US Ambassador to Kenya is “quickly heading into a dangerous political and diplomatic storm.” A front page lede on Monday asserted that “The United States appears to view East Africa as an extension of its territory, over which dominance has to be maintained at all times and goings-on closely watched.” Other commentators paused to savor allegations by Kenyan officials seeking political mileage that Ranneberger wanted to “topple” the government.
Ranneberger’s “crime,” according to these sources? Noting that the country’s “rampant, high-level corruption” and “culture of impunity” are obstacles to development, and pushing for a “well-coordinated intensive effort” to “empower [Kenyan youth] to press for reforms and to help escape the cycle of poverty which facilitates their manipulation by the political elite.”
What the Kenyan media have omitted is that Ranneberger has openly advocated youth empowerment and the removal of officials hindering national development.
“The new chief justice is going to be one of the most important positions in the country,” he told a crowd back in November. “It is critically important that a person of the highest competence, of independence and of good repute be put in that position.”
But the Kenyan media, salivating over the notion of secret US cables, were determined to show that a lid had just been blown off a great American conspiracy. Frustrated in not finding a smoking gun, they exaggerated, disregarded context and hurled bitter insults. “If, as the documents show, American diplomats have no discretion in the manner they talk of other countries, at least the superpower should have the discretion of keeping what it says to itself,” bristled a columnist.
A less emotional reading would have conceded that Ranneberger’s assessment of what plagues Kenya is accurate – and neither uncaring nor malicious. A typical cable summary read: “ Our highest priority efforts are focused on advancing implementation of the reform agenda, which is key to the future democratic stability and prosperity of Kenya…We are employing public and private pressure, engaging broadly with the senior-most levels of the government and other political actors, and reaching out extensively to the Kenyan people, youth, civil society, the media, the private sector, and religious groups. We also laying out incentives for positive action on reforms and supporting significant steps when they are taken.” (Read the “U.S. POLICY TO ADVANCE THE REFORM AGENDA” memo leaked to WikiLeaks here.)
In one summary he calls for “increased domestic-driven pressure for reforms” (emphasis added). Elsewhere he says his team is “helping to empower a new generation of leaders and leveraging the old guard” – including President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga – “to implement at least some key elements of the reform agenda.” The “reform agenda” here is not America’s but one that Kenya’s government and people have endorsed but which has failed to find traction due to poor implementation.
So why all the fuss?
Kenyans, like most people scarred by a colonial past, resent outsiders pointing out their government’s shortcomings – especially if the lecturer is an official from a successful democracy – which just magnifies the failures they associate with the post-independence present.
The humiliation makes them quick to resort to claims of imperialist or neo-colonial intentions. But in championing good governance, Ranneberger is guilty of neither.
The mainstream Kenyan media owed it to their readers to offer a more honest and sophisticated analysis of the cables. Hurling churlish exaggerations with unsparing relish may have provided fleeting comfort (and maybe helped sell a few more papers) but did nothing to promote understanding or self-accountability.
Nor did it change the reality on the ground. On Thursday, stories on Ranneberger’s memo’s had faded, overtaken by reports that the International Criminal Court has indicted six Kenyan politicians to face charges of rape, murder and torture in connection with Kenya’s disputed 2007/8 presidential elections that left nearly 1,000 dead and 600,000 dead – a tragic consequence of where bad governance can lead; and raising the question of whether maybe Ranneberger has been a better friend than the Kenyan media have made him out to be.