WikiLeaks reveals unflattering view of Kenya. Can US retain its influence?

The Obama administration has urged Kenya, a supposed island of democratic stability in East Africa, to meet its obligations on political reform. Any progress made could be undone by Wikileaks cables that reveal US disdain for Kenyan officials.

By , Guest blogger

Since 2009, Obama administration officials have used harsh language and diplomatic pressure in an attempt to promote political reform in Kenya. The pattern continued this week with a new demand from Ambassador Michael Ranneberger that the Kenyan government “step up the fight against corruption, and replace Chief Justice Evan Gicheru and Attorney General Amos Wako.”

Ranneberger’s call allows for a partial test of US influence in Kenya: how will the government respond? If the officials step down early, the US will have successfully flexed diplomatic muscle in one of Africa’s most important countries. If they do not, US prestige could take a hit on the continent.

The Daily Nation has more of Ranneberger‘s remarks:

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Mr Ranneberger said two major issues threaten the future stability of development: “The culture of impunity and negative ethnicity.”

“We have seen in recent weeks a great deal of focus on corruption. Several officials have ‘stepped aside’. But we have seen before that ministers have temporarily stepped aside for alleged wrongdoing only to return in new incarnations. To demonstrate seriousness, actual prosecutions are essential and then imprisonment of those found guilty,” he said.

He called for corrupt ministers to be jailed.

According to the new Constitution, the CJ must be replaced by February and the AG by August of 2011. Mr Ranneberger said speedy action must be taken to find suitable replacements who can marshall a purge against corruption in government.

“We therefore urge the appointment of a new Attorney General and a new Chief Justice of the highest repute, and we urge that the Kenya Anti Corruption Commission be strengthened with additional resources,” he said.

He said President Obama is watching Kenya’s reform agenda “with a sense of urgency,” adding that the US is Kenya’s largest development partner contributing over $1 billion annually.

Although Gicheru is out within four months, and Wako within a year, no matter what, Ranneberger seems to want them to leave early and perhaps to face trial as well. That posture represents an escalation over his earlier public pronouncements: “While Ambassador Ranneberger has previously called for strict vetting for future Justice and Attorney General appointments, this is the first time he has called for the two officials to step down.”

Ranneberger’s speech comes at a potentially awkward moment in US-Kenyan relations, as the latest WikiLeaks revelations include documents from the US Embassy in Nairobi that are unflattering to Kenya:

Leaked reports from the US embassy in Nairobi depict Kenya as “a swamp of flourishing corruption,” the German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Sunday.

“Almost every single sentence in the embassy reports speaks with disdain of the government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga,” adds Der Spiegel.

These documents will not necessarily damage the relationship between Washington and Nairobi, and some high Kenyan officials are sympathetic to Washington’s perspective. The head of Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Authority, PLO Lumumba, indicated some agreement with Ranneberger’s perspective in an interview with VOA. But I wonder whether other Kenyan officials, including the president and prime minister, might find offensive the idea that Washington views Kenya with contempt, and I wonder whether they might feel that the US ambassador overstepped his role by calling for the ouster of specific government officials.

In any case, Washington’s views on Kenya are becoming clear both through officials’ own remarks and through leaks. Now Kenyan authorities will have to decide how to respond.

[UPDATE]:

Now we’re seeing some fallout from Wikileaks in Kenya.

VOA:

Kenya says it is surprised and shocked by reported comments about the country contained in leaked US diplomatic memos.

The German magazine Der Spiegel says the cables depict Kenya as a “swamp of corruption.”

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua says that if the report is true, the comments are malicious and a total misrepresentation of Kenya and its leaders.

Mutua says the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, called Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Monday to apologize for what is expected to come out. Mutua adds, however, that the US has not detailed what the cables say or for what it is apologizing.

If you tell someone what to do, and then they start to think that you hold them in contempt, are they more or less likely to do what you wanted?

Alex Thurston is a PhD student of Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahelblog.

RELATED: MORE MONITOR COVERAGE OF WIKILEAKS

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