Our Man in Nairobi

Our Man in Nairobi

Mini Teaser: Smith Hempstone's  narrative of his diplomatic "arm wrestling" with a recalcitrant Moi regime between 1989 and 1993 is lucid, witty and comprehensive.

by Author(s): Michael Chege

Smith Hempstone, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir (Sewanee, TN: University of the South Press, 1997).

For years, Kenya's image in the West was that of spectacular natural beauty, game parks overfilled with wildlife, and safaris out of its handsome capital city, Nairobi. Close to a million tourists from Europe and the United States journeyed there each year, and Hollywood glamorized it in fact and fiction. Between 1963, when it became independent of Britain, and 1978, when the current president, Daniel arap Moi, took over, the economy grew at a regional record rate of 8 percent. The government had a reputation of sound fiscal management, a pro-Western foreign policy, and a marked political openness--though the latter had begun to buckle under intolerance and corruption by August 1978 when the founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, died.

All that had changed by the time President Bush named Smith Hempstone, a Kenya aficionado and former editor-in-chief of the Washington Times, to be the fifth U.S. ambassador to Kenya in 1989. As a result of rampant corruption, misguided investment policies, and administrative incompetence, average Kenyans were then poorer than they had been at independence in 1963. One-party rule had been decreed in 1982. The rule of law had become a thing of the past, as bona fide dissenters were hauled into jail, tortured, or bludgeoned to death. Moi, the man presiding over the desecration of Kenya, with profit to himself and his ethnic-derived coterie of fawning devotees, is an ex-school teacher and former vice president. He is also Mzee (elderly sage) to the political faithful, head of the ruling KANU party, the giver of cash bounty, allocator of state lands and top public offices, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and--he bragged to Hempstone--"the first African to fight communism." Among his more modest demands of his people is: "Kenyans must learn to sing after me like parrots."

Thanks to a naive and ethnically fragmented opposition, and a decidedly unlevel playing field, Moi was re-elected president by a minority (36 percent) of the vote in a 1992 election, a vote that he had resisted with marked tenacity and violence until 1991. The same scenario was repeated in January 1998. It is now touch and go whether the country will survive the institutionalization of criminality, economic decay, and the demographic explosion that it has suffered in the last two decades, or will implode like its neighbor, Somalia.

Since the end of the Cold War, the concept of the rogue state has acquired currency: a state that specializes in a style of domestic tyranny and economic plunder, while sponsoring international terrorism as an instrument of state power. Kim Jung-il's North Korea, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and Hassan Tourabi's Sudan top the bill. But they have plenty of potential company--domestic tyrants who only lack international exposure because plotting global terrorism and waging war is not (yet) part of their specialty. Along with the late Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, General Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and Paul Biya of Cameroon, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya is a case in point. No one should be terribly surprised by the international company the Moi government has kept: it gave refuge and protection to some of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, it supported the vile regimes of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Mohammed Siad Barre in Somalia, and it has hounded its opponents in exile.

The idea of a self-described "rogue" U.S. ambassador taking on a rogue regime in the name of democracy might seem to be the stuff of fiction. Smith Hempstone's absorbing narrative of his diplomatic "arm wrestling" with a recalcitrant Moi regime between 1989 and 1993 is perhaps ultimate proof that fact can be stranger than fiction. Lucid and witty, it provides the most comprehensive account yet of the behind-the-scenes scheming and raw greed that has characterized the pillaging of Kenya, as well as of the aborted efforts by the deeply split democratic opposition to replace the Moi dictatorship with an accountable and reasonably efficient government.

Hempstone landed in Kenya in 1989 as the global communist threat was receding and the Bush administration was promoting democracy abroad as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, after eleven years of Moi the Kenyan middle class had become largely disenchanted with playing the parrot. With his impeccable Republican and conservative credentials, Hempstone's appointment was suspect to ranking congressional Democrats. Aware of Kenya's nascent but repressed pro-democracy movement, they suspected that Hempstone might succumb to Moi's anti-communist rhetoric and ignore his appalling human rights record. But getting confirmed proved the easy part. Hempstone knows Kenya extremely well, having gone there first in 1957 on the advice of his hero, Ernest Hemingway, and then lived there as a reporter in the 1960s. His own initial assessment was, indeed, that Moi was a good man "surrounded by evil counselors." He soon learned otherwise.

His education began with the murder of Kenya's foreign minister, Robert J. Ouko, in February 1990. This followed shortly after a lackluster private visit to Washington by Moi and his entourage the previous month. Official Washington all but ignored the Kenyans except in one minor respect: Ouko earned a brief personal appointment for himself--but not for Moi--with President Bush (they had been colleagues as ambassadors at the UN in the 1970s). That sealed his fate. Kenya's president was furious at this open violation of the parrot rule. Those around him began to murmur that the United States was grooming Ouko to take over. A few weeks later, his charred remains, with two bullet holes in the head, were found in the bush near his sugarcane farm in western Kenya. The government pronounced it a suicide, but according to Hempstone, the poor man was probably tortured and partially dismembered in the regime's tiger cages before being finally shot at the presidential palace, in full view of the top Kenyan establishment. A Scotland Yard detective, brought in after a national uproar, pointed the finger at two suspects: Moi's éminence grise and then energy minister, Nicholas K. Biwott, and the regime's security chief, Hezekiah B. Oyugi. But to this day no one has been convicted of that murder, or, indeed, of any of the other ghastly crimes committed as the regime fought to contain the demands for democracy: ethnic cleansing in the Rift Valley Province, firebombing of the free press, arrest and torture of dissidents, death threats to the outspoken clergy, bribery, and corruption. By the end of his first year in Nairobi, Hempstone had no doubt as to who was responsible for all this: "One man set the tone of Kenya's government and that man was Moi."

For daring to take a stand against Moi, Hempstone--with his Hemingway looks--became a Kenyan folk hero, celebrated in song and poetry. More than any U.S. ambassador in Africa, Hempstone spoke forcefully against dictatorship and in favor of civil liberties. Soon he was on the receiving end of Moi's wrath. In what must surely go down as one of the most bizarre episodes in modern diplomatic history, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi got word of a plot to poison Hempstone while he worked the diplomatic cocktail circuit. Hempstone survived by pouring his own drinks and selecting canapés from the back of the tray for the rest of his tenure.

In between bouts with the Moi regime, Hempstone and his wife Kitty found time for old passions: good works for the poor in the remotest parts of the land, travel, and camping in the parks. The safari narratives provide moving accounts, worth reading in their own right, of the decimation of wildlife (by poachers and the political class), and the plight of Sudanese and Somali refugees streaming across the Kenyan border.

The book contains vital lessons for American diplomacy in Africa. One of these has to do with the cynicism and counter-scheming against the United States by the European ex-colonial powers, notably France and Britain. Hempstone castigates Whitehall's thinly veiled support for Moi and his cronies, whom British diplomats perceived as pillars of stability and protectors of British investments in Kenya. The British embassy in Nairobi exuded indifference to repression and contempt for the Kenyan opposition--as well as resentment toward Hempstone personally. For its part, the French embassy in Kenya was too preoccupied entering into business contracts with the Moi regime to have any time for African liberty, fraternity, or equality. Among the leading Western diplomats in Nairobi at the time, the only ones to give succor to the besieged yet widely popular American was the German ambassador, Bernd Mutzelburg, and, to a lesser extent, the Danish and Swedish envoys. If we had understood at the time that a strong, collective Western diplomatic démarche against Moi was impossible, we would have been better prepared later not to count on securing one against Nigeria--or today against Iraq.

Although Hempstone is generally appreciative of the U.S. embassy staff that served under him through his turbulent days in Nairobi, he can barely disguise his impatience with the timidity and officiousness of the mandarins at Foggy Bottom. In the intervals when Hempstone was not engaged in confrontation with Moi, he seems to have been flat out fighting on this second front. There was, for example, the prolonged issue of whether the gift for Moi of a pure-bred Black Angus bull, something that Hempstone had procured from a West Virginian farmer friend, could be flown to Kenya (it was decided by State that it could not). On another occasion, and more seriously, an influential American rancher in Kenya who was a crony of Moi's characterized Hempstone to State as an alcoholic who deserved recall. His efforts failed only when the then-acting U.S. Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, declared his unreserved faith in the U.S. envoy. The book ends with a bristling attack on the alleged timidity of U.S. career appointees, best symbolized for Hempstone by the conciliatory stance of his successor in Nairobi, Aurelia Brazeal, a Clinton appointee. (Ironically, this did not save her from being briefly detained by the Kenya police in 1995, on the trumped-up charges that she intended to enter a district where, according to human rights groups, ethnic cleansing was in progress.)

All this pales against the backdrop of the larger issues raised by Hempstone, namely those having to do with Africa's catastrophic development record. Concerning the main responsibility for this record, Hempstone has no doubt. "There is no shortage of villains", he concludes, "but the principal blame must lie with the criminally inept, corrupt and venal leadership. . . . Until Africa's Daniel arap Mois are swept onto the rubbish heap of history, there cannot be much hope for Kenya or the continent."

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, the UN Development Program, the World Bank, the European Union, and a host of private foundations have spent millions of dollars on newfangled programs for democratic elections and "good governance" in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere. The results are mixed at best. That is because we can only divine cures by understanding pathologies.

If the donors and international organizations promoting democracy in the developing world had devoted half their resources to a study of how Third World dictators survive, prosper on aid money, divide and rule, get "elected", and play their foreign supporters off against each other, we might all be wiser-- and the benighted peoples in these sad lands that much more hopeful of better lives ahead. At the very least the quest for democratic and effective government in these desolate places might have stood a better chance. Added to his other achievements, Hempstone's book well serves that cause.

Essay Types: Book Review