US envoy Meg Whitman: President Ruto’s new-found fixer

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US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman first thrust herself onto the country’s political scene when she declared the August 2022 General Election election as the “most free and credible”, describing President William Ruto as smart and easy to work with.

The endorsement of Dr Ruto’s administration at a time the opposition was contesting the outcome put her on a warpath with Azimio la Umoja One Kenya principal Raila Odinga.

The opposition chief accused Whitman of turning a blind eye to electoral injustices while focusing on America’s “narrow business interests”.

Since arriving in Nairobi a few days to August 2022, Whitman – a billionaire – appears more focused on business deals between her country and Kenya.

It is a clear departure from most of her predecessors, who often courted controversies by taking past administrations head-on over corruption and poor governance.

Smith Hempstone, the journalist-turned-diplomat, pushed for multiparty democracy during Kanu’s one-party state era, rattling President Daniel Moi and prompting the tag “Rogue ambassador”.

Michael Ranneberger, also stirred controversy through revelations in the Wikileaks cables to Washington about runaway corruption in Nairobi.

For Whitman, the state visit by President Ruto to the US was a moment to shine.

Under her “Why Africa, Why Kenya” initiative, the ambassador has put premium on commercial diplomacy, promoting Kenya as a destination for American businesses.

During a US Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting on Friday, President Ruto showered Ms Whitman with praise, lending credence to her role in the many business agreements signed between the two countries.

Influence

Dr Ruto also hinted at her influence in his administration, saying she has “introduced a new culture in doing things”.

It has become common for the envoy to hold meetings with the President at State House.

“Meg Whitman is God-sent. She has done, sometimes singlehandedly, what would ordinarily be in the realms of miracles,” President Ruto said recently.

“I appreciate the AmCham Kenya leadership and Meg Whitman for their role in establishing and sustaining important conversations, supporting productive dialogue and pursuing implementation through effective collaborations.”

Prof David Monda, a political science scholar in the US, describes the envoy’s style of diplomacy as “Hempstonian with a business twist”.

“Like the famous ambassador Smith Hempstone of the 1990s who was direct, uncompromising, frank and straight to the point on matters of multiparty democracy, human rights and civil liberties, Whitman is also direct, uncompromising, frank and straight to the point, but focused on business,” Prof Monda, said.

United States Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman.

United States Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman during a press briefing at the US Embassy in Nairobi.
 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

He added that Ms Whitman’s style of diplomacy is beneficial to the public “because it is frank, crystal clear and does not hide behind amorphous verbiage”.

“An example is a remark she made at a forum that the 2022 elections were free. She got condemned by the opposition and lauded by the government. She has appeared to be a cheerleader of government policy, highlighting Kenya as an excellent country for business,” he said.

Prof Monda added that Ms Whitman’s style can appear to show favouritism for certain players in the host country, to the detriment of others.

“There is the danger that in cheerleading for the host government, she becomes an enabler for the vices of the administration like police brutality, emasculation of the Legislature, disdain for court orders, corruption and harassment of journalists,” he added.

The envoy is resolute about her style. In a recent op-ed, Ms Whitman said that by 2050, one in four humans and one in three working-age people, would be in Africa.

“When I was CEO, I probably thought of Africa about one per cent of the time. Many of the businesses I managed were heavily involved elsewhere. But if I were back in the boardroom, Africa would be on my radar for two reasons: supply chain diversification and net-zero emissions,” she wrote.

In a previous interview, Ms Whitman said President Joe Biden had explained, when she took the role that Africa would be a big player in the next decades, especially given its burgeoning population.

“And he said, ‘Kenya is one of the most important countries in Africa, and so I’d really like you to take up a post there.

“The other thing that I think would be a good fit for you and the United States is that Kenya is the East Africa leader in technology; with Safaricom, M-Pesa (a mobile money service) and the start-up community’,” said Ms Whitman, who has been inducted to the US Business Hall of Fame.

In the interview, she said democracy and transparency remain important and she will also focus on economic development—particularly small and medium enterprises.

“How to take this digital environment and make it work for small- to medium businesses is a real passion of mine,” she says, saluting President Ruto for also focusing on enterprise in his manifesto.

“In Silicon Valley, we all knew about M-Pesa and were amazed at the penetration and how it had lifted people out of poverty and now everyone in Kenya is banked,” Ms Whitman said in the interview.

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