'It is not my job to be a cheerleader or critic but to build lasting relationships that work'
By Kipchumba Some | December 6th 2015
In an interview, the outgoing UK High Commissioner to Kenya Christian Turner speaks to The Standard on Sunday writer KIPCHUMBA SOME of his memorable moments in his tour of duty, relationship with President Kenyatta, and the war on terror and corruption
Question: When the Jubilee government came to office, it initially had a difficult working relationship with western governments, including the Britain. How did you manage this?
Answer: Look, I don’t want to deny that there were difficult challenges. But look, which was the first country to congratulate the Jubilee government? Britain. Which was the first country to invite President Uhuru Kenyatta to travel in May 2013? Britain. The point is that the relationship between our countries were strong before I arrived and they remain strong.
Q: The talk in political circles today is that, of all the ambassadors in the country, you have a close working relationship with President Kenyatta. What accounts for it?
I hope that’s true. My job as a diplomat is to build relationships-to work with, not talk to. I am doing this in British interests. It is not my job to be a cheerleader. It is not my job to be a critic. I do what I do to advance British national interests. The way I go about this is important. No finger wagging.
Q: But your government and other western nations have traditionally identified with the Opposition ever since the coming of multi-party politics in the 90s. Don’t you feel that you are betraying them?
Kenya is a very different country from 15 or 20 years ago. This is not the age of Rannenberger (Michael) or Smith Hempstone (Former US ambassadors). I have been criticised for being too critical of government and I have also been criticised for being too timid. So make up your mind. We need to understand what diplomats do. It is not our job to criticise the government or support the Opposition. I have no apologies for having a close relationship with the Kenyan government, with the Opposition or civil society.
Q: One of the sticking points during your term has been the renewal of the agreement for the British military to use Nanyuki training base. How far are the negotiations?
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I am pleased to say that negotiations have been completed. Let me also be clear on this: Britain has never asked for immunity of its troops. When a British soldier does something bad here, he should be held accountable. That’s what we always talk about-justice and the rule of law. The discussion we had last year was about jurisdiction-where soldiers are tried and how they are tried. All that has been concluded. The defence agreement fetches the Kenyan economy Sh9 billion yearly. It is a mutually beneficial thing and it must be carried out with mutual respect to Kenya’s sovereignty.
Q: What is the perception of UK businessmen on Kenya?
The fundamentals are good- growing population, bright, educated people, the demographics, the natural resources, the geographical positioning-all those things make it fantastic to invest in Kenya. But they are asking for better infrastructure which the government is committed to build. They are also asking for sufficient energy supply. But it comes back to the point on corruption. These organisations have a choice on where to put their money. Its not limitless. Kenya has to make itself attractive.
Q: How is Britain assisting Kenya to fight graft?
We are supporting the capacity of the institutions that are in the front line fighting against graft such as Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. Specifically, if a thief tries to squirrel away money from the Kenyan people in London, we think that money should be returned to the Kenyan people.
And if the thief thinks he can travel to the UK to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, we say, no. They will not be welcome. And so for many years we have had a list of people who we judge to be involved in corruption and that list continues to this day.
Q: Has the list of individuals banned from traveling to Britain changed in recent days?
(Laughing) I know everyone wants to know who is in it and who isn’t. I am not allowed to talk about them to you. The only person I am allowed to talk to about is the individual.
Q: Have you informed the affected persons?
During my tour of duty, yes, I have had conversations with some of them. Absolutely.
But your government has been accused of not cooperating enough with Kenya to bring back money stolen in past corruption cases, for example, the Anglo-Leasing
That’s not correct. I have to be very careful about what I say. It is an ongoing case and anything I say could prejudice the outcome in court. But we are cooperating well and closely in this and others.
Q: How is your government assisting Kenya to fight the war on terror?
It is a huge amount of our work here. I described before like an iceberg. You see the little bit that sits above but most of it is beneath the water line. I don’t talk about it to journalists because that will help the bad guys realise what we are doing. It all adds up-the military piece, security piece the equipment-to very extensive programme for counter terrorism assistance. Its is a shared threat and Kenya should not be all alone in this and the response to it must be shared.
Q: Do you think the Kenya government is on the right path on war against terror?
I don’t want to fall in to the trap of being critical. These challenges are about as hard as any government can face. Look at what tragically happened in Paris, just as with Westgate and Garissa. Its very hard for any government to prevent. But let me say there are three things we are emphasizing on in our work with the Kenyan government.
The first is eradicating corruption in the security apparatus. If guys at a checkpoint are free to wave people through for a bribe, that’s a security threat.
Second is coordination in various arms of government. The different arms have to talk to each other-police, military, intelligence have to talk and coordinate with one another.
The third is countering radicalisation. You have to counter the problem by going to the source of the problem which is these young people being lured in to radical ideology.
But I must say that communities beat terrorism. You must sit down under a tree and listen to people. We found it the hard way in Northern Ireland.
Q: What next for Turner?
(Laughing) I am going back to London. To HQ (headquarters). In my work, they call it capital punishment, because we are not in beautiful places like this. The house will be smaller, there will be more rain. More fish and chips. The beer is warm. But the job I am going to do, I cannot tell you yet because it has not been officially announced.
Q: You know two former US ambassadors have settled in Kenya. Any such future plans for you?
(Laughing) People say Balozi, may be you will find a piece of land down in Narok, a few cows and a nice Maasai wife...but no. This has been my home for four years. My children have grown here. It’s in my heart. It does not matter what I am doing where I am going, my affection for Kenya will be here.
Where I will be in the world I will be looking for Kenyans. When they say “All protocols duly observed,” when they are saying “Me I”-I will go, those are my people.
Q: I hadn’t realised those are uniquely Kenyan statements...
(More laughter). And my favourite is ‘Mine is brief.’ When a fellow says ‘mine is brief’, you know he is going to talk for an hour. And when he gets to the end of the hour he will say ‘I don’t have much to say!.’ These are things we love about Kenya.
Q: What is your professional achievement in Kenya?
It is the Mau Mau settlement in 2013. The reason I raise that is because it refers to our history, how far back we go. I think it deserves a lot more good coverage from great journalists like you. Because it’s a very significant moment for our two countries to admit that bad things did happen on both sides, not to close that down but to move forward as two modern countries.
Q: What is your most memorable moment in Kenya?
It was a Kalenjin wedding ceremony in which I was made bamwai (Kalenjin word for an in-law). I was one of the lead negotiators for the bride at the wedding ceremony. I must say all these fellows were being a bit nice. A bit gentle. We negotiated a good price, then we drank mursik (Kalenjin word for sour milk).
Q: So how many cows did you negotiate away?
(Laughing) That would be revealing but it was a lot of cows. One of the wazees wanted a bicycle, and we got it as well. There was a (request for) Mercedes, but we didn’t give away the Mercedes.
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