KENYA: 'It's all about networking… being a salesperson for your country'
Karin Palmquist

Kenya's Ambassador to the United States, Yusuf A. Nzibo, is about to leave Washington for a new posting to Saudi Arabia. He recently met with Diplomatic Traffic to reflect on his four years as ambassador here.

"I have really enjoyed it here," Ambassador Nzibo says of his tenure. Based on his prior experience as his country's envoy to The Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he says he found Washington a different place to work. "Here, it's all about networking, being a sales person for your country," he says. "You need to build personal relationships fast. People judge you fast."

"Africa is a hard piece to sell," he continues. "People associate the continent with corruption, lack of democracy, civil war. But key administration officials speak well of Africa. We are working closely with them, to give Africa a better image."

The ambassador also stresses the importance of African nations coming together. "As a block, Africa can achieve a lot," he says.

"The bilateral relations between the United States and Kenya have improved a lot," he says of his years in Washington. "I came here in July 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration. I faced questions about democracy in Kenya, fears that the opposition was not given a fair chance."

"A lot of people were afraid that [former Kenyan president Daniel arap] Moi wouldn't leave office, that there wouldn't be peaceful elections," he says. "The elections were fair and peaceful even though the ruling party knew that they were going to lose. Kenya is now a multiparty democracy."

"AIDS and AGOA were the big issues during my term in Washington. Kenya qualified for AGOA. We're now one of the leading apparel exporters to the United States. We look forward to the Millennium Challenge. I sit on a special task force to make sure we get the extension to 2015 of AGOA."

Kenya was also one of the 14 African nations that qualified for President George W. Bush's $15 billion HIV initiative.

"We appreciate the support we have received on HIV/AIDS from the Bush administration. Over the last 14 months we have really felt that the government has been there for us," Ambassador Nzibo says.

Eligibility for these initiatives is directly linked to economic and political reforms at home. Among reforms carried out in Kenya, the ambassador points to a reform providing free education. "This means three million students are now in school that wouldn't have been there otherwise," he says.

A new constitution in Kenya will make dual citizenship possible. It will also give the Diaspora the right to vote in elections, welcome news for the 300,000-500,000 Kenyans in the United States.

As much as he would have liked to devote his time to promoting his country and encouraging investments in Kenya, things changed after the terror attacks on New York and Washington. "The 9/11 attacks changed things drastically and I found myself talking about terrorism," Ambassador Nzibo says.

Tourism-dependent Kenya has been hard hit by the world downturn in travel. The country has seen its own share of terror attacks, most notoriously the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi that killed 201 Kenyans and twelve Americans. A simultaneous attack on the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, left twelve Tanzanians dead. A bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast in November of 2002 killed ten Kenyans, three Israelis and the three bombers.

Al Qaeda terror mastermind Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, blamed for the embassy bombings, has been linked to one of the tiny islands on Kenya's Indian Ocean. Suspicions among Kenyan police that other militants may be based there as well have spooked tourists.

"The number of visas issued now is 20 percent of what it was [before 9/11]," the ambassador says.

He feels the State Department travel advisories against his country are to some extent unfair. "If something happens in Spain we get a warning," he says. The travel warning against travel to Kenya was briefly downgraded to an advisory last fall, and then upgraded again in December, when the U.S. embassy in Kenya warned American citizens to stay out of downtown Nairobi.

"It's all part of a misunderstanding," the ambassador says. "Three days before President Mwai Kibaki visited Washington in October of last year, the travel warning was watered down to a travel advisory. We need to look into the language of these advisories. We feel America's pain and we are wholeheartedly behind the United States. But the United States needs to come to our assistance in this critical point in our history."

 "Because of the travel ban, people in the tourism industry are desperate," he continues. "You do good by the world, but there is no economic change. It makes people frustrated."

The tourism infrastructure is there, and Kenya Airways hopes to be able to provide direct flights to the United States within a year on the three new Boeing planes it just bought. All that is missing now is the tourists.

The problem lies not within Kenya, but rather within the region, the ambassador explains. Kenya has been a peaceful harbor in an otherwise turbulent East Africa since independence in 1963, and refugees from neighboring countries have flooded its borders.

There is a flow of small arms from Somalia; a country the ambassador says is a breeding ground for terrorism. "Somalia is a lawless country," he says. "The world needs to apply diplomatic efforts and sanctions against Somalia. And Somalia should put pressure on the warlords, like Sudan did."

Kenya has made a deal with Somalia and together the countries patrol the borders. A deal on securing borders has been struck with Sudan as well, but the ambassador seems less than optimistic about its implementation. 

Until there is peace in the region, "we see the democratic gains of Kenya go to naught," the ambassador says.

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Yusuf A. Nzibo
Date of Birth: 27th November, 1951
Place of Birth: Nairobi, Kenya

Academic Qualifications:
B.A. (Hons), (University of Nairobi)
M. Phil. (University of Glasgow)
M.B.A. (Strayer University, Washington, D.C.),
Ph.D. (University of Glasgow)

National Honors:
Order of The Grand Warrior
Moran of The Burning Spear

Current Occupation:
Ambassador to:
1. The United States
2. Mexico
3. Republic of Colombia

Education Background:
1. Allidina Visram High School, Mombasa, Kenya -- 1966-1971
2. University of Nairobi -- 1972-1975
3. University of Glasgow -- 1975-1979
4. Lansdawne Indep. University, London -- 1987-1988

1. M.B.A. - "Why Invest in Kenya? An Investors Guide to Kenya."
2. M.Phil. - "The Decline of Slavery And Its Abolition In Brazil."
3.  Ph.D. - "Relations Between Great Britain and Mexico, 1820 - 1870."

Previous Employment:
1.  Lecturer, Nairobi University, 1979-1989.
2.  Deputy Managing Director, Industrial Development Bank Limited, Nairobi, 1989-1992.
3. Managing Director, Industrial Development Bank Ltd., 2nd November, 1992 -22nd February,1996.
4.  Commissioner-General, Kenya Revenue Authority, 22nd February, 1996 - 24th April, 1998.
5.  Ambassador, The Netherlands, Czech Republic & Slovakia, 22nd June, 1998 - 4th July, 2000.

Charitable Organizations Membership:
1. Aga Khan Foundation (Kenya & East Africa), ex-executive member
2. Giants International, Nairobi, Kenya
3. Rotary International