, NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 3 – It was in May of 2012 when the fresh faced Christian Turner, known as @HCCTurner to his Twitter followers, took over as Britain’s High Commissioner to Kenya.
A year later Kenya would elect its first leaders as per the rules set out in a new Constitution and the worst terror attack on Kenyan soil since 1998 would take place.
Three year later, Turner is the most followed British envoy on Twitter and it’s time for him to usher in someone new, Nic Haley.
In this ‘exit interview’ Turner tells Capital FM News of finding fame in Kenya, developing a thick skin and ironically, managing Kenyans’ fragile egos.
On a more sentimental note he reflects on how it’s felt like home, Kenyans’ appreciation of Tusker and how #WeAreOne.
And now with all protocols observed, let’s hear it straight from him.
Is there anything you feel you’ve left undone?
There’s always things you leave undone. There are some personal things. I had wanted to climb Ololokwe – the flat top mountain in Samburu. You can camp on top and look down over Isiolo and Archer’s post. I’ve always wanted to do that but I never got around to it.
I think substantively, the thing I would like to see our relationship moving into more is around investment and youth. So if one looks at the next five years of Kenya’s journey, Vision 2030, the plans from the Jubilee government, so much comes back to jobs for the youth.
The median age in the country is 18 and half the population is beneath the age of 25, finding the investments and jobs to unlock the potential of that youth is the key challenge and I would like to see more British companies coming.
What other advice do you have for your successor?
I would say believe in Kenya and there’s something about tone where it’s very important that we as diplomats particularly in Kenya – particularly as British diplomats – are not seen to wag our fingers. Kenyans are very sensitive to being criticised by mzungu (Caucasian) Brits and outsiders.
But there are things that we rightly disagree on as friends. I think H.E. (Mwai) Kibaki made a very interesting intervention recently when he said it’s okay to listen to those you disagree with. Nonetheless my advice to my successor would be always try and listen, always try and work with rather than talk to. That’s a very important kind of approach to take.
There’s an important point in there and maybe it plays to the biggest challenge. Politics in Nairobi is the national sport, everyone is talking and having a view, someone said to me very early on, everyone in Kenya has a view about what everyone else should be doing apart from themselves.
And politics is also quite personalised. We focus on the personality rather than discussing the issues and that’s just the nature of the narrative and it’s like that in a lot of countries, look at the American elections, it’s all about the individuals and less about their policies. But I think against that backdrop, people I think have sometimes assumed that a High Commissioner like myself is making it up. ‘It’s Turner doing X,Y and Z’ and (yet) it’s not Turner, it’s the British government.
So everything I do, has the backing, has the authority, has the instruction of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister of the day and we are operating within a very carefully and tightly defined policy. Now I hope I have influence over that policy but ultimately the change of Christian Turner to Nic Hailey should be fairly irrelevant because it’s the same government in London that is acting. So the times that have been challenging have been when it has been personalised and learning to grow a bit of a thick skin about them like a Rhino.
So it was an experience unlike any other?
I would say in Kenya it is particularly sharp. If you went to South Africa or New Delhi, people wouldn’t know who the British High Commissioner was.
And here in Kenya it’s flattering because the balozis (ambassadors) are accorded a degree of status in the political discourse and I think that goes back to a historic time, the time of (Michael) Ranneberger, the time of Smith Hempstone, the days of (Sir Edward) Clay and I would argue that Kenya is a different country now and it’s not right for balozis to come and wag their fingers.
But understand what our job is, I’m not here to be a cheer leader – good relations are not an end in themselves – nor am I a critic. It doesn’t help when you just come and criticise but sometimes I need to do both of those things because my job is to advance British interests.
What was it like being envoy at a time when Kenya experienced some of the worst terror attacks in her history?
What do people think they’re achieving by spreading such hatred and hurt? I think set against that strangely, periods of crisis are moments that also give you belief in the goodness of human nature and I don’t want to be glib about that but if you look at the way the country, the international community, communities, my mission, everyone came together to support each other… We will not be bowed by terrorism, we won’t be defeated. That sense of resolve, that sense of pride against the threat. Strangely in the midst of the grief, the horror, it was very uplifting to see that. Look at Westgate today, people are back, they’re going shopping, they’re saying we will not have our way of life and freedoms altered by this hatred.
You mentioned that politics is the national sport, what else struck you about Kenyan culture?
It’s the sense of humour. I think we share a quite similar sense of humour and it’s not a sense of humour that would work for every country. I remember watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics in 2012. Great moment and off course the year that David Rudisha set his amazing world record and Kenya was in lights in London and I was watching it with some Kenyans and some Americans and there was that spoof James Bond film where the queen is with James Bond and it ends up with the Queen parachuting out of an aeroplane and I’m laughing and my Kenyan friends are laughing, and the Americans are going ‘Oh my God! the Queen jumped out of an aeroplane.’ We do kind of get each other. I joke about all protocols duly observed, I joke about the visitor’s book, you know, these are things that actually come from us originally so it feels very familiar.
What has your experience with #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) been?
This comes back to politics as the national sport. There’s a word I’m repeating as I think about my experience in Kenya and it’s vibrant. I’ve loved the way that Twitter has allowed me to engage with people here. Busting stereotypes of how people might regard the country and it’s just so alive… the hashtag that appears in no time: #SomeonetellCNN, #Someonetellwhomeveritis. It’s quite rye, it’s sharp, it’s quick. And I think about how diplomacy has to evolve.
Until this generation really, diplomats were elites. It was an elite speaking to an elite. And if a diplomat wanted to get something out it was a press release; very, very aloof, sitting in their house behind the wire, sitting in their car with the flag. Suddenly, the world has flattened and we have to be accessible and I can get feedback, I have trolls who are constantly telling me can I get on a plane and leave, I have fans which is very nice. I think that is at the heart of our business and Twitter is the most amazing revolutionary tool for allowing us to do that. So please keep up Kenyans on Twitter, #KoT. I am now the most followed British ambassador anywhere in the world on Twitter and it’s not down to anything I’ve done, it’s down to Kenyans. It’s because Kenyans are brilliant.
What are your Kenyan pet peeves?
This has been home, my kids have grown up here, they’ve been at school here, I’ve enjoyed the arts, I’ve been a singer here.
Did you miss my concert at the Bomas? One of the most nerve wracking things I’ve done in my entire time was to sing a solo at the All Saints Cathedral for the Nairobi Musical Society, wonderful group of singers, and I did the solo – this was last summer – for the Mozart’s requiem and a day later a lady came up to me and said, ‘do you know, there was a fellow who looked very like you singing in the Cathedral yesterday?’
What do the visits by Pope Francis, President Obama and the upcoming visit by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron say of Kenya?
Look, the visits are great but visits don’t in themselves change anything. So it’s good, and it comes back to Kenyans’ affirmation of their place in their world. I can see why people like that validation and any country should be excited about the visit of the most powerful Head of State in the world, Barack Obama and the head of the Catholic Church. These are big events but it comes back to my message on the youth, the jobs. If I’m struggling to find a job, to have my children in school, it’s lovely to have the Pope here but results are what I need.
Why do you think corruption is endemic to Kenya?
It’s not specific to Kenya. One of the things that winds me up is when people say, ‘Ah, that’s Kenya, traffic and corruption is inevitable.’ It’s very defeatist and I don’t think that’s the case. All countries have corruption, it’s been a big issue in the UK, I remember Obama saying it’s a huge issue in his hometown of Chicago. There is something about changing the culture of impunity that we should have an open conversation about, holding people accountable, taking responsibility for their actions. Going into a position of authority to serve the people, not vice versa, why does it matter?
A couple of specifics if you’ll allow me, we talk about these alleged big scandals, procurement contracts but actually talk about things which people can relate to; if we think about what makes us proud as Kenya, there is clearly a crisis in Kenyan athletics. I’m a huge fan of the Kenyan rugby team. I’ve been a supporter, I’ve worked with the former Chairman, the great Mwangi Muthee to get Mike Friday in, and they got to fourth in the world in my time here. My first year in Kenya in 2012 the Safaricom sevens had 40,000 people attending, cheering enjoying, with their Tusker. This year there were about a thousand. Sports fans should ask themselves why has that happened? So it’s easy to think of corruption as something that affects other people but if Kenya is banned from competing at the Rio Olympics it would be an absolute travesty.
Second example, the Masai Mara, jewel in Kenya’s crown. I’ve worked really hard to say to people we’ve never had a travel ban there, to get people back. It’s an amazing piece of world heritage that every Kenyan should be proud of. I am very, very worried that the Mara on the current trend, in five years, will be a no go area. Why? Two things are happening: cattle are encroaching every night, tens of thousands of cattle are scaring the game away. Second, because there have been too many lodges erected than the park can sustain. The reason for both of those things? Again it’s about graft.
What a tragedy it would be if in five years for short term gain, something that should have Kenya on the world stage, is being undermined because of graft.
And if people think they can go and take their ill gotten gain to London, Paris or Geneva or New York, they won’t. We will return the assets to the Kenyan people who should own them.
You led a donor delegation that required the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to share their game plan for the 2017 General Election, why the insistence?
It’s no secret that confidence in the IEBC is low and I think that is a cause for concern because as a voter, as a Kenyan, you want to have basic confidence that if you cast your ballot, that will be democratically inflected.
We have also seen some more examples of hate speech recently and I think we should be very firm in saying we don’t think hate speech, when it’s very tribal as a few examples have been, is in line with the Constitution and should be dealt with accordingly.