The Washington Diplomat / November 2003
By Larry Luxner
Yusuf Abdulrahman Nzibo was working only half a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi when it was ripped apart five years ago by a powerful car bomb.
"My first reaction was that it was an internal coup. All the phones went dead," he said, recalling that horrible day. "Blood was flowing all over."
The August 1998 attack left 231 people dead and over 5,000 injured. Besides the immediate destruction, it forever shattered the image of Kenya — synonymous in American minds with majestic African safaris and "The Lion King" — as a peaceful country immune from the savagery of international terrorism.
Nzibo, today Kenya's ambassador to the United States, says the 1998 bombing and another one last year against an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa has scared away tourists and crippled an economy already weakened by corruption, AIDS and low commodity prices for Kenya's main exports, tea and coffee.
"Many people felt that we were victims of an issue that didn't affect us directly," he said, noting that right after the bombings, "ambulance chasers" from New York came to Nairobi to encourage families of victims to file lawsuits.
At the time of the 1998 attack, the government was immersed in bitter domestic squabbling. "But suddenly we realized we had to protect the nation. People came out and volunteered. I recall the former president [Daniel arap Moi] leading a demonstration for the first time in support of the Americans."
The United States eventually extended humanitarian assistance totaling more than $42 million to Kenyan victims of the bombing and their families, though Nzibo says some poeple felt "the American security personnel were more interested in rescuing their own people than the Kenyans, and over the years, many felt they were not adequately compensated."
Four years after the bombing, a new U.S. Embassy — the largest in Africa — was inaugurated in Nairobi, amid hopes that such an attack would never happen again.
Yet those hopes were dashed on Nov. 28, 2002, when a four-wheel-drive vehicle laden with explosives blew up in the lobby of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombassa, killing 17 people including three Israelis and three suicide bombers. Moments later, two missiles were launched at an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombassa's international airport, but narrowly missed their target.
"We live in a neighborhood that's very unstable," conceded Nzibo in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat last month. "We share a very long, porous border with Somalia, and a few Kenyans may be collaborating with al-Qaeda."
He added: "Kenya is a very cosmopolitan country, and people are very welcoming. It's a multiracial society, life is comfortable, and our links with the Middle East, Europe and Asia are very good. You can fly in and out of Nairobi anytime."
As a result, individual members of al-Qaeda "took advantage of our hospitality," settling in Kenya and even marrying local girls.
"Since the attack on the Israeli hotel in Mombassa, the government has tried to sensitize the community and be careful about who they welcome," he said. Particularly suspicious are the large numbers of Yemenis, Iraqis and other Arabs recruited by Saudi non-governmental organizations that provide assistance to Kenya.
"We've worked very closely with American intelligence authorities to try and trap those involved," he said, noting that a number of Kenyans have been arrested on suspicion of having ties to al-Qaeda.
Nzibo, born in Mombassa and raised in Nairobi, is Muslim — as is 30% of Kenya's 29 million inhabitants.
"Islamic philosophy teaches that we belong to a brotherhood in which you easily accept Muslims wherever they are," he said. "Even so, we've said very clearly over the years that no one can choose our friends for us. The Americans and the Israelis will always remain our friends. We recognize Israel's right to exist, but the Palestinians also have a right to have a home. We'd like to see the two states coexist peacefully with each other."
Nzibo's own story is unusual. In addition to English and Swahili, the 52-year-old diplomat speaks a little Spanish, thanks to a lifelong interest in Latin America.
He earned a bachelor's degree in politics and history from Nairobi University, then went to Scotland and got a master's in Latin American studies from the University of Glasgow — and a doctorate in diplomatic history. After teaching political history at Nairobi University for seven years, he then switched careers, earned an MBA and went into banking.
Nzibo got involved in privatization issues, and rose to the top of the Kenya Revenue Authority, Kenya's equivalent of the IRS. In 1998, he was chosen ambassador to the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and remained at that post until his current appointment to Washington three years ago.
When Nzibo isn't dealing with weighty issues like terrorism, he spends time with his son and three daughters. Up until a year ago, he also maintained the embassy's website himself, and he's one of the few ambassadors in Washington — maybe the only one — with his own website: www.nzibo.com.
Nzibo said that despite frustrations with the State Department's May 2003 travel advisory against Kenya — which he called an "overreaction" — Kenya's relations with the United States are "much warmer" with the Bush administration than when Bill Clinton was in the White House.
"During the Clinton administration, Uganda was the darling of Africa, much more than either Tanzania or ourselves. In all the trips Clinton made to Africa, we were excluded. But Kenya was included in Bush's trip until this terrorist threat came up."
Politically, Nzibo said Kenya remains one of the most stable countries in East Africa, partly because its longtime president, Daniel arap Moi, was in power for 24 years.
"We had free and fair elections in December, and the party that had ruled since 1963 was defeated," he said. "There was fatigue in the country. People wanted change, but we had a very peaceful transition. We've always had elections every five years, and Kenya has been in the forefront of resolving conflicts throughout the region."
Nevertheless, Kenya's new president, Mwai Kibaki, faces a slew of problems at home. According to statistics compiled by leading hotel groups and tour operators, U.S. travel to Kenya has fallen by 90% since the advisory was issued, putting a major dent in Kenya's tourism sector, which employs over 500,000 people.
"Kenya is continuously being misrepresented as a destination because of this continuing travel warning. This erroneously portrays Kenya as an unsafe, insecure and unstable country," complained Adam Jillo, chairman of the Nairobi-based Incentive Travel & Motivation Exhibition 2003 Committee, in a Sept. 24 letter to Kibaki. "We request that you strongly urge the U.S. administration to lift the current travel warning as well as provide tourism recovery aid to mitigate the continuing economic crisis."
Another serious problem Kibaki faces is Kenya's worsening AIDS crisis. One-third of all Kenyans are now infected with HIV, and over 1.5 million people have died since the early 1980s — leaving behind over one million orphans. Kenya's death toll from AIDS will likely reach 2.6 million by 2005.
"We declared HIV-AIDS a national disaster three years ago. Our problem was that we were in denial. Therefore we didn't sensitize our people in time," said Nzibo. "Uganda was the first country in East Africa to accept that they had a problem with AIDS and face it squarely. It took us 10 years to recognize that we also had a problem."
In response, Kenya has adopted an "HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan" that aims to reduce the prevalence of HIV by 20-30% among people aged 15 to 24 years by 2005, while increasing access to care and support for HIV-positive Kenyans. The effort is costing over 14 billion Kenya Shillings, or around $180 million.
An equally big problem, perhaps even bigger, is the country's enduring legacy of corruption. Even Nzibo admits that "our economy has not been doing very well in the past few years. All IMF assistance was suspended because of concern about corruption. Some donor countries like Norway and the Netherlands pulled out, so that created even more economic hardship."
Compounding the crisis are chronically low prices for tea and coffee, both of which bring millions of dollars in foreign exchange for Kenya.
One bright spot, said Nzibo, is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), launched in 2000 by the Clinton administration to entice 38 sub-Saharan African countries to open up their economies and build free markets.
Specifically, AGOA removes U.S. duties and quotas on a wide range of apparel and textile products from sweaters and socks to T-shirts and underwear.
According to the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, thanks to AGOA, African textile and apparel exports to the United States more than doubled in 2002. AGOA has created over 190,000 jobs and more than $340 million in new investments throughout Africa since the law's passage three years ago.
Last year, Kenya's apparel and textile shipments to the U.S. market totaled $126 million, nearly double the $64.7 million recorded the year before, and three times the $39.5 million recorded in 1999. Exports for 2003 are expected to top $240 million.
"We were the first country to qualify for AGOA," said Nzibo. "It has helped revive our textile industry. Before, the industry was mismanaged and suffered from obsolete equipment and a flood of cheap, second-hand goods from Europe and elsewhere that hardly paid any duties. With AGOA, we now have more of an incentive to export."