Moses Wetangula – Diplomat who flew from the cuckoo’s nest

Moses Masika Wetangula joined President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet in 2008 as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Deputising him at the ministry were Richard Onyonka as Assistant Minister and Mwangi Thuita as Permanent Secretary. Before he became a Minister, replacing Raphael Tuju, he was the Assistant Minister for five years – from June 2003 to January 2008.

“Weta” as he is popularly referred to, is a lawyer, politician and diplomat all rolled into one. But it was law that served as his public profile springboard. He burst into the national limelight as a tenacious young lawyer in 1982, the year a group of non- commissioned officers from the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

Ever since he defended Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka and Private Pancras Oteyo in the court martial that ensued at the Langata 7th Kenya Rifles Barracks, Wetangula has remained a key figure in Kenya’s frenetic national discourse. The newly-minted law graduate had served as a magistrate for only one year before quitting to venture into private practice when the government assigned him the task of
defending the suspected coup plotters. Being a rookie did not intimidate him. Unfazed by the turbulence from the political climate of the time, Wetangula took the job, seizing the moment and meticulously leading the defence of the two soldiers, in the process etching his name in the corridors of justice as a determined and unafraid lawyer.

Although he could not save them from the hangman’s noose, the experience bolstered his credentials and added some sheen to his legal star. He would later find his way into the citadels of power as President Moi retained him as a personal lawyer. As a politician, Wetangula carved a niche as a master of survival with a rare gift of accurately forecasting the political weather and adjusting accordingly; this is what
helped him remain relevant in elective politics. President Moi initiated Wetangula’s entry into politics in January 1992, when he nominated him to Parliament. As a nominated MP for the ruling party of the day, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), he rapidly navigated his way around the political labyrinth and, aided by his sharp legal mind, worked his way to become Deputy Speaker of the eighth Parliament. Five years later he proved his political gamesmanship when he chipped in as a key negotiator for KANU in the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG), an influential coalition of political parties that helped to ease simmering political tensions in the country by undertaking minimal constitutional reforms.

In 2002, after a five-year political hiatus, Wetangula jumped into elective politics, this time not as part of KANU but as a member of the Opposition FORD-Kenya party. His was a case of first-time lucky as he won the Sirisia parliamentary seat. This was the year when a combined Opposition under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) defeated KANU and broke the party’s 40-year hold on power. NARC’s flag-bearer, Mwai Kibaki became the third President of Kenya and a new evolutionary stage began. As change was taking place, Wetangula was again deeply involved and in the process he landed an appointment as Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This would end up being training ground in international relations for the lawyer and politician as destiny prepared him to dive into the deep end of diplomacy when he became Minister in 2008.

Wetangula took up the Foreign Affairs docket at a crucial time, when the country’s national fabric and image on the international stage were in tatters as the Opposition contested the results of the 2007 presidential election. A devastating spiral of post-election violence had ensued soon after the results were announced. It was a delicate time; an ugly moment that was not helped by the pressure coming from the West’s envoys to put out the fires. President Moi initiated Wetangula’s entry into politics in January1992, when he nominated him to Parliament The arduous task of redeeming the country’s image fell on Wetangula as the Minister.

Together with Martha Karua, who was the Minister for Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion, and her successor and State counsel, Mutula Kilonzo, he represented the government in the internationally brokered mediations towards a power-sharing deal with the Opposition. Former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, led the Panel of Eminent African Personalities convened under the
auspices of the African Union (AU) which included former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and former South African First Lady Graca Machel alongside Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete to mediate the rift. At the time, the BBC described Wetangula as a strategic ally in the Kibaki administration. “Mr. Wetangula is a key Cabinet figure and helped to form the coalition in 2008 that ended the post-poll violence,” the BBC said.

The new Minister wasted no time in bringing order to the diplomatic corps posted in Nairobi and who had made the terrain slippery for the Party of National Unity (PNU) government by openly sympathising with the Opposition. Wetangula directed his attention at the senior-most diplomat in the country, the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Adam Wood, who had openly queried the legitimacy of the government and expressed his displeasure with the electoral process. “Our elections don’t need a stamp of authority from the House of Commons,” Wetangula warned. After this, a former British High Commissioner to Kenya, Sir Edward Clay, found himself declared persona non grata in Kenya. This move sent a clear message to foreign diplomats to adhere to diplomatic etiquette. It did not stop there – Wetangula went on the offensive again, asking the AU panel – led by Professor Oluyemi Adeniji, a representative of the Annan-led mediation team left behind to shepherd a smooth coalition government operation – to pack up and leave. “The crucial part was bringing the two sides together and ensuring that a coalition government was in place.” Wetangula said. “Now that we have the coalition government and key components on the way, I think Adeniji and his team should leave.”

A year later, in April 2009, he scored another diplomatic milestone when together with Somalia’s Minister for National Planning and International Cooperation Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, he signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the fractious Kenyan-Somalia maritime boundary. The MoU between the Government of Kenya and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia granted Kenya a no-objection to its submission on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles to the Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf of the United Nations. The 62,000-square-mile triangle in the Indian Ocean attached to the Lamu archipelago has been a touchy issue irritating both Kenya and Somalia and stoking international interest. In 2014, Somalia sued Kenya at the International Court of Justice over the maritime border. The case is ongoing.

In September 2010, Wetangula secured a diplomatic victory by lobbying the United Arab Emirates to rescind a decision requiring all Kenyans visiting or transiting the Emirati to have university degrees. It was also the year he earned his place in the pantheon of global diplomacy – the Council on Foreign Relations (CfR) hosted him on what was billed as ‘A Conversation with Moses Wetangula.’ Veteran diplomat and former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, presided over the conversation. “He has provided a very capable voice for Kenya on the international stage,” Albright said of Wetangula at the event. This was a rare honour and a testament that Wetangula was a diplomat to watch.

A month after being feted in the US with such a glowing recommendation, Wetangula returned home to draw out a comprehensive strategy and plans for “shuttle diplomacy” to galvanise international support under Article 51 of the UN Charter for ‘Operation Linda Nchi’ (defend the nation). This military incursion by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) into southern Somalia was aimed at containing the rise of Al-Shabaab extremists who had posed significant threats to Kenya’s security. It also aimed to help the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) to stabilise Somalia.

A fortnight later, Wetangula’s lowest moment and the dimming of his star at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came visiting. Wetangula and his Permanent Secretary stepped aside to make room for investigations in what the media referred to as the “Tokyo Embassy Scandal”. The outrage unearthed by a parliamentary audit report recommended Wetangula’s removal until thorough investigations were completed to establish the true nature of the allegations. The scandal involved USD 14 million and senior ministry officials who allegedly misappropriated funds in the purchase of property for the Kenyan mission in Tokyo, Japan. Several other pricey real estate assets where Kenyan missions abroad were domiciled, notably Egypt, Nigeria, Belgium and Pakistan, featured prominently in the parliamentary report.
True to form, Wetangula fought back, terming the media frenzy a smear campaign backed by his political detractors. “I have made a personal decision to step aside as Minister for Foreign Affairs to give room and pleasure to those who have been haunting and tormenting me, and to give room for the investigation,” he said. “I can assure you I will be back to the Cabinet once the investigations are completed because I know I am innocent.”

The late Professor George Saitoti, who was by then the Minister for Internal Security and Provincial Administration, was assigned the Foreign Affairs docket in an acting capacity.

In August 2011, Wetangula returned to the Old Treasury Building, home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after he was vindicated of all allegations. It was just as he had predicted; however, he had little time to celebrate as a full in-tray awaited his attention.

At the time, Kenya was chairing the AU’s Peace and Security Council. This put Wetangula at the apex of the continent’s peacekeeping operations as frontline armistice leader in Africa’s conflict hotspots, security briefings, defence negotiations and pacific champion. He had a hectic schedule. On Monday, 9 January 2012, he was in Addis Ababa chairing the 307th meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council, which was framing an AU-UN strategic partnership on the maintenance of international peace and security. On Wednesday, he was in New York to brief the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the situation in Somalia and negotiate the strategic partnership to foster a
closer working AU-UN relationship and collaboration in security matters. On Thursday morning, 12 January 2012, he stood again before the most powerful arm of the six UN bodies.

“The quest for peace and security is a pressing challenge in Africa today. Over the past two decades, the continent has witnessed a number of crises and violent conflicts, with huge negative consequences for the African people, as well as our aspiration to a peaceful and prosperous continent,” Wetangula remarked as he addressed the meeting of the UNSC in New York. “We are therefore faced with the tasks of resolving protracted conflicts, such as those in Darfur and Somalia, and of facilitating reconstruction and development in countries that have emerged from conflicts, such as Burundi, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and, more recently, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt
— societies that have undergone radical transformation. The need to prevent conflicts and de-escalate fragile situations calls for proactive engagement.” Requesting more support for the continent was no walk in the park. Wetangula and the AU team at the UN headquarters soon found out the tough road that lay ahead when the key Permanent Member of the UNSC, the US through its ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, rose to speak.
“Let us be candid. The periodic African Union-Security Council consultations have not, thus far, been altogether productive or satisfactory. If they cannot be improved, they risk being jettisoned by one side or the other as not useful or worse. To make the United Nations-AU relationship more effective, we must do more than consider formalising African Union-Security Council meetings.” Rice noted. “The meetings must prove their worth. The meetings must have set agendas and concrete priorities that lead to tangible improvements, not only in how we work together but in how our work helps people in Africa and around the world.”

Two months later, after successfully getting Africa in the UNSC’s good books by setting the concerted framework and cooperative pathway for the AU-UN partnership, Wetangula found himself in a situation he is unlikely to forget. On 20 March 2012, he, alongside Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and the Tunisian Secretary of State for Arab and African Affairs, Abdallah Triki, were stranded in the Malian capital of Bamako. On the second day of their trip, a coup d’état orchestrated by the Malian military unfolded as they were busy chairing the 314th Meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council on the situation in the Sahel Region.

As soon as it was established that Wetangula and other senior diplomats were trapped in Mali, the AU swung into action, pulling out all the stops to get them out safely.

“Once informed of the plight of these officials, the chairperson of the Commission, Dr Jean Ping, set up a Crisis Management Team that worked around the clock over the weekend to secure the safe evacuation of the diplomats…,” read a communique released from AU headquarters at the time. “The team worked closely with the Kenyan Permanent Representative to the African Union, Her Excellency Dr. Monica Juma. Chairperson Jean Ping had telephone conversations with the leader of the new military junta in Mali, Captain Amadou Sanogo, who promised to ensure the security and safe evacuation of the officials.”

A few days later Wetangula was safely evacuated. A Cabinet reshuffle soon after his arrival back home saw him moved to the Ministry of Trade, where he remained until 2013 when President Kibaki retired.

Wetangula was born on 13 September 1956 and attended Nalondo Primary School, Busakala Secondary School, Teremi Secondary School and Friends School Kamusinga before joining the University of Nairobi to study law. The former Minister’s time in the diplomatic field remains a memorable rendezvous full of thrills and spills. To this day he remains eternally grateful that he was entrusted with one of
the most sensitive dockets in the entire Cabinet. “Mwai Kibaki not only appointed me Minister but also monitored my work at Foreign Affairs closely,” he told The Standard newspaper in 2016 while reflecting on his time as Kenya’s senior-most diplomat.

He is today the Senator for Bungoma County, having first contested the seat in 2013 and again in 2017.

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