The American ambassador to Kenya, once a confidant of President Obama, abruptly announced on Friday — days before the release of a stinging internal audit — that he was resigning, citing “differences with Washington.” His departure will leave the top embassy post vacant at a time when Kenya is increasingly being drawn into a battle with militant Islam.
At about the same time that the ambassador, Scott Gration, was giving a tearful farewell to embassy staff members, suspected Somali militants attacked a convoy of aid workers near the Kenya-Somalia border, according to reports in state-run news media. The gunmen shot and killed a driver before kidnapping four international aid workers and two Kenyans working for the Norwegian Refugee Council in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest. The gunmen — and the hostages — then vanished, last seen heading into the Somali desert, the reports said.
Mr. Gration’s announcement came just before the release next month of a United States government audit that is highly critical of his leadership and management of the embassy, State Department officials told The Associated Press. Mr. Gration announced his resignation after seeing a draft of the report, The A.P. said.
Kenya has suffered a string of kidnappings along the Somalia border, including the abduction of a Frenchwoman who was dragged from a beachfront bungalow and later died in Somalia. There has also been a number of deadly grenade attacks since October, when Kenya sent several thousand troops into Somalia to confront the Shabab, Somalia’s most fearsome Islamist group.
Mr. Gration, a former Air Force pilot and general who had served as a campaign adviser to Mr. Obama, said the ambassadorship to Kenya was his “dream job.” But since he got here in May 2011 — and even before that — Mr. Gration has been a bit of a lightning rod. Before his posting to Kenya, he served as Mr. Obama’s special envoy for Sudan and was routinely criticized by advocacy groups as being too conciliatory toward Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges for massacres in Darfur.
Mr. Gration seemed to slip up when he told The Washington Post in 2009, while discussing his strategy for Sudan: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” Some Sudan analysts, though, praised him for trying to nudge Sudan toward compromise, saying a new approach was needed to break through years of poisonous mistrust.
In Kenya, many of his underlings at the American Embassy said he was remote and imperial. He also did not seem to be engaged in Kenyan politics as the country heads into one of the most anticipated presidential elections in its history, the first since 2007, when the country exploded in ethnic violence. But some State Department and embassy staff members said they were reluctant to press their criticisms of him because of his close ties to the president.
People familiar with the disputes confirmed reports on Friday that Mr. Gration preferred to use Gmail for official business and set up private offices in his residence — and an embassy bathroom — to work outside the purview of the embassy staff. On Friday, Mr. Gration issued a statement saying, “Differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it’s now time to leave.”
The American Embassy in Nairobi, one of the biggest in Africa, is also home to an aid mission that works throughout the region and an extensive intelligence operation that keeps a close eye on Somalia. Mr. Gration, who grew up in East Africa as the son of missionaries, ended his statement by saying, “Our hearts will remain here with you and with the true friendships that will endure until death.”
In the meantime, Kenyan newspapers are reporting that Gen Gration is a victim of his soft-softly approach towards Kenyan politicians and his reluctance to openly follow President Obama’s open policy towards gay people. Writing in the Saturday Nation, Eric Shimoli says under Gen Gration’s stewardship, the US embassy in Nairobi had recently scored poorly on democracy and defence after it was evaluated by Washington in a programme carried out every five years. “Even though [Gen] Gration had deep roots in Kenya (his wife Judy was born and grew up in Nairobi) he said he was not ready to play along the lines of leadership and priority setting that was expected by the Obama administration,” Shimoli writes.
And writing in Nairobi’s East African Standard, Oscar Obonyo says Gration quit his post shortly after refusing to attend a gay party arranged by his office. “Whether there have been simmering differences with Washington, it would appear the gay party’’’ triggered the current developments.”