The Star (Kenya)
Meet the six new diplomats, their strategies and challenges in Kenya
Six new envoys presented their credentials to President Uhuru Kenyatta on September 2, commencing their tour of duty in Nairobi.
The diplomats are ambassadors Zhou Pingjian (China), Valentin Zellweger (Switzerland), Ole Thonke (Denmark), Caroline Vicini (Sweden), Marten Brouwer (The Netherlands) and High Commissioner John Stephen Simbachawene of Tanzania.
President Kenyatta challenged them to work towards deepening existing strong bilateral ties between Kenya and their respective countries.
The Star introduces the new diplomats to you, reviews their profiles, the fields of focus and challenges.
Ambassador Zhou Pingjian (China)
You might have watched a viral video in which Nigeria’s Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila summoned the Chinese ambassador and reprimanded him over what he termed as abuse of Africans, particularly Nigerians, in China in the wake of Covid-19 outbreak.
The diplomat in the clip was Ambassador Zhou and served in Nigeria from 2016. He succeeded Gu Xiaojie.
Zhou arrived in Kenya on August 31 and is the seventeenth Chinese ambassador to Kenya.
He is also the third Chinese ambassador to be moved from West Africa to Kenya after his predecessor Wu Peng, who came from Sierra Leone, and Sun Baohong, arriving from Ghana.
The envoy arrives in Kenya amidst Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit the economy, disrupting infrastructure budgets, the key diplomatic tool for China. There is an image he has to fix following claims of abuse of Africans, Kenyans included, as well as claims of racism in operationalisation of the SGR.
But Kenya-china ties have been at the highest level, after Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Kenyatta jointly upgraded the bilateral relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership in 2017.
China has also been one of Kenya’s top trading partners and a major source of foreign direct investment for years.
Wu was promoted to the role of director general of the Department of African Affairs in China’s headquarters, probably having done a good job in Nairobi.
The new envoy has the task of sustaining these ties.
Upon presenting his letter of credence, Zhou said China will continue supporting Kenya’s development programmes, particularly Vision 2030 and Big Four agenda aligned projects. This indicates there is no policy shift.
A review of his time in Nigeria points to a successful tour.
Ambassador Valentin Zellweger (Swiss)
Zellweger joined the Swiss Foreign Ministry in 1991 and was until July the Swiss envoy to the UN and to the other organisations in Geneva.
According to Diplo, he also served as the head of the Directorate of International Law and Legal Adviser to the Swiss Foreign Ministry until 2016.
Zellweger is not new in Kenya as he served here as a legal adviser to the Swiss Mission.
He succeeds Ambassador Ralf Heckner, a diplomat who was passionate about devolution in Kenya, especially in the Northeastern through the Frontier Counties Development Council.
It is also under Heckner, a great friend of the media, that Kenya-swiss relations reached the highest level with the two-day visit by President Alain Berset in July 2018. A year later, Kenya Airways launched direct flights to Geneva, which Heckner said signalled good tidings for Kenya-switzerland ties.
“The new Swiss envoy outlined trade promotion and strengthening of Kenya’s devolved governance system as his immediate priorities as he settles down in Nairobi,” State House said in a statement.
Ambassador Ole Thonke (Denmark)
The incoming Danish ambassador is returning to Kenya for the third time.
Thonke started his career in the foreign service as an intern in 1997 at the Embassy of Denmark in Kenya and later returned as the deputy head of mission.
According to the Danish embassy, Thonke has previously headed three departments at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen: Consular, Green Diplomacy and Growth and Employment.
“Prior to that, he was the ambassador to Pakistan from 201617 and to Bolivia 2013-16. Before his ambassadorial appointments, Ambassador Ole Thonke served as the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy in Kenya and as a First Secretary at the Embassy in Benin,” the embassy said in his introduction statement.
Thonke has also been the deputy head of the African Department and head of section in the department of EU coordination at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Clearly not new to African affairs.
He succeeds Mette Knudsen, who was since been posted to Afghanistan.
Until her departure, she was among EU diplomats who had taken the lead in supporting Kenya’s fight against Covid-19.
In a previous interview with this writer, Knudsen said Kenya is one of the largest Danish embassies “because we have strong and long-standing relations with Kenya and Somalia”.
Among Denmark’s projects during her time was the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, which is expected to be Africa’s largest.
Thonke said his focus will be to enhance his country’s support for Kenya’s Covid-19 interventions, deepen support for climate change mitigation efforts and partner with the private sector in employment creation initiatives.
Ambassador Caroline Vicini (Sweden)
A social media post by the Embassy of Sweden said Vicini joins the mission from Afghanistan as ambassador.
The post indicated she will focus on Sweden’s key priorities – gender, democracy and environment – as well as growing Kenya’s distinct profile as a regional hub for innovations and business start-ups.
She succeeds Ambassador Anna Jardfelt, who moved to the UN in Geneva.
Her bilateral gains during her fiveyear tenure in Kenya would include governance and democracy, women empowerment and trade and business. Seem there is no shift in policy as well.
Ambassador Maarten Brouwer (The Netherlands)
Brouwer, 52, is an economist by profession and his Linked In account shows he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1988.
Since then, he has worked in Tanzania and Sudan, both in the field of development assistance.
He has held the position of ambassador, Development Cooperation within the management team of DGIS. Between 2011 and 2016, he was the Netherlands Ambassador in Mali and prior to arriving in Kenya, he worked as inspector at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague.
Brouwer outlined expanded access of Kenya’s exports into Europe through his country as his top priority.
His predecessor Frans Makken largely focused on agriculture, water, and energy.
In his farewell interview he said for the last five years in a row, the Netherlands has been ranked as the largest export market for Kenyan products in Europe, the main destination for Kenya’s cut flowers, vegetables and fruits.
High Commissioner John Stephen Simbachawene (Tanzania)
Simbachawene was sworn-in on May 21 to succeed Pindi Chana, whose official tour of duty ended in December 2019.
But praises heaped by President Pombe Magufuli on Kenya’s High Commissioner to Tanzania Dan Kazungu led to speculation that Chana had bean recalled.
“When he saw there are some problems, he came out clearly in the open to speak and defend his country. Those are the kind of ambassadors I need. I wish he could move to Tanzania for me to appoint him to a different position. He is a good ambassador,” Magufuli said.
Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreigns Affairs, however, later said the replacement delay was caused by normal diplomatic procedures.
Regardless, Simbachawene comes in at a time the relationship between the two countries is low, which is not good environment to advance his national interests.
He has said his focus will be enhancing cross-border trade and increased people-to-people interactions between the two East African states.