- Dr Christian Turner has left the country after four years as British high commissioner. He leaves behind commitments to tackle security issues and poverty; to improve health and education, and a huge, orphaned Twitter following.
Dr Christian Turner has left the country after four years as British high commissioner. He leaves behind commitments to tackle security issues and poverty; to improve health and education, and a huge, orphaned Twitter following. We met at his residence for this exit interview, where he was vintage, quick-witted Turner.
Balozi, who wrote that speech you read during the premiere of the James Bond movie, Spectre, at the Sarit Centre?
That was a Burns-Turner partnership.
Steven Burns. Head of Communications, Scottish guy. Crazy haircut.
Oh, he’s a brilliant writer.
He’s really good. [He writes] most of the material I use, and you notice I don’t do formal speeches.
Deep down you are sad that you are leaving, right? You wish you could stay behind in a ranch, maybe even get a second wife?
(Laughs) And maybe get some cows? I have some cows. Yeah. I am sad. After nearly four years having given a lot of yourself to relationships, to the place, you have built friendships... it gets sad. Sad because we had experiences. We have been through tough times together (Westgate, Garissa). We have been through happy times together (Olympics). To leave all that behind is hard. In a diplomat’s life, when you leave a place it is quite a sharp turning of the page.
What’s your plan?
I am going back to London. The main job I am going to do has not been announced yet, so I am afraid I cannot tell you what it is. But most is I am going to be doing some work for the prime minister on Syria.
When you were coming to Kenya in 2012, what perceptions did you have of the country and the people? And has that shifted?
It is a great question. Like most experiences, I would not say it has shifted. But my understanding of the places has deepened and broadened. I have lived here. It is home. This is where my kids have grown up. It is where I have had all these experiences. I saw things in two dimensions and now it is in three. It is like seeing things in black and white and now it is coloured. So I do not think it [perception] has fundamentally changed. I just think it is based on knowledge and experience in a way that it wasn’t when I arrived.
What surprised you most about Kenya?
Something about the youth. Something about the vibrancy, the innovation. This points to Western stereotypes about Africa. Eighty per cent of Kenyans on mobile phones, you know?
You stay here for four years, pack and leave. You keep meeting all these people and you keep uprooting yourself. What does that do to you as a person?
In my kind of job, you have to enjoy people. You have to be curious about people. You have to draw energy from meeting different people. You can see it from the way I have done my job. I have very deliberately believed that engagement is the right thing to do. Some people go, “Umph. Turner. Is he the noisy one?” But it is not that I am noisy – I just believe that in this day and age, for diplomats to be relevant we have to engage. Does that answer your question?
No, great answer though. Let me put it this way: imagine if I know I am going to be in this room for two hours then I leave never to return. Will I get attached to things in this room? When you find yourself in these posts, do you unconsciously say, ‘I am not going to be too attached to these people?’ So that you don’t find it hard to detach yourself...
No. Not at all. Quite the opposite. If you come back to that belief in engagement, it’s what motivates me. It’s why I answered the way I did. The physical stuff, I mean it’s nice, but it’s neither here nor there. So if you had been in this room yesterday, actually two days ago before we packed, you would have seen lot of photographs here of family. My kids, parents, grandparents, cousins... that’s the stuff that makes it feel like home.
Does it affect your kids?
They are diplo-brats. (Chuckles). No, I mean the biggest challenge is that they live in this beautiful environment, meet lots of interesting people and think that is normal. So you have to work hard to make them do the washing up, do the laundry, be polite to everybody, even journalists... especially photographers. (Laughter in the room) We really struggle with that but they try, you know, they have got to be nice to everyone. But there are downsides, you know. They are sad to be leaving. They have had a wonderful four years in a great school here. They’ll miss their friends.
Does the job get tiring?
Yeah it’s very tiring. We are engaging six nights a week. Some days you are doing breakfast, lunch and dinner, and if you turn up at a reception and you are a bit bored and tired, it shows. So even when it’s the solar energy geeks, or whoever it is that day, you have got to come at them genuinely, be interested and make them think that solar energy is the best thing ever.
What, you psych yourself in front of a mirror before you come out into the room?
No, but I work at it more than Joy (Joy is the communications lady) thinks. I take that quite seriously. Why do I do what I do is the question the girls asked me in Kibera. I’m a public servant. And I take that responsibility seriously. To be blunt with you, if I wanted to I could go off to the private sector and probably triple my salary. But something in me believes in getting up, working for my country and giving back, that’s what motivates me.
So, #visadenied, why did I respond to you?
[Ed’s note: In September last year, Biko badly wanted to visit the River Thames. So he applied for a visa, and was duly turned down. Biko did not take the rejection very well, and he let the Home Office know exactly how he felt on his blog. The article went viral and Mr Turner had to wade into the fray, fire extinguisher in hand....]
Because you are that guy.
I’m that guy but also because I am a public servant and I believe you deserve a response. I get a load of mail from kids asking for scholarships; from people making complaints; from old folks wanting history unearthed, you know. All sorts of people will write to you. And I believe I am the British High Commissioner, I am representing the Crown, you know. Everyone deserves a response, as a principle of public service.
Have you ever had recreational drugs?
(Surprised) Have I ever...?
Had recreational drugs.
Come on, balozi. What kind of life is that?
(Laughs) Life is buzz enough for me. And if I said yes, I would be on the front pages of the papers. Nice try, Biko. But no!
In terms of professional achievements, what are you most proud of during your tenure here?
Number one would be the settlement with the Mau Mau. That’s the single thing I will look back on and be most proud of. It’s only the second time in British history that we have apologised for what you might call colonial issues.
It felt very wrong to me that my instructions were to advocate many of the things written in the Constitution – the rule of law, accountability, end to impunity, justice – and to argue all those things as issues that we believed in and thought were important for British interests, on the one hand, and to say, on the other hand, in the case of the colonial period that we weren’t prepared to say that bad things had happened. It felt very uncomfortable.
So I argued very hard and built the case with a lot of input from others to do that historic settlement in the summer of 2013 where we gave a statement of regret, settled the case out of court with payments to the litigants and we built the memorial. And that, I think, was a huge moment between our two countries to acknowledge the past and not try to draw a line under it. Not to say it’s closed. In fact, quite the opposite. Get it out on the table and say it’s there, we need to talk about it, we need to tell those stories.
What do you like about your wife?
She keeps my feet on the ground. Doesn’t let me take it too seriously.
What makes you insecure?
I don’t think I’m an insecure person at all, but I have a bit of FOMO.
Fear of missing out?
Yeah. There’s a good party going on at the Americans, was I invited? No. Always better here... But no, you know. I have to watch that sometimes. I’m not very good at saying no, is what I’m trying to say. My engagements, my enthusiasm, my interest in people, you know. I’ll go to Garden City and open the solar energy complex. Did you hear about that occasion?
This guy comes up to me, gives me his card and says, “I’m in charge of the solar system.” I thought that was hysterical. I said, “how is the guy who is in charge of the galaxy? Have you met the guy who runs the universe?” And no one saw the funny side.
What is going to happen to all the Twitter followers, the Kenyans? [this account has since been closed]
You tell me.
I’ve been thinking about it.
You know, I’m not shy about the fact that I am the most followed British ambassador anywhere in the world.
Yeah. And I like to tell my ambassadorial colleagues that it’s because I’m brilliant... But it’s the Kenyans. Politics is the national sport in this country. Everyone has an opinion on what everyone else should be doing, except themselves. And you know, that is Twitter. Twitter was made for Kenya.
How is the guy who is coming to fill your witty shoes?
Very good. Much smarter.
He can’t possibly have a better hairstyle than yours?
Much more attractive. Better hairstyle. (Laughs) It’s true. You know how secretly you want – we all want – your successor to suck then people say, “Ah, it’s not as good as when Turner was here?” Sadly in this case it’s not going to happen. He is very good.
Our politicians might not the best breed to hang out with...
I’m not saying yes or no!
Who is the one guy-
No, I can’t answer that question.
Let me finish at least. Who would call you over the weekend to have a drink with?
I can’t answer that question. What I can say is, I feel quite honoured at the end of the tour. I have been lucky to get close to lots of leaders in different ways. All sides of the political divide.
The general feeling is that you have been very vocal and quite robust during these last few months as opposed to when you came in. Was this strategic? Would you agree to that assessment?
So look, this goes to this sort of underlying perception; what do diplomats do? I have been criticised for being way too vocal: “diplomats should be seen and not heard. If they have reservations, they should raise them in private.” I have been criticised for being too quiet: “why aren’t you out there holding the government to account?” I think that reveals some lack of understanding of what we do.
My job is to advance British interests. I am not a cheerleader, nor am I a critic. So when I see something and my government instructs me to act upon it, I will act. It is not a popularity contest. That is uncomfortable, I am sorry, but that is because we personalise politics. I am acting on the instructions of my boss. So Turner being replaced by this really brilliant guy, Nic Hailey, should not make any difference because the policy of the British government will remain the same. And he will need to speak up because he will be instructed to do it.
What have you learnt about yourself?
That I am a bad runner. When you are lapped by a Kenyan kid not wearing shoes, that is a bad day. (Laughter in the room) Look, the resilience thing I have learnt when you are tired. I have also learnt that when you are under fire, not to take things too personally.
There are people who criticised me, there are people who do not like what I have done. They are entitled to their opinions. It is usually not about Christian the person, it is about the hat I wear as a British High Commissioner. So I have learnt to grow a little bit of a thick skin.
Is there a decision you made that you regret?
Yes. Plenty. It will be dangerous for me to start spending more time on certain decisions on certain occasions. To come back to humility, it would be totally arrogant to say that I got everything right. That I do not look back at things and say, “yeah, I would have played the other side differently; I would have advised politicians differently.” But that is how you learn.
There is a very famous quotation which Obama uses and he has it over his desk or something. He says, “by definition the decisions that come to me are the most difficult because if they were easy decisions, someone else would have taken them.”
Were you friends with other ambassadors?
Yeah. We worked closely together. I mean, there is a healthy degree of competition. We know that the best lunch is always at the British High Commissioner’s residence. I confess, Godec has the largest flag, but that is the Americans for you. (Laughs) But we are friends.
Are you in a WhatsApp group?
I might be.
Which group is this?
(Smiling) I am not telling you.
Come on. Is it a farming group, singing group...?
Las Vegas rules. What goes on tour, stays on tour. The members of the group know what goes on there.
What do your kids tell you about social media?
(Makes an impression of his kids) Dad, you need to join Wiff Waff. Are you on Wiff Waff, Biko?
No. I’m afraid not. Do you remember when and where you met your wife?
Ok. Let’s go.
So we met at this place in North Ireland. There was a fancy dress party on Halloween of 2000. It was a Harry Potter party, before Harry Potter became a big thing. It was hosted by a mutual friend. She went as a witch and I went as a sort of dude with a rat on his shoulder. The rest is history.
What did you say? What was your opening line?
I cannot remember, but it must have been devastatingly good. But if you forward a few years later, I proposed to her in 2003 in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral. I got them to open early before the tourists arrived, took her in, left her on one side, went to the other side and whispered it loud. I said, (whispers) “will you marry me?” And do you know what she said?
“I’ll think about it, Turner?”
She said, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” (Laughter in the room) It is true. Absolutely true. She said, “say it again!” Terrible girl. She wants to hear it again. It’s true. Anyway, she did say Yes. So you see why I say she keeps me grounded and never lets me take myself too seriously.
What Kenyan peculiarities did you notice while here?
(Does an official imitation of a speaker) “All protocols duly observed.” Why do we say that? It is just a wonderful way of covering our backsides when we think we might have left somebody out.
The other one that just makes me laugh is “mine is short.” If anyone says “mine is short”, they are going to go on for about 45 minutes and then say, “so, I do not have much to say...! Then there is “me I am...” The one thing that I will miss from here is the sense of humour.
When were you at your lowest as ambassador?
Westgate was a very tough period because of the human tragedy involved and you couldn’t help but be upset at a human level. It is also one of the occasions I will most remember, because in the midst of that adversity, people’s compassion, determination to not be bowed, was really quite remarkable.
Is there something you have left undone?
There are plenty of things we are talking about now that we want to bring to fruition next year, the year after. The next guy will deal with that. So, there is a lot.
You said your job is to build bridges. What’s the one bridge you couldn’t build?
So there are some people still, to go back to this conspiracy, who despite all my efforts to explain what the Brits do here, why our relationship is bold and positive, and why it is very different to 50 years ago... there are people who are more comfortable with the idea of colonial fashion... that we are trying to cause trouble.
This town loves a conspiracy theory. You remember during the elections, “Turner has warships off Mombasa... Turner is rigging votes... Turner has battalions in Laikipia.” Even my mother doesn’t think I’m that good. I’m flattered.
Our photographer here, Diana, wants to know what is your message to the youth.
I say dare to believe and hold to your values. The first part of that is not liking it when people talk Kenya down. “Ah, bad traffic! That’s Kenya. Oh! Corruption. What can we do? What can we do?” That is nonsense. There is nothing innate about those things that are particular to Kenya. All countries face these problems, and change, when it happens, can happen fantastically quickly.
What was the last song you were listening to?
Let me check. (Fetches his iPhone and goes to his playlist) This is going to be an interesting test.
Who is that?
This is Bronski Beat, the song is Smalltown Boy. You do not know about Bronski Beat? You do not know about Wiff Waff either? Goodness. My favourite songs are from the 1980s.
We want you to give us your last words.
When I get on a plane on Friday, something quite profound is going to happen. For the last three to four years, I have been the British High Commissioner to Kenya. When I leave, I am going to become an ambassador for Kenya, because wherever I am in the world, whatever I am doing, I’ll see Kenyans on the news or social media and say, “Ah, I know them.” I will be looking out for Kenyans and all things Kenyan because I have lived among you. Well, mine is short. All protocols duly observed.... (Laughter in the room)