Martin Kimani: Power has no morals, yet humans are attracted to it like moths to light

martin kimani

Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York Dr Martin Kimani on November 19, 2021 at the Social House, Nairobi. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

There was the man who gave that compelling speech at the UN Security Council that stirred the Internet. Then there is the man seated in the small eatery in Brooklyn, US, now, tie off, eating a burger with his hands. Darkness has fallen outside and the ambassador is having his dinner.

Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative and Head of Mission to the United Nations is a man of intriguing eloquence and perspective. He studied what a cerebral man like him might be drawn towards - PhD in War Studies from Kings College, London. His choice was informed by his need to understand the nature of men and the language of violence that lives in them. Prior, he was the president’s special envoy for countering violent extremism.

As his tenure at the UN Security Council comes to an end this year, he reflects on his achievements.

“We have gotten $40 million (Sh4.86 billion) directly as a result of the Kenya missions efforts in the past 18 months, essentially giving more back to the country than the country invests in the Kenya mission.”


Growing up, what were your dreams?

There was always the practical side where, like many other middle-class Kenyans, I hoped for a decent job, a family, and professional success. Then there was a more dreamy side that wanted to be an artist, to be a writer, to live the life of the mind, to be a scholar. Looking back, I think what I do is very close to both dreams because being here in New York is like being in the World Cup of diplomacy. It’s where Kenya’s national interest, the ideas that drive the world, the ideas that Kenya has, and those that I have, all come together in one job.

So what have you learned as a diplomat?

I’ve learned what an extraordinary country Kenya is. It’s quite humbling and inspiring when you observe how other people respond to Kenya. Kenya’s voice is more powerful than I ever suspected. It means that when we push an issue, for our principles and our interests, the world sits up and takes notice. Every day when I go to work as a Kenyan diplomat, I use phrases that are strange and profound, for example, I can say, ‘Kenya thinks’...[Chuckles]. That’s quite a thing to say, right? There are over 50 million Kenyans, so to represent Kenya by listening to government deliberations, by listening to Kenyans, by trying to understand the global environment, and then timing how to put Kenya’s interest inside a conversation, it’s an incredible privilege.

What have you learned about human beings in this journey of diplomacy? Have there been any insights about the nature of man, so to speak?

One of the big lessons is that the powerful are very jealous of their power. They don’t easily give up their power and privilege. People can go to exceptional lengths to pursue their interests even at the expense of other people’s safety and well-being. We are fundamentally selfish creatures that can cooperate. Left to our own devices, without any cultural or moral orientation, we become selfish and self-interested creatures.

To be in the Security Council is to be exposed to a daily diet of bad news. The reason that it’s a security council is that it deals only with situations where humanity is at its worst, where war, hunger, hatred, and rivalry are concerned. The Security Council never deals with good news. But I’ve also learned a lot about how teams operate. Given the right cause, people can make extraordinary sacrifices.

Does dealing with constant bad news affect your humanity?

I don’t think it does in a bad way. Our team has made us feel the weight of responsibility more keenly because each agenda in the Security Council requires Kenya to take a position that is always unpopular with one party or the other. And so to try and make it as right for Kenya and Africa as possible, is a big responsibility.

One of the main difficulties of the job is the amount of pressure when taking a position because one side of the conflict will see us as being opposed to them, and some will feel betrayed, and mistreated. But on the council, there is no hiding. We have to take a position on every single thing. It is a high-pressure occupation. Fortunately, it’s not high pressure on me alone, it’s on the team, the minister, and even the President.

What are some of the tips you can share on conflict resolution, you know, the fundamental rules when dealing with difficult people?

Diplomacy in the UN Security Council is continuous negotiation and conflict resolution which requires an incredibly good ability to listen. It’s impossible to reach a strong agreement on a contentious issue if you do not truly listen to the other side’s argument. But human beings listen more to themselves and what they want than to the opposite side. More often, the mind tries to shut them out. The most successful diplomats are the best listeners.

Similarly, the most successful mediators are the most skilled and honest listeners. Listening well requires a lot of intellectual honesty and a willingness to process what is heard, and being open to revising positions on issues. That takes a lot.

How can one be a better listener?

Good listening comes from humility. I don’t mean in a spiritual moral sense, even though that may contribute, but intellectually. One needs to be convinced that there are many things they don’t know and that others can teach them. Intellectual humility teaches one that if they don’t listen to others, they’ll end up hurting themselves. So one listens for your good, not as an act of kindness, or generosity. One listens because their safety and well-being depend on understanding other people. And if they’re self-interested, then they will listen very keenly because the more one listens, the more they realise that people divulge all kinds of information that they don’t intend to share. So a good diplomat is a good listener and that includes listening to lessons from outside, from history, lessons from books, and peers.

What agenda are you pushing right now in this season of your life at 51?

At this age, I have a keener appreciation of mortality. To see that it [life] will end. Of course, one knows that intellectually but it hits you at the psychological and emotional levels at different times. It has made me more conscious of how I use my time. I am scared of wasting my time which has made me fundamentally question what I should do in my final chapter. So what should I do that makes it worthwhile?

And what’s that?

I think it’s discovering. One of the things I feel that’s important to me is to prepare to die well. It seems to me that part of the reason Kenyans are so religious is an attempt to find a way to face this great fear of the end of one’s existence. When I look at so many different cultures and their philosophy, at the core of it is the preparation for that. I suspect that it’s one of the great human needs. So that kind of thinking makes everything appear more urgent; how I deal with my family, how I raise my children, what I spend time on...

Does the level of diplomacy you delve into work in marriage as well or is marriage a different animal?

It’s a different animal. Marriage and family and profession, to me, are different. When you’re in a high-pressure occupation, your spouse becomes a critical partner in how you’re able to navigate difficulties. The pressure exposes both the shortcomings and strengths in your marriage, some that you didn’t suspect were there. Simply, it can either make your marriage stronger or break it because when under a lot of pressure, our worst tendencies tend to come out to those who are closest to us. But if you are blessed to find stability at home and support in your marriage, it’s empowering because then you don’t feel like you’re doing it alone.

When was your life most tumultuous?

In my 20s. They were years of a lot of energy but not much knowledge of how to apply it. There was a lot of searching without having mentorship and guidance.  Then there were my late 40s. One of the great comforts in life is to be told you have potential because it always proves that good things are ahead of you, right? But in the late 40s, no one talks about your potential anymore, they only want to know what you have achieved.

I think sometimes there are dreams we have for ourselves that just don’t get fulfilled and to be in 40s and still not realise them, a very deep sense of frustration and even bitterness can emerge. I have seen it in people in very self-destructive ways. To have a sense of proportion is so important, but our educational system doesn’t help with that. You’ve got to somehow find it if you’re fortunate enough to belong in a community that gives it to you.

Would your 25-year-old self admire you now at 51?

He would say I didn’t know you had it in you. One of the reasons I’m enjoying this interview is because so much of work, and service is really about living, about life, and emotional and psychological conditions. There’s no way to be effective in anything you do if your psychological and emotional drive does not allow you to live. So it comes back to what are you trying to move, what are you trying to be, and what are you afraid of.

What are your insecurities now?

[Laughs] I don’t think I could tell you that. That’s like handing people a weapon. But I also don’t want to tell you something canned and insincere. My great fear, though, is probably something to do with my two children, honestly. [They are 10 and 11.] The health and well-being of your children are such key determinants of your sense of happiness and that the world is good. If your children are unwell or they’re not doing well, or they are in some distress for some reason, the world is like ashes, there is no pleasure in it. So parenting is a fearful occupation.

Have you discovered anything new about yourself through fatherhood?

That I love being a father. I had my children late…I had my first child when I was 40. So I haven’t taken parenting for granted for a single day. I spend a lot of time with my children, I prioritise them, play with them, and hang out with them. It’s simply the most important thing. My children have made me more interested in the future. Like I care about the kind of Kenya they’ll live in, the kind of world they will live in.

They make me fight the things I see as obstacles to their future more vigorously. For instance, I detest racism, but the thought of someone being racist to my child just takes me into overdrive and makes me want to destroy the entire racist infrastructure on the planet for my children. So my children have made me a more ambitious professional.

What do you remember about your childhood?

I remember being a very loved child. A very typical middle-class, at that time, middle-class upbringing. I’m those people who grew up in Buru [Nairobi’s Buruburu], then went to a primary school in Eastleigh. It was a happy childhood. We didn’t have [much] money, or I didn’t notice it. I was raised by parents who didn’t believe in harsh discipline. My mother was a nurse and worked in the profession for a long time. My father started in the oil business and ended up as a farmer.

When you think of your dad, are there lessons from how he handled fatherhood that you’ve sort of picked?

Without getting too deep into my father because I don’t want him to feel attacked, I think my parents’ generation is extraordinarily traumatised. They were trying to, especially from my community, navigate into the future. So the way they had been raised, was not how they were trying to raise us. The cultural tools that had been used to raise them, were suddenly just thrown out, and progress meant leaving those things behind. Progress was speaking in English. There was no cultural root in the world that they had grown up in. And so I think they struggled with parenting, they were trying a new system that they didn’t know much about which was their aspiration to become modern, and modernity was interpreted as westernisation.

What have you learned about power?

That power is a tangible quality. It has no morals, no aim, it just exists. Power is given to those it has power over in one way or another. No one is born with power. Power is taken and given and power is a human need. Human beings are as attracted to power as moths are to light. And once you possess power, it is too late to determine what to do with it. The shape of your ethical and cultural orientation and your preparation is what enables you to handle power without harming yourself and harming other people.

Your office stems from great power, is it challenging to disassociate yourself from the power of the office and the power that you possess as a man?

My office does not have power, it has influence. One of the most important things to distinguish professionally is whether you want power or you want to influence. Influence requires convincing, making an argument, and trying to get others to agree or at least be guided or influenced by your argument.

Power does not require consent. Power is a force. That’s why the Kenyan Constitution goes to such extraordinary lengths to contain power. Influence is a far more resilient quality than power. Power is more fragile and it’s shorter lasting. Those who possess power immediately attract those who want it. But influence, influence can grow and grow and grow. A good example is Henry Kissinger who is 100 years old. He’s still advising American presidents. That sets the power of influence, and how long influence can last. Every single powerful person he has advised is no longer powerful, but Henry Kissinger is still there.

Your PhD was in war studies and I think at some point in your education journey you studied something on Christian symbolism.

My doctorate was on the Rwanda genocide and how their ideology exploited religious symbols and politics to promote itself in the minds of many people. I studied war because I felt like violence and war are such a human drive I had watched the Rwanda genocide on TV, and read everything I could find out about it, and I was still puzzled about why it happened. 

I wanted to go to a school that looks at war and violence without trying to say how do you make peace? So I didn’t go to a peace studies programme because peace studies are about stopping violence. I wanted to dig into the ideas that drive violence. Ideologically, what turns, explore why an idea would turn a perfectly reasonable person into a killer.

What did you discover, in a thumbnail?

That we are incredibly vulnerable to convincing stories. When we see people join cults or terrorist groups, we mostly think that could never happen to us. It can. We have very few defenses against a good story. You as a writer would understand this. The mind is built to take stories. When an ideology of war or hatred is rationed into a convincing story, many people eat it fully and can be turned into weapons. I found that people are dangerous.

What dreams do you have left in you?

I would like to continue serving Kenya in different ways. I enjoy what I’m doing and I think it has a powerful impact, but I perceive there are two curves; in the final stages of life when you get beyond your 50s and become more elderly, there is a special skill you get. Which is a skill of perspective. What we call wisdom. The ability to explain complex things simply. In other words, you end your life with your most powerful ability being the ability to teach. I want to write more. I want to develop more platforms that enable me to reach out and to be able to pump back into the young Kenyans what I know. Well, our time in the Security Council has been very impactful for Kenya.

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